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Refusing to give up hope

Following environmental protection’s route

I went to Washington on Feb.17 to protest the Keystone pipeline. While on the flat, windy mall, I considered the irony of 40,000 environmental activists standing on the sorriest, stomped patch of grass I ever did see. Looking down at it while shuffling my feet to stay warm, I thought how oppressed nature seems, even here. On the other hand, I had to celebrate that people had come from near and far to be in the capital, braving the cold to have their say.

Riding the bus from western Massachusetts to D.C., we drove into increasing concentrations of humanity, the thick corridor of development that flows toward New York City and out through New Jersey. The scenery rolling past the windows becoming more crowded and industrial — more concrete, more congested, more trash-laden. As someone who tends to look at life through the lens of biology and evolution, I kept thinking about habitat. I looked at the huge rectangular apartment buildings and tried to imagine what relevance nature had to the folks who live so isolated from it in their everyday lives.

Along the way, there were patches of grass and occasional swaths of trees, borderlands littered with garbage, old mattresses and other discarded stuff. No doubt nature makes its accommodations. There were giant buildings, huge flat-roofed mega-warehouses covering land by the acre and multi-storied storage tanks wider than they are tall. I tried to imagine the pride of the engineers, how to some people this industrial infrastructure was not an eyesore but an asset. I wondered what materials were stored here, perhaps products that I take for granted, somehow implicating me in the ominous looking machinations of these places.

On the way home in the hot and crowded bus, full of tired foot soldiers in the march against environmental catastrophe, I was energized by the turnout — pretty impressive for mid-February and the bitter cold. There were lots of young people and there was plenty of commitment. I used my phone to get online, see what, if anything, the media had reported on our heroic rally. And there were early upbeat reports, and then this one by Reuters, a description of the protest followed by citing a recent Interactive Harris poll claiming that 69 percent supported the pipeline and only 17 percent oppose it. (I later did research and was quite dismayed by the methodology used in this poll.)

When I got home at 3 a.m., I was so bothered I looked up the article again to see why it seemed to have such a conservative spin. I thought surely someone was trying to steal our thunder. But the next day, I received a post from 350.org, the organization that had gotten me started on attending rallies against climate change. The post read, “ Guess where Obama was this weekend? While we were outside the White House asking for action on the climate crisis, President Obama was playing golf with oil and pipeline executives in Florida.” We were trying so hard to be heard, but they were getting access we could only dream of. Funny, why should I have been so surprised or felt so betrayed?

Throughout history, there have been people who have done great and lasting harm to the environment, and to other people, for their own empowerment. And history has shown time and again that politics attracts power brokers, gamblers and strategists. Rarely are practitioners of pure idealism successful in this complicated world of power wrangling. I don’t trust politicians, even as I am required to appeal to them for help. But my reasons for activism will never make sense in the context of the power ratio between the everyday person and the truly powerful.

Cynicism is not another word for realism nor an excuse for apathy. If we attempt only what we deem easily doable, then great social change will never happen. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, she could not know what that act would come to mean in retrospect.

So here is where I landed: Hope is hard work. Like love, hope is both a noun, and a verb. Hope without action is fantasy, and love without action is indulgent. What does it mean to love a person, place, or ideal? To me, it means that I am willing — not compelled by outside forces — but by internal integrity to protect, defend and nurture what I love. It means that I will take my love and my hope and make them verbs that direct my life. Acting on hope’s mandate is the only antidote to powerlessness.

No matter what the odds, I am not giving up my seat on the bus.

Ceacy Henderson lives in Colrain.

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