(Pipeline supporters cannot resist calling anti-pipeline activists “hypocrites” because everyone uses oil. Here is a reply we can point them to rather than wasting time repeating the same thing, i.e. our activism is precisely about reclaiming the right to not use oil! Oil companies are energy dictators who have cornered the energy market, through regulatory capture and often through violence, leaving us no choice. )

If you don’t believe there’s a climate crisis, then it’s hard to understand why anyone would disrupt their lives and go to jail for shutting down a pipeline. Anti-pipeline activists believe oil is the planet’s deadly equivalent of tobacco; if you don’t stop burning it, it will kill you. If oil were not being burned to the tune of 2.7 million gallons per minute, activists would target other greenhouse gas emitters.

Those who don’t see a climate crisis in the floodings, hurricanes and record temperatures are quick to call activists “hypocrites” and loonies because we all use oil products. But all watershed moments require “hypocrites” like these activists. That was the case for the suffragettes, the civil rights movement and the abolitionists before the US Civil War (the US enjoyed all the great benefits of a slave economy; how could any free person be against slavery?).

Hypocrites have made North America a better place.

During the US Civil War, the entire Northern army and even its black soldiers wore uniforms made from cotton picked by the slaves they were fighting to free. Hypocrites? At the time the South used slave labor to produced 77% of the world’s cotton. It meant cheap cloth for everyone in the world and little chance to produce cotton any other way. Who can compete against slave labor? (Or massive oil subsidies? Or regulatory capture by the oil industry?) So those black soldiers had a choice — go fight slavery or do background checks on their uniforms. Fortunately, they weren’t idiots; they wore that slave cotton and got on with the job of cleaning up one of the most disgusting political system seen in the New World.

Pipeline activists are in the same boat, trying to clean up yet another morally disgