When I sat down to write this entry, I intended it to be about the State Department’s recently released impact report for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline. I expected to review it, and be opposed to it, and write a convincing argument against it. Instead, this post became about those expectations.
Let me explain.
When searching for an idea for this blog post, a very good friend of mine (who works for an environmental group) suggested that I explore the latest report on the Keystone XL Pipeline. I’m lucky enough to have very political and well-informed friends, and, as the Pipeline was an issue I didn’t know much about, I started my research looking forward to learning more. All I knew as I began my research on the Pipeline was my mentality: I was against it.
Here’s what I learned: Last Friday, the State Department released a long-awaited environmental impact statement on the project, a 1,700 mile pipeline that would carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Canada is putting pressure on President Obama and Secretary Kerry to hurry up and approve Keystone XL, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisting he will “not take no for an answer.” The source of all of this controversial oil? Oil sands in Alberta, Canada, the extraction and refinement of which is much more destructive to the environment than regular oil production – it creates about 17% more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional methods.
However, I was surprised to read the report’s conclusion: That the development of the Pipeline “would have little impact on the rate of development of oil sands” – oil that Canada is going to extract, refine and ship by train regardless of whether the U.S. builds the Pipeline or not. As one reporter crudely but accurately explained, “companies are so busy sucking oil out of the tar sands that they are going to do so whether they get a special pipe named KXL to do it or not.” In short, tar sands oil production is horrible for the environment – but there may not be much stopping the Pipeline will do about it. In principle, I was still against the idea of the Pipeline – after all, that level of carbon omission just isn’t good. However, as I read the report’s conclusion, I started to wonder if maybe its construction isn’t the most important environmental issue out there – and then instantly felt like writing that would be a betrayal.
I began to realize that I wasn’t quite sure why this was the issue I was rallying behind. Was it because the Keystone Pipeline really is a more important environmental issue than all the others out there? Or because it’s been made a symbol – a symbol that has been wrapped around the White House in the form of fake pipes and protest signs?
The question was whether the opinion I’d been holding for years was the result of logic, or of partisanship and my own liberal identity. I had assumed that I was sure about the Pipeline and its importance because of the contentions of others, without ever really thinking much about it. To be fair, I read the news, and I’d attended a 350.org meeting once, and I did find it compelling. However, unlike other political issues I support, after I left the meeting, I never followed up by paying close attention to what happened next, or bothered to read the environmental email lists I’m still on.
Now, I’m not saying that being a partisan is a bad thing – or that it’s a sign of not thinking. It is often a sign of informed dedication. When it comes to most domestic political issues, I am a very partisan person, and it’s because these are issues that I am passionate about, and, I like to think, well informed on. Some of my (admittedly strong) opinions are based upon personal experience, others upon careful study while obtaining my degree in Government. I believe that makes them legitimate. However, you’ll rarely read them here in this blog – because, as a general rule, I focus upon foreign policy issues. When I sit down to write on such topics, I’m usually fairly familiar with the subject at hand – but, as I am an American and not a resident of the countries I write about, I begin by conducting extensive research before offering any judgment. The opportunity to examine issues and form fresh, objective opinions is one reason I love foreign policy so much. So, when I began to write on the Keystone Pipeline, an issue I’ve followed – and opposed – without much zeal and without any research, I began to wonder – where did my opinions come from? And how confident am I that these opinions are valid?
I love opinions – having them, hearing them, writing them down. My instinct is to debate, to get involved, to enjoy the opportunity to bounce back against someone’s contrasting ideas. I love watching the Daily Show, and truly detest what I hear on Fox News. Being a Liberal is part of my identity, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. However, the trap that I realize I fell into – and that so many of us fall into – is one set by the bipolar political system we live in today. In today’s world, is it ever possible to be politically involved and objective at the same time?
For the most part, our country and our government fall into two entrenched camps – Democrat and Republican, or Liberal and Conservative. In today’s polarized politics, these two groups are farther apart and more extreme in their views than ever before. For the voters, when it comes time to go to the polls, there’s no third option, no chance to say, I want to vote Republican on this issue, but Democrat on another. And so we find ourselves rallying to a side, and, as is natural for human nature, we begin to identify with it. We begin to fall into what has been called ‘Groupthink,’ to feel part of a team, and therefore, to identify the other as our opponents. It is all too easy, once you start thinking of yourself as a member of that team, to find yourself agreeing with it – all of it. After all, what’s the point of being liberal on one issue and conservative on another if, in the end, you’re going to have to pick a side anyway? In this perceived reality, there’s no incentive to think independently on every issue – it’s far too easy just to follow the party line.
If there’s a lesson in any of this, I think it’s the following: America, and all of us who follow politics as if they were sports, need to start owning up when we just don’t know enough to have an opinion – and that can be very hard to do. When it comes to politics, I’m not used to saying, “I don’t know” or worse, “I didn’t care enough to find out.” That doesn’t mean we should blindly follow those more educated than us on a subject, or assume that they are right just because they know more about an issue than we do. But it’s time we started thinking for ourselves. It’s time we thought about where those opinions come from – and at least make the effort to retrace our mental steps to see if they are really our own, or if we’re simply parroting the beliefs of our liberal or conservative “team.” This is what I tried to do with Keystone. In the end, my opinion never really changed. I’m still leaning liberal; I’m still against the principle of the thing. But as for the reality… I’m not sure why I cared so much. My friend, the environmentalist, has every right to be adamantly against Keystone XL – but my association with her does not automatically give me the same right. Maybe admitting that is the first step.