What the People Want

Pipeline Populism: Grassroots Environmentalism in the Twenty-First Century BY Kai Bosworth. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 286 pages. $27.
Kai Bosworth. Photo: Annabelle Marcovici.

In his new book, Pipeline Populism: Grassroots Environmentalism in the Twenty-First Century, scholar Kai Bosworth investigates the rise of environmental populism alongside the Indigenous-led protests of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. In showing how anti-pipeline struggles grew to include broader coalitions of protesters, Bosworth digs into the motivations of the rural white settlers involved in these struggles, discussing different notions of property, the desire for autonomy, and ties to place and community. But he warns that mass participation itself should not eclipse decolonization and defunct pipelines as political aims. Instead, Bosworth argues that political desires are malleable, and that collective social struggle can transform individual attachments. Extending the horizon of environmentalist politics beyond public participation, scientific expertise, and a regulatory state is therefore both possible and necessary for a decolonial climate movement. 

In March, we spoke with Bosworth about demystifying populism, the role of emotions in movement-building, and the only thing you absolutely need to know from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. 

CAL TURNER: One of the recurring themes in the book is coalitions: how they emerge, what they can do, and where they may fail. What are the strengths and limitations of coalition-building within the anti-pipeline movement?

KAI BOSWORTH: That’s a great place to start. One of the reasons I initially wanted to do this research is that some of the stories—in works by Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, for example—about coalitions that formed to oppose pipelines almost seem to imply that they just appeared out of thin air. In fact, there was a lot of organizing work that made these coalitions possible. And as I was interviewing pipeline opponents and activists and organizers for this book, I noticed how the process of coalition-building itself began to become the very politics that people were operating with. 

To me, this is one of the limits of populist organizing: for some, building mass politics becomes the goal rather than a step toward stopping the pipeline and building climate justice. And consequently, things that might seem to endanger that mass politics—whether that’s different strategies or tactics or slogans or more radical, decolonizing politics—can begin to seem too potentially off-putting to the imagined “normal” or “regular” person that you’re trying to appeal to in order to ultimately win. 

SARA VAN HORN: You define populism as both a genre and a transition. Can you elaborate? 

When I say populism is a transition, it’s in part to show that it can be a good first step for building coalitions, for bringing people together, and for politicizing people who might not otherwise have had experience in politics. But oftentimes, populism moves into something else—it might need to be superseded by another form of radical politics. We can also imagine some form of populism getting funneled back into conventional party politics, like Democratic Party organizing, which looks much like what populists initially critiqued: things like mass emails, fundraising campaigns, grant writing. 

But these terms—“transition” and “genre”—are trying to address academic debates wherein theorists try to hypothesize populism as a static object that just appears and must always be opposed. In fact, populism exists in a field of other competing political frames and can transition into or out of—or even overlap with—other political orientations. It’s a performative set of languages, signs, and a rhetoric that describes a situation in which the people are pitted against a group of elites—whether that’s politicians, CEOs, or the like. To call it a genre is to simply describe that it sets certain expectations, much like when you look for a comedy, you know you’re expecting to laugh. You might not know exactly how that’s going to happen, but the expectation is there. 

Thinking about populism this way helps us get around these endless definitional debates that say, “Oh no, populism is defined by its illiberalism or its anti-migrant sentiment,” or one or another set of features. Basically, I’m just taking a different philosophical tack and saying populism is actually flexible and responds to the political moment and political mood, while waxing or waning, growing or shrinking, and perhaps overlapping with other genres of politics. 

CT: In chapter two, you write vividly about attending and participating in public utilities commission hearings on the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. We found this really illuminating about why these hearings, which are often framed as farcical and ultimately a distraction from more radical or impactful work, were still something important to many pipeline opponents. 

I was grappling with this question: “Why do people keep coming back to these hearings?” It’s not because they think that “this is what democracy looks like” or something like that—they are doing a kind of Hail Mary pass to try to convince public utilities commissions or other state bodies that the pipeline is a bad idea. Pipeline opponents have no illusions that this is meaningful democracy. But these hearings seem to be the pragmatic thing to do, and there’s this idea that you have to exhaust that strategy before you can figure out what to do next. 

South Dakota is a sparsely populated place, so there’s a spatial component, too, where getting everyone together in a hearing room served an important function, enfolding people into the movement. And then there’s the emotional, performative dimension to these hearings—the act of giving a public comment about why you’re opposed to a pipeline and having people support you and cheer you—that really does transform people. Also, seeing the “democratic process” play out in these hearings has a pedagogical aspect to it. Once you see the dismissiveness, or even just the lack of attention that is paid to any of these concerns by the regulatory bodies at hand, it really fires you up. If others are there to say, “Hey, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t going to be a win for us, are you interested in coming back and having a free sandwich and chatting a little bit about what we might do next?” All of a sudden, a random sixty-five-year-old settler woman from South Dakota might find herself involved in a march. 

Nonetheless, I’m wary of the very entry-level, easy orientation of politics that thinks that by submitting enough public comments we’re going to be able to stop any given infrastructure or extractive projects. The truth of the matter is that with most of our regulatory institutions, the decision-makers are not particularly interested in meaningfully understanding these concerns. They’re invested in folding those concerns back into the project itself and just making sure that they’re attenuated in some way. So how should pipeline opponents and others fighting for climate justice orient themselves to these hearings? I would hope that people use them as tools, but not as the horizon of politics. That would be a setup for disappointment, in part because it takes power away from us and sees it in someone else. And if we believe that someone else has the power to stop pipelines or infrastructure projects, then we’re only performing for them rather than acting for each other and for the world that we want to live in. 

