Friday, May 22, 2015

On Seattle’s Kayaktivists: Are they really hypocrites?

My twitter feed has been filled these last few days with pictures of the “Kayaktivists” protesting Shell’s Arctic Endeavour drilling platform at the Port of Seattle. I am of two minds on this topic. First and foremost, I do not want to see further drilling in the arctic. I firmly believe that we already have access to more fossil fuels than we can burn without engendering serious and possibly irreversible global warming. Moreover, drilling in the arctic represents an overly risky endeavour. It involves some of the most technically challenging drilling in one of the most ecologically sensitive habitats on the planet. That being said I can‘t help but consider the point of view that says that many of the protestors in Seattle (and frankly the Obama administration) are being more than a little bit hypocritical in all this. Since my first point is self-explanatory, the intention of this post is to dig deeper into that second thought and see if we can establish whether the kayaktivists really are hypocrites or not?   

I think we can all agree that if anyone is acting hypocritically on this file is has got to be the Obama administration. Last week President Obama gave a commencement speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy where he declared: 
"Climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security, and, make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country. And so we need to act — and we need to act now." (ref)
This is the same president who used his presidential veto to block the Keystone XL pipeline (ref) and has “pledged to cut US Greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below their 2005 levels by 2020” (ref). To then turn around and authorize drilling in the arctic runs contrary to everything he has said up to date. I think we can all agree that anyone able to simultaneously hold two diametrically opposed positions shows a level of cognitive dissonance worthy of a world class politician.
Next let’s talk about the City of Seattle tucked into the end of the Puget Sound. As readers of my blog know, the Puget Sound is home to five major refineries with a combined capacity of approximately 640,000 barrels/day (bbl/d). The State of Washington imports approximately 8.5 billion gallons of crude oil annually (ref) and virtually all of that goes to the Puget Sound. The refineries in the Puget Sound supply most of the Pacific Northwest with its gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, fuel oil and asphalt. The largest individual private sector employers in the Seattle area are in the aerospace industry (Boeing, Alaska Air etc..) which employs over 103,000 people (ref). Anyone aware of the environmental (and fossil fuel) footprint of air travel will attest to the fact that having Boeing and Alaska Air as two of your top private sector employers doesn’t exactly give you clean hands in any debate about fossil fuels. On the transit front Seattle is in the middle of the pack for American cities with respect to transit (ridership was 18.19% in 2010 American Community Survey ref) but runs way behind cities like New York (55.66%), San Francisco (34.05%). As for more local comparisons Seattle comes in a distant second when compared to Vancouver on transit ridership (ref). As for whether transit is expanding? on that front the answer is a clear no. The current goal is not to expand transit but rather to avoid major transit cuts (ref). As for the mayor we keep hearing on the news? He stated that: “I'm willing to draw the line, and I’m willing to be called the anti-transit mayor if it’s to protect the property tax,” (ref).
On a community level Seattle is something of a study in contrasts. Seattle was the #1 top “green” city in 2009 (ref) and was still in the top 5 (ref) in 2014. Continued good outcomes in this file can be attributed to good leadership on a community front. But outside the city center Seattle is known as a city of suburban sprawl (ref). Compared to other major North American  cities Seattle has relatively low walkability and bike scores (ref). Given the aforementioned where does Seattle fit in our scale? It would seem that Seattle is a bit of a split personality with strong environmental credentials in some files (especially in its central core) and weaker ones elsewhere. Overall it seems a bit of a wash.
Having established that the politicians involved in this fight are politicians and the community is pretty balanced from an environmental front, let’s talk about those protestors in their kayaks. I can’t count the number of hits on my twitter feed showed the “Irony” of the protestors pointing out that the Kayaktivists:
“Came in automobiles fueled, by oil, wearing clothing made from oil, to protest oil, in kayaks made from oil. Then they tweeted their photos on phones made from oil and drove home. Share the irony”.
A lot of the activist tweets then directed me to “The Stranger” website (ref) where Ansel Herz responded to the complaint. His response had three points (paraphrased below):
1)      During the time of abolition people in the North wore clothes made of cotton picked by slaves. That did not make them hypocrites when they joined the abolition movement.
2)      It's about telling Shell they can't lock us into this catastrophe anymore.
3)      "If someone—or, say, the planet—is getting beaten up with a baseball bat, is it immoral to use a baseball bat to fight back?
My response is to suggest that these 1 and 3 represent some pretty poor arguments and number 2 is just barely defensible.
Let’s start with the “cotton” gambit. During the height of the US slave trade cotton was indeed used by the Northern abolitionists. That statement comes with a mighty big proviso: in the early 1800s there was no readily available alternative to cotton. They didn’t have nylon, polyester or other synthetic fabrics suitable for use in summer clothing. Can you imagine William Wilberforce wearing cotton if he had had the option of polyester? Abolitionists, however, did use boycotts to spur the downfall of slavery. Consider that one of the first blows to the slave trade in Europe came when abolitionists in Europe boycotted sugar, even though few contemporary alternatives existed for the product (ref). In Seattle, in 2015, there are numerous alternative energy choices to gasoline. I was amused to listen to Ron and Don in Kiro Radio (ref) who suggested that “if given a choice people would not use gasoline”. In the same conversation, however, they go on to admit that they do have a choice; they can use solar panels at home and electric vehicles on the road. However, they bemoan the price of said alternatives. This is the crux of the problem. Unlike the abolitionists wearing cotton in the 1800’s, the Kayaktivists have an alternative; they just want an alternative that is as cheap and easy as gasoline. Well, I will tell you a secret from someone who has lived a low-carbon lifestyle for the last decade. Making that choice is neither easy nor cheap but it is still necessary if you want to take a leadership position in this discussion. It might mean paying more for a house closer to work; taking transit when you’d prefer to drive; paying more to shop locally; and putting up with inconveniences so you can not only “act locally”, but you can “act personally”. The problem is that if you are only going to do what is cheap then the market won’t exist for renewable and their costs won’t come down.  
As for argument number 3: “the baseball bat argument” that one is simply laughable. Actually reading the article I first guffawed as I realized that the author Ansel Herz, quotes himself in the third person for point 3. If you are making a statement against fossil fuels then why not make an effort to avoid their use in your protest? I find it constantly amazing when I hear people (like Ansel Herz) claim to be trapped in the system? It is your fault Ansel. You can choose to take the bus, to carpool, to use a modern automobile with modern emission systems and better gas mileage, but those choices cost money and can be inconvenient. In reality the argument can be summarized by its final line: “herp derp”. It is a mindless statement made by someone who has no coherent rationale for his point of view. It is a vacuous statement from a vacuous mind.
Now let’s look at argument #2: the “it’s all around us” argument. I have pretty much addressed that argument above. Certainly there are some fossil fuel-related conveniences that are necessary to maintain a modern lifestyle and I am not suggesting that the protestors give them all up. But there are many alternative choices that individuals can make and each choice has its consequences. I find it particularly ironic that the activist leader in the story brags about going to the protest via the least environmentally sensitive mode of transport left on our roadways: a ’76 Chevy  pickup? Are you trying to rub your hypocrisy into our faces? Perhaps if you informed us that the ’76 Chevy had been retrofitted to operate on the tears of baby polar bears you could have done a better job, but lacking that you did a pretty good job there. Maybe next time you may want to tone down your attempts to sound cool and stick with the program just a little bit?
So let’s go back to our initial question: are the kayaktivists hypocrites? My initial answer is: probably not. Many, if not most of them, likely live lifestyles that we would call low or lower carbon and are protesting from a sense of moral outrage and to protect our shared future. Those people are not hypocrites. As for the native leaders in their handmade canoes who are fighting to protect our shared natural resources? They are clearly anything but hypocrites and would appear to occupy the moral high ground in this discussion. As for the rich protestors who live in their 3000+ square foot houses with lots of yard-space in the suburbs? the intellectual and pseudo-intellectuals who skipped work at their public sector jobs (why are there always so many university professors and grad students at these things?) and drove to the protest in their luxury SUVs? the people who commute to work every day in their single occupant vehicles and fly off on vacations (or to annual conferences) and then absent-mindedly throw a pittance out for a “carbon offset” [for my view on carbon offsets read my post Carbon Offsets: a Basilica to Bad Policy]? Well these people pretty much epitomize the word “hypocrite”.  


  1. I'm curious, how do you define "the Arctic"? Do you mean offshore waters covered by winter ice?

    Regarding the kayakers, I think they are fine. I don't think most middle class Anericans have much idea about the amount of energy they consume, nor the way their basic lifestyle clashes with their desire to reduce their environmental footprint.

  2. In this case it would be the technical definition, within the Arctic circle.

    1. In that case you may wish to read this

  3. Regarding the kayakers, I think they are fine. I don't think most middle class Anericans have much idea about the amount of energy they consume, nor the way their basic lifestyle clashes with their desire to reduce their environmental footprint.

    To claim loudly that someone shouldn't do something before checking whether they do it themselves at best is ignorance. At worst hypocrisy.

    My objection to their stance is when they insist that people acting within the law are morally wrong, but their own actions outside it are unimpeachable. That is they regard the environment as trumping other aspects of moral behaviour, such as obeying the law.

    They need to do this, of course, precisely because they don't actually enjoy a democratic majority.

    To me their rejection the law combined with their rejection of democratic process makes them more dangerous than even the worst oil spill. Most voters aren't unaware of the issues, so this isn't about bringing their attention to it. Most voters are simply not that fussed about drilling for oil.

    (I would have more time for them if they broke the law and then were prepared to take the consequences, but usually they break the law and then claim that their good intentions over-ride any punishment. I don't doubt that they are among the first to complain when police officers do that -- also with what they believe are good intentions. But that's hypocrisy in action.)

    1. I'm more relaxed about protesters. It's an excellent way for them to release frustrations. I guess I'm willing to donate a little bit of my rights, as long as they aren't violent. I may even go as far as giving them ideas for the signs they ought to carry. I was thinking of "Be extremely careful".