Apr 20, 2016 by


We’re at the point when we’re supposed to act, but signing another online petition, changing to a more efficient lightbulb and joining a march doesn’t feel like enough.

The following is an excerpt from the new book Trespassing Across America by Ken Ilgunas (Blue Rider Press, 2016): 

I was headed to the Pipeline Crossroads of the World: Cushing, Oklahoma. Cushing is the southern terminus of the 2010 Keystone Pipeline. If the Keystone XL is approved, oil will be piped by a shorter route from Hardisty, Alberta, to Cushing. A second part of the Keystone XL would be built from Cushing to the Gulf Coast refineries in Texas.

I’d been paralleling the pipeline by walking on roads for the past two hundred miles, only occasionally walking the pipe’s actual path. Because the pipeline for these last several hundred miles had been straight north to south, it made sense to follow the nearest road, which also heads north to south. But in Oklahoma, the pipeline takes yet another southeasterly turn, so I would have to begin jumping fences again.

Ken Ilgunas hiking in South Dakota.

The romantic part of me looked forward to new adventures and glorious sights over rarely walked lands: Oklahoma sunsets, rolling green fields, forests of slender pines. But the scaredy-cat in me resented having to once again walk through terrifying cow herds and keep an eye out for zealous landowners.

The state of Oklahoma, which produces the fifth-most oil, has a motley of pipelines, pump jacks, refineries, and tank farms. I hadn’t seen so many pipeline markers since Alberta.

All day, semis zoomed past me, each hauling three giant thirty-six-inch-diameter Keystone XL pipes in the shape of giant cigarettes that would be buried in Oklahoma and Texas soil. (The southern portion of Keystone XL—from Cushing to Port Arthur—had recently received presidential support and was being laid.) It was demoralizing to have to watch all these trucks, all these pipes and all this giant equipment being transported. It made me feel small and powerless and hopeless. Half the XL was already being put into the ground. Why bother fighting something that’s pretty much inevitable? Why bother even caring? We’re warned constantly that there could be a tipping point right around the corner, where climate change could begin to speed up exponentially. In many areas of the world, it already has.

How much time do we have? Bill McKibben, in his Rolling Stone essay “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” claims we shouldn’t raise the temperature more than 2 degrees Celsius for fear that droughts, floods and storms could shake the foundation of our civilization. “[Two degrees Celsius has] become the bottomest of bottom lines,” says McKibben. (As of 2012, we’d already raised it 0.8 degrees Celsius.) On a gloomier note, he adds, “Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.”

Retired NASA scientist James Hansen says that if the Keystone XL is approved and the tar sands expand “it will be game over for the climate.” Even E. O. Wilson, who usually comes across as more hopeful than other environmentalists, concedes that the conservation ethic “has generally come too late … to save the most vulnerable of life forms.”

When I think about our culture’s addiction to fossil fuel, its indifference to the natural world, and the sheer impossibility of any major change happening soon, I can’t help but despair. Almost as depressing as an inevitable collapse is how powerless I feel as an individual. A life-ending meteor hurtling toward us is one thing. In that case, none of us can really do anything, so we might as well buy a twelve-pack, throw a few steaks on the grill, and enjoy the show. But climate change is different. It appears we can do something about it. But change is only possible if it’s a collective “we” rather than a lonely “I.” So where does that leave those individuals who care deeply about the planet but are no more than a scattered minority?

Our national myths do not help us deal with the anxieties of climate change. Our “superhero” culture wants us to take matters into our own hands, stand up for what’s right, take the leap when we reach the edge of a rooftop, and never back down even in the face of impossible odds. We’re at the point when we’re supposed to act, but signing another online petition, changing to a more efficient lightbulb, and joining a march doesn’t feel like enough.

Wendell Berry says, “The line ought to be drawn without fail wherever it can be drawn easily.” Berry was talking less about climate change and more about managing our consumption, but the message still applies: We should make sacrifices when they’re easy to make. This is enough for me on most days. But there are other days when I worry if my commitment to environmentalism is too weak and if I’m squandering a life that could be spent doing something truly valuable. But what is valuable action? Environmental terrorism has a romantic appeal, but I’m not convinced that destruction is an effective way to build a movement, and I’m not at all eager to spend a life term in federal prison. Maybe the best advice comes from Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote what has become known as the Serenity Prayer.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

Paul Kingsnorth, an environmental activist in the U.K., is one of first to come clean about his despair over climate change and what he sees as inevitable doom. Some consider the despair movement as a way of giving up or abandoning one’s moral duty. But Kingsnorth, a founder of the Dark Mountain Project, which is a network, its web site describes, “of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilization tells itself,” argues that we should be honest with ourselves. Dougald Hine, a cofounder of the group, says, “Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?”

Despair, I’ve found, is a seductive alternative to a life of civic participation. Despair absolves us of responsibility. It’s a way of managing guilt: If the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, we might as well jack up the thermostat and live it up. If our efforts are futile, then there’s nothing to feel guilty about, right? There’s a “comfort in clarity” in accepting that doom is certain. If we have a clear vision of the future, at least we know our relation to it. If we leave no chance for success, fortune, or surprise, then with our knowledge of doom, we can live with a semblance of order, logic, and predictability even in a soon-to-be-apocalyptic world. Strangely, there’s comfort here.

One wonders if our leading public environmentalists are talking about climate change with their followers in a destructive way. It seems as if it’s their aim to scare the living shit out of us by offering doomsday prophecies of a soon-to-be-uninhabitable Earth and interpreting every nasty storm as a harbinger of the apocalypse. Fear can provoke action; it can get us to care. But how long can we live in a state of anxiety before burning out and resorting to despair? Scientists like Hansen and McKibben have every right to scare us, and their methods are no doubt scientifically sound, but one can’t help but wonder if the end-of-the-world rhetoric is a wise policy for sustaining a movement.

From TRESPASSING ACROSS AMERICA: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland by Ken Ilgunas, published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Ken Ilgunas.

Some photographs from Ken’s journey:

Hiking through Nebraska with a man known as “the ex-governor of Nebraska,” who escorted Ken along the pipeline path for a day. And he gives Ken his first-ever horseriding experience. (December 8, 2012)

A curious cow in Texas.

Ken in Oklahoma.

Prairie in Alberta.

Duct-taped toes

Valero Refinery Port Arthur, Texas.

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