SVH: A lot of environmentalism today is invested in scientific expertise—I think of the injunction to “believe science,” in which “science” stands in for the threat and current impacts of climate change. What are the limits of assuming the utility or demanding the eventual acceptance of scientific expertise as a tool for fighting climate change? 

Simply saying that the science is settled is not a political statement, and that’s part of what populist environmentalists are reacting against: the way environmental issues have been cordoned off as regulatory, because “science” doesn’t speak to people’s concerns or needs or worries or lived experiences. At the same time, it is fascinating to have witnessed the last five years in which “believing in science” or “trusting in science” has become a slogan that some people think is politically adequate. There is oftentimes a kind of revolving door between state regulators, industry, and scientific institutions. Someone who might work at a university for a while might then get a private sector job and then eventually come to work for a public utilities commission. And each of them speaks this very specialist language—almost a secret language that exists for their own benefit. 

Populist environmentalists and pipeline opponents can actively contest expertise from within by educating themselves in small, concrete ways. One of the things that I did was learn about topsoil and subsoil. Once DAPL was approved, construction crews were supposed to separate the topsoil from the subsoil. We would go out and watch these crews to see whether they were adequately separating these soils and whether they were putting them back in the right order and checking whether the established legal codes were being followed. Of course, you constantly find violations like this. One of the potentials of this counter-expertise is that it locates power and knowledge in the movement itself, and in the ability of regular people to know, understand, demonstrate, and contest the uses of science in an adjudication system that is shaped by capital and by political pressures. And that’s a lot more powerful than thinking that you have to read all of the IPCC reports in order to understand climate-change politics, which is really a disempowering thing to ask! I frequently tell my students that you can have good climate-change politics and know very little about the science of climate change. The only thing you ever really need to reference from the IPCC is the fact that scientists conclude that we need rapid, far-reaching, unprecedented transformations in all aspects of society. That’s enough for me. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t pay attention to what scientists say or fold them into our movements, but science isn’t and shouldn’t be the leading edge of political organizing. 

CT: You discuss the importance of emotional landscapes to understanding populist motivations—and political motivations and actions more generally. Why is it useful to understand how populist motivations may emerge from these various desires and identifications?

Let me tell you about my story about emotions. I was invited to speak at an important institution called the Pipeline Safety Trust, which was established to make pipelines safer after one exploded in Washington in 1999, and which unfortunately killed two children and one eighteen-year-old. I had never talked to oil executives or these kinds of people ever before. And I gave a very judicious presentation, just introducing, “Hey, why might some people have environmental justice concerns around pipelines?” And afterwards at a happy hour, these pipeline guys came to talk to me, and they ended up telling me, “Oh, you know, ever since all of this pipeline opposition has happened, we’ve been doing emotional training for all of our land agents. For a couple of days, we have them role play and figure out how to deal with these situations and address landowner concerns right away. It really sounded like this firm was trying to cut corners and do it the wrong way.” I was blown away. These companies are interested in managing the emotions of the situation because they don’t want those emotions to spill over into the kind of collective political organizing that emerged against Keystone XL. They’re invested in anticipating, shaping, and responding to the expected emotions that one might have if a land agent comes by your property. I think this demonstrates in the negative just how much power those emotions have in potentially lighting a spark that could turn into collective action. 

Emotionality isn’t good or bad, per se, but it can either bring folks together in political struggle across difference, or limit that struggle when people do not see in others the same desires or attachments that they have. But accounting for emotions is only useful insofar as it’s useful for organizing. How do we think about preventing burnout? What inspires someone to come to a meeting? And if they come to the meeting, are they greeted by a friendly person or met with a conversation that only references in-jokes and radical texts from 1968? All of these are organizing questions, but they’re also emotional questions. 

SVH: How does understanding desire allow for the possibility of radical social struggles? And how should that guide the future of anti-pipeline movements? 

Desire is one of the most complex things to understand. But I think foregrounding how desire operates in political arguments about the climate-justice movement can help us understand that desires can be changed. The response to climate change needs to be one that actually improves people’s material lives. By that I do not simply mean their ability to buy consumer goods, but instead to have more collective control over their workplaces and lives. There’s a faulty idea that we can’t ask people to change what they want for themselves and their futures. People’s desires are less stable than we might assume, given how terrible the world seems. It may seem easier to think that the only possible future is one in which people move gradually, maybe, a little bit more to the left. You know, more Democrats are elected and the Democrats that are elected are a little bit better. But I have witnessed people radically transform their understanding of what they want in very short periods of time, simply by meeting people and realizing that there are alternatives to the world that we’re currently living in. I’m a geographer by training, so I am admittedly a bit biased in this regard, but I think that the more interactions like this can happen in real places, rather than in, like, “Hot Takes Discourse Land,” the more that those desires can be augmented, change, grow, and transform. And the point would be not only to transform others to think more radically, but also to transform us as well by becoming empathetic with people whose lives we didn’t previously understand or maybe didn’t fully appreciate. Maybe there are aspects of this that are utopian. But it gives us much more to work with than the idea that we must change our politics to figure out how the future that I want would also be one in which many cheap disposable goods were available for as many people as possible—which doesn’t really seem like a politics per se.

Sara Van Horn is a writer based in Ilhéus, Brazil. 

Cal Turner is a writer living in Philadelphia.