Elitism in American Energy Decisions

04/23/2012 09:25 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2012

The rancorous debate over whether the State Department should approve the Keystone XL pipeline highlights the fact that, in some ways, the United States is a culturally elitist nation. It is a reminder that throughout the past decades, American energy decisions have sent the following message to the developing world: "Our way of life is more important than yours.
Furthermore, we are willing to sacrifice your culture in order to support our own."

It is undeniable that Keystone XL would bring about immense devastation to other cultures. Consider the members of Canada's First Nations groups, who have been more vocal about the need to stop the pipeline than almost anyone else. If Keystone XL were approved, their way of life would enter a rapid downward spiral and ultimately collapse. It's not that the physical metal pipeline itself would be so bad; rather, the pipeline's true perniciousness lies in the fact that it would enable Canada to produce almost one million additional barrels of tar sands oil every day. In order to exploit a region's tar sands, new roads must be built, enormous machines have to be brought in, and, most harmfully, every tree in the surrounding region needs to be cleared or burned. A population that relies on nature will be totally unable to continue to sustain itself if oil companies wipe out almost all biodiversity and bring in dangerous chemicals and pollution.

At a broader level, Keystone XL continues to display striking signs of cultural elitism. As a project that would allow for one of the planet's strongest carbon sinks to be ruined at an expedited speed, it would single-handedly make it significantly more difficult for the world community to bring about climate stability. Unfortunately, when Western nations, or in this case, the U.S. and Canada, cause climate change, it is populations in less developed, less Western parts of the world that have to shoulder the burden the most. For example, millions of people in Asia and South America rely on glacial water for farming and drinking, and with climate change, they will struggle to sustain themselves as glaciers dwindle. Similarly, climate change is causing altered weather patterns and desertification, which disproportionately impact the people who rely most directly on the natural world for their livelihoods, or, in other words, people in less developed countries.

Most infuriatingly, it is not even as though the U.S. needs tar sands oil or else it will not be able to fuel ambulances or power schools. The reality is that Americans use a huge amount of energy to perpetuate inefficiency and wastefulness. Furthermore, enormous reserves of potential renewable energy go unused every day because individuals and legislatures refuse to make sufficient investments. In other words, by continuing to support tar sands oil (as we already started doing several years ago with the construction of other pipelines from Canada) we are choosing to decimate other cultures and livelihoods before even fully investing in robust efficiency standards and renewables.

Fortunately, though, while tar sands oil importation has exposed America at its worst, it has also shown that in all corners of the country, there are people who demand social justice and are willing to fight for it.

Having previously been privileged to lead Tar Sands Students, I have been able to see first-hand the groundswell of opposition that has risen up against environmental cultural elitism. Over the course of just a few months, students from over 20 different high schools have joined forces with Tar Sands Students in an effort to stop Keystone XL. The group even grew large enough to merit a meeting with the White House. Last February, two senior advisers at President Barack Obama's Council on Environmental Quality sat down for an hour-long meeting with Tar Sands Students in order to discuss the group's concerns. It truly was a great example of how citizen activism can begin to fix injustices.

Cultural elitism and the chaos that it brings are unfortunately still prevalent forces, and Keystone XL is just one example out of many of America disrespecting less-developed parts of the world to meet its hunger for abundant power. However, if human energy is used to its full potential, there is almost no doubt that innovation and activism can prevent us from causing further harm to other cultures, and in the process, make this country strong, too.