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Chase Harrison

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Using Virtual Skills to Save the Real World

Posted: 01/24/2012 9:35 am

On December 18, 2011, Wikipedia went black in protest of SOPA/PIPA. This did not mean everything fell dark and quiet. Quite the opposite, the Internet became ablaze with protests. Sites showcased declarative messages, YouTubers posted desperate videos, and Facebook became an online protest forum. In fact, it seemed like everyone was getting in on "saving the Internet." Classmates who could not even name our Speaker of the House suddenly became super-activists. While this might have been a refreshing blast of political responsiveness, I found it particularly frustrating.

This is not to say I do not agree that SOPA/PIPA should be rejected, but I felt an outrage that a response of this caliber was misplaced. While the Internet is beloved, other issues, some of which trump the Internet in importance, are continuously ignored.

As a strong supporter of the environmental movement, I had just given a speech in my English class detailing how the Keystone XL pipeline is one of the defining moments of America's environmental policy, and I was flabbergasted by the class' complete ignorance of the issue. With the magnitude of SOPA/PIPA protests versus the complete apathy for the environment juxtaposed in my mind, I posted the following status: "So, why is it that when our Internet is threatened we all turn into super-activists, yet when our environment is under severe threat, not one kid in my English class was even aware of the Keystone XL Pipeline?"

I expected most of my friends to dismiss this as my usual political banter, but, to my surprise, it rapidly received 54 likes and comments of approval.

I believe this incident highlights a misplacement in America's values. It seems that Americans are consistently under-prioritizing the threats to our environment. Time Magazine selected "The Protestor" for their annual and much-awaited Person of the Year award. Our media and our politicians became obsessed with the hope of the Arab Spring, the Wall Street protestors and their ambiguous mission, and the merge of the Tea Party into mainstream politics. Noticeably absent among these featured groups were environmental protesters. Many of these protestors are viewed in a negative light. They are often accused of eliminating jobs, hurting industries, and compromising our competitive advantage. This propaganda has caused the environmental movement and its crucial message to be discredited. However, although it may be difficult to move beyond short-term strategy, we simply cannot procrastinate on this issue any longer.

During the SOPA/PIPA national outcry, the fate of one of America's largest environmental fulcrums, the Keystone XL pipeline, was to be determined. Keystone XL would transport oil extracted from tar sands in Alberta, Canada to the United States. This pipeline would be a disaster for our planet. The pipeline would pollute air and water supplies over some of the largest and last wetland ecosystems in North America, including the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive water table. The retrieval of the tar sands would release a cloud of dangerous carbon that would speed up global warming. Additionally, the pipeline is in an earthquake zone, making it likely territory for disasters like fires or oil spills. Perhaps most importantly, the Pipeline would reaffirm America's eternal, stubborn commitment to dirty fossil fuels.

The day after my presentation, on January 18, President Obama rejected the proposal. Unfortunately, his primary purpose was not his concern for the environment. Mr. Obama detailed that there was not enough time to review it properly. A provision in the payroll tax cuts passed in December required that the President must decide by February 21 on the pipeline. The government has turned the issue into pure politics, completely ignoring the environmental impact. Although there has been feedback and protests, vocal opposition has been restricted primarily to environmental groups and their supporters. After observing the potential of Americans to voice their opinions en masse, the lack of outcry for environmental responsibility is pathetic.

What if the real world went black? While the Internet is a valuable resource, we have lived without it before. Contrastingly, our environment is not a renewable resource. It is not to be treated as a pawn in a political game. Most importantly, it cannot be ignored or put on the back burner for a tomorrow that may not exist if we continue on this trajectory. The time has come to stop postponing this issue because it does not have immediate repercussions. We must use the voice we found when our virtual world was in jeopardy to voice our concern for the peril of the real world. The lesson of the Internet SOPA/PIPA protest was that while many individuals sat in silence typing their outrage, the combined total of their individual voices were heard. It is time for the environmental movement to go viral. Americans must use the voice demonstrated with SOPA/PIPA to strike down the Keystone XL Pipeline. Furthermore, we must hone this voice to continue to preserve our environment because, unlike the Internet, it cannot be backed up on a hard drive and restored.