Sunday, March 6, 2016

Trees Can Be Trees, Or Trees Can be Money: The Holleran's Sugar Bush and the Constitution Pipeline




What makes the destruction of the Holleran family Sugar Bush all the more head-shakingly sad--and predictable--is the profound misunderstanding of in what, as minimum conditions, a 21st century movement for ecological integrity must consist, of what it must mean by "the local is the global, and "the global is the local." 

To be sure, no slogan is worth a tinker's damn until it informs the very bone marrow of our strategy and oxygenates the blood vessels of our resolve. It's thus not surprising that the consequences for things like trees and soil and all of the creatures and biota dependent on their intimate relationship are as predictable as the rasp of chainsaws and diesel engines the moment we accede to a worldview in whose vocabulary "global" and "local" are valued as property and revenue

And trees are especially important--to global climate, to animal habitat, to aesthetic experience.

 When they're reduced to commodities whose worth lay not in the integrity of their relationship to human communities, but in the capacity to be exploited and exchanged, we're all in trouble. 

Stop the Tennessee Pipeline, Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee
What, in other words, we forfeit when we accept the worldview of the capitalist--for whom everything and everyone is either an obstacle or a potentially exploitable resource--is the right to be taken seriously when we try to make anything--like maple trees--an exception. We can deny that we accept these ideological premises, but we use the language of "property," and every time we do we signal the extent to which we're either woefully naive about the difference between the defense of property and the defense of an ecology, or we're willing to execute a strategy that, for the zillionth time, the oil and gas, the pipeline, the export industry, and the banks know will fail. 

It's not merely that we forfeit the moral high ground when, for example, we hold up "Stop the Pipeline!" signs for a family whose already tried to negotiate merely to move the right-of-way to protect their own property. 

It's that we forfeit the ground itself insofar as the pipeline company has every reason to believe we'd not be protesting "Stop the Pipeline!" in front of neighbors ready to wave the American flag over "their" piece of the Constitution.  
Tennessee Pipeline Cut. Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee

If, in other words, we're going to defend ecological integrity, the human community--including families like the Hollerans--cannot be our single or even primary measure of value.  After all, the vast majority of such communities--including corporations--are more than willing to sacrifice ecology for property. 

It's just not true that community rights are necessarily consistent with ecological stability, and so long as we continue to defend the first conflating it with the second, we'll not only continue to mistake property value for ecological integrity, in so doing we'll continue to undermine the necessary conditions of our insurgency, namely, a planet that can sustain us.

Let me put this differently: so long as the primary foci of our protests are human beings to the exclusion of the ecologies upon which we're all dependent--whether that unit of value comes in the form of families like the Hollerans or neighborhoods, or corporations, or the state--property will continue to govern how we conceive what's worth defending. 

Truth is, where we human beings think we occupy the undisputed center of what constitutes value, all else can only be assessed in terms of what's useful to us. 

That's what we call "property."

The fossil fuel companies and the pipeliners know this; hell, they embrace it as surely as the sun rises on a denuded hillside. 

They know that if what matters to us is protecting property as property that we're essentially on their team, that everything's about negotiation and compensation.  

And once we're all on the same team, whatever claims protesters might make about "the environment," well, they just don't need to be taken seriously because nobody cares enough to lay siege, be arrested, be arrested en masse, be pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, beaten, or shot to defend it. 

Negotiation and compensation: what's left to protest other than the money?

116 Environmental Activists killed in one year.
 And that's really it.

That the environment knows no property lines, or that the neighbor's property is just as much a part of the planetary environment as is anyone's, doesn't seem to register in anyone's calculation of value. 

That protesters virtually everywhere but in the U.S. are being murdered to insure the free flow of oil and gas doesn't seem to impact our misplaced confidence. We just don't seem to get it that these are the same companies, and that means we have to take the same risks as all these other brave folks to stop companies willing to spend billions to make more billions.


