Pipelines and the Problem of the Public Good

Photo: Pixabay

By now we’re all familiar with photos of Native Americans and other protestors confronting police and the company executives attempting to build oil and gas pipelines. These images graphically point out the difficulties involved in society’s deciding what it wants and how it intends to get there. Given our changing political landscape, perhaps it would be useful for us to reflect a moment on some of the fundamental questions these images evoke.

The Sacred and Society

Seeing images of the protestors first leads me to ask what we mean by society. Who are “we”? Is this “we” under discussion a group of individuals? Or, does it include regions, communities, and ethnic groups so that society is greater than the sum of its individuals?

In attempting to answer these questions we quickly encounter those things people hold to be “sacred,” or nonnegotiable. Some of us believe that church buildings and certain mountains are so central to our understanding of who we are that they should be held inviolate. But what do we do if not all of us agree that they are sacred? We could hold inviolate a belief that, if some people believe they are,  we should never desecrate them. Or, we could decide that some people may have to sacrifice what they hold sacred for the good of everyone else. Similarly, we may believe that the right of individuals to determine how they use their land should never be violated. But that could imply that we should refrain from impinging in any way on what individuals do with their land even if those actions hurt others. Where do we draw the line? If some individuals or firms hold the right to use land in ways that violate others’ sense of the sacred, how do we reconcile these conflicts?

Pipelines and What They Tell Us

The Standing Rock and Keystone pipeline controversies illustrate these issues. In both cases native Americans and other local communities feel their values and health concerns have not been heard, while the pipeline companies believe they have complied with all the legal requirements asked of them. This may lead us to ask whether or not the procedures in place adequately take into account the concerns of local communities. If they do not, we are saying that in fact local communities do not matter in our decisions. From a religious perspective, all people and creatures matter, so that these concerns do need to be addressed.

On the other hand, there exists the question of fairness to the corporations and their workers involved in the pipeline. Is it fair to them to change the rules of the game in midstream? If the rules have been biased against communities, how do we compensate the corporations who, let us assume, have played by the rules and now find themselves compromised? If we as a society have failed to craft procedures that adequately address all concerned, then we as a society need to change those procedures and address the consequences of their shortcomings.

The Sacred and Convenience

I think that part of the problem has to do with needs versus wants. Local communities need clean water and those places and things that provide deep meaning for their lives. To what extent do the rest of us “need” the energy versus want the convenience and stimulation that ever-increasing energy use brings? It seems to me that we are confusing real needs versus very attractive, but unnecessary, wants. To my way of thinking the communities affected by the pipelines often face a loss of what they truly need for a dignified life, while the rest of us don’t want to risk losing the amenities an ever-increasing use of energy brings us. We appear to be saying that we are willing to sacrifice some citizens’ health and sacred sites so that we can have the lifestyles we want.

In the past we as a society have been willing to have “national sacrifice zones” that bear the costs of resource extraction and transportation in order to benefit consumers in distant cities here and abroad. Coal Appalachia and the Four Corners in the Southwest serve as prime examples. Pipelines may serve as another. By tolerating national sacrifice zones we declare a lot about who matters and who doesn’t, what we hold sacred, and who we believe we are as a nation. Do we agree with it? If not, we need to enter into frank and respectful discussions about those things we hold sacred. Should we fail to do so, our country risks losing its soul.

Certificate in Contemplation and Creation Care
Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South


Author: Robert "Robin" Gottfried

Director, Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South, and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Sewanee. Contemplative Christian, musician, blogger for the Huffington Post on religion and environment, and hiker living on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee.

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