12/07/2014 10:49 EST | Updated 02/06/2015 05:59 EST

Pipeline Protesters Aren't Hypocrites for Driving Cars

Emilie Duchesne via Getty Images

The rallies on B.C.'s Burnaby Mountain are over. The core work is done, the crowds have dispersed. More than 100 people were arrested up there in the mud and rain, before the injunction hit the wall. Scientists and activists, first nations leaders and fresh-faced hippies. Arrested for crossing a line in the forest, a line that turned out to be wrong anyway. In the middle of all this, in the midst of the singing and shouting and media tag teams, Kinder Morgan sunk their test holes into the rock. Burnaby Mountain was stable, they announced -- with absolutely no sense of irony.

Opinions run hot around these conflicts, and more is ahead of us. There are many arguments for and against civil protest, but one of the most persistent is that these people are hypocrites. That if you drive a car, take a plane, use hairspray, or otherwise consume fossil fuels in any way, you have no right to stand up.

This comparison is troubling for a number of reasons. First of all, it seeks to reduce the legitimate and complex public concern for this project. Never mind questions of land sovereignty, spill danger, local jurisprudence, or the loss of provincial independence. Don't worry about National Energy Board changes that exclude public input and ignore climate science. So what if Bill C-45 exempts pipelines from the water protection act. All you need to know is that protesters really don't like oil. And yet they drive trucks and wear polyester clothing, can you believe it!

The argument is misleading, of course. They may as well say that people who oppose the Site C hydro dam are against electricity. Or how about factory farms -- if you oppose them, you'd better stop buying food. Are you concerned about sweatshops in China? Unless you want to be labelled a hypocrite, I suggest you never buy foreign clothes again. Make your own local clothes by hand, buddy, or your argument is invalid.

Pipeline protesters aren't hypocrites, any more than the police on Burnaby Mountain were jack-booted corporate thugs. To put it another way: these people are only hypocrites if we are too. All of us carry a token of responsibility for the world we live in, a connection to society that informs our actions but does not taint us. We are all participants, even when laws have been rewritten to exclude our participation. How we chose to participate is ultimately up to us.

Protesting can be ugly. People throw garbage, lock themselves under vehicles, push and shove, and make super scary faces. Despite fleeting moments of kindness on the line, any protest is still a crowd of angry people. We can disagree with them in many ways, find fault in their actions and their reasons for being there. But to dismiss them as hypocrites is just lazy. There is more to this pipeline than the oil it contains.

Listening to the protesters on Burnaby Mountain, I did not hear a call for catastrophic change. No one wants to end oil overnight, and move wholesale back to the caves. Instead, I heard a warning about this particular project at this particular time; a list of genuine concerns for a process that seeks to dismiss them as irrelevant. When people are genuine, when they risk their livelihoods to consciously shift the course of society, they do not come from a place of hypocrisy. Each side has its merits, neither can be dismissed and ignored. The sooner we respect that, the sooner we can move on.


Photo galleryKinder Morgan Pipeline Protest, Fall 2014 See Gallery