How do we not get this? The neighbor who waves his "Vote for Trump!" sign in front of a cheery tree-cutting crew is as irrelevant to the fact that the U.S. Constitution helps to facilitate the conversion of ecology into property as is my vote for Bernie Sanders--unless I am willing to take a stand for the integrity of my neighbor's trees--even if he doesn't like it

Even if he threatens me.

Even when, as a matter of strategy, we decry the abuse of the laws that govern eminent domain, we concede to the fossil fuel capitalist everything essential for him to win. The central concept of eminent domain is "property," it's central issue the what, when, and who of its disposition as a resource for human use. 

Is what happened to the Hollerans a grotesque abuse of these laws? 

Sure it is. 

Protest FERC, Photo Wendy Lynne Lee
 But that's irrelevant insofar as the family had already conceded to Williams precisely what empowered the company to take their land and mow down their sugar bush, namely, that trees are property, that what's needed is the right compensation for property loss. Once the Hollerans agreed to the terms of this "debate" over the where of the pipeline and the exchange value of the lost trees, they forfeited the right to defend the trees as trees. 

For example, 

Cathy Holleran said her family has sought a re-route for part of the pipeline onto a neighbor's land — a neighbor she said was not opposed. If that were to occur, she would be eager to agree to an easement that would spare the bulk of the maples. As for ancillary benefits from the pipeline, she was dubious.

"Somebody will benefit, but it won't be us because we are out here in the boonies," she said. "They're never going to pipe gas to our house. We don't even have cable TV." (http://www.pressconnects.com/story/news/local/2015/03/27/constitution-pipeline-landowners/70560802/)

Such a "re-route" will, of course, contribute every bit as much to climate change as the original route: the gas still gets to market. Moreover, it doesn't really matter whether the gas goes to the global markets or remains local; it's "ancillary benefits" involve the emission of greenhouse gases either way. Once, in other words, the trees were in the way of the pipeline, they could be trees or they could be money, but they could not be both, and the Hollerans chose the latter. At that moment, there never was any "Stop the Pipeline!" At least not at that juncture of the right-of-way.

Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee
 To those who'd argue that that calling out the abuse of eminent domain is an effective stalling strategy--that it can monkey wrench a project until relevant environmental or habitat protection laws stall it for another year (March 31st in the Holleran case)--sure. 

Perhaps this is what Catherine Holleran had in mind when she argued in a cease and desist letter dated February, 2016 that:

“We [the Holleran family] assert our [Fifth Amendment] rights, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, that we must receive compensation before eminent domain condemnation. As compensation hearings have yet to be held, we find any action to develop our property to be unconstitutional. We hope that your client will proceed with good faith negotiations with our counsel prior to any tree cutting, especially given their affinity for the name ‘Constitution Pipeline” (http://www.pikecountycourier.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20160210/OPINION03/160219997)

But this too has become a threadbare tactic in that we know FERC (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) exists to permit pipelines, that judges execute laws written by and for an industry that poses an existential threat to human beings, nonhuman animals, and environmental stability. We know that the vocabulary of "property" and therefore "profit" will govern every aspect of this decision-making whether by the state or the industry. We know that the morally weighty distinction between a "vital public interest" and a "profit-seeking enterprise" is long lost not merely to corporate personhood, but to a long and hoary American history whose laws have privileged wealth over life from its inception. 

Part of what's so troubling here is that what the experienced protesters of the anti-fracking and anti-pipeline movements know is not necessarily what the Hollerans are in a position to know. 

The disconnect is quite striking: the Hollerans clearly seek to exhaust every avenue of a legal system stacked against them not for the sake of saving the maple trees per se, but for saving North Harford Maple (http://www.northharfordmaple.com/) that depends on them. 

The protesters claim to want to "Stop the Pipeline!" But these are obviously not the same thing; in fact, they're wholly opposed projects. 

Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee
Put differently: I don't begrudge the Hollerans a livelihood. But as a business dependent on a certain kind of property, maple sap, it's reasonable to ask what distinguishes their business from Williams other than the trivial difference (qua property) between maple sap and natural gas. 

If the answer to that question is "nothing" because the real issue is ecological integrity and not property, then why do the protesters defend the Holleran's quest for compensation? 

Why, in other words, aren't the protesters holding up signs that say "Move the Pipeline!" instead of "Stop the Pipeline!"? 

And if the answer to that question is because there's a world of difference between tapping sugar bush and building a high pressure pipeline--that it is about ecological integrity--why on earth are the protesters defending the Hollerans? 

The sad truth is that the Holleran's sugar maples were lost long before Megan Holleran, daughter and family spokesperson, was quoted in the Pike County Courier:


This is our land and family business. The pipeline has been years in permitting and we just staged our equipment to set up for this year’s syrup production. If they cut the trees now they would destroy our equipment and that’s criminal. That’s property destruction. We asked them to negotiate with our attorney before cutting and that hasn’t happened yet. I’m ready to stop them by standing in the right of way if they try. (http://www.pikecountycourier.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20160210/OPINION03/160219997)
 Here's why:

When Holleran appeals to the word "now," she implies that Williams could come later to cut down the trees--just not now while they need the trees to make money.

When Holleran appeals to the word "property," Williams knows that what the dispute is about is not trees, not an ecology, and not the biota of that land. What they know is that this is really all about money--the meaning of "property"-- and that the Hollerans are willing to play a very specific game of negotiation according to rules that privilege the pipeline company. Williams knows precisely who will win.

Tennessee Pipeline Cut. Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee

When Holleran refers to negotiation with the family attorney, Williams knows that neither she nor any of the protesters are going to stand in the way of the tree-cutters once a judge has ruled in favor of the company's egregious abuse of eminent domain. Why? Because every one of the players in this story--including the protesters--has already agreed to the fundamental rules--that trees are property, maple syrup sites, a staging location for machinery. And with that, it all becomes a matter of whose property, for what use, for how long, and under what conditions.

Simply put: there's no such thing as "No Pipeline!" and "Move the Pipeline!" In the first case the pipeline doesn't get built; in the second it does.

If the Hollerans are victims, it's not of Williams; it's of the protesters who effectively used the family as an opportunity to stage one more "direct action" in the "fight" against the construction of natural gas pipelines. I don't doubt that the protesters were invited. I don't doubt that their motives were essentially good--if misbegotten. But once their leaders knew that this was about relocation and compensation--and never really about stopping the pipeline--why did they move forward? 

Was this about stopping a pipeline or preserving the appearance of a movement? 

Lastly, I have often heard the anti-fracking movement compared to the American Civil Rights movement. I've been tempted to that comparison myself. 

Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee
 But until we become unified and far clearer than we are now about the point of our protest, this comparison is odious.

Civil rights movement leaders may have argued among themselves about many things, but that the movement was about the fundamental dignity of human beings regardless ethnicity, heritage, geography or culture was not one of them. 

That human beings are not property is the governing principle of what we mean by civil rights--by human rights. That's what so many fought and died for during the Civil Rights movement.

We're apparently not that brave.

Until we are prepared to extend the fundamental idea of unimpeachable dignity to the defense of the planet--to treat it and its inhabitants with the respect owed beyond "property," we will not gain traction or win battles beyond the NIMBY-ism ascribed to us by the gas industry. 

Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee
 But that, of course, would mean deep-going alterations in the way we, especially in the wealthy North, live--and decisions far more difficult than whether or not to spend an afternoon or even a whole weekend holding up signs. 

But such meaningful alterations in our ways of life seem awfully hard to hope for among movement builders who'd "stop" a pipeline only to retire to eating a cow, a pig, a chicken.

Indeed, if we can't even see that the most vulnerable among our sentient fellows are not property, what hope is there for things like sugar bush?

Wendy Lynne Lee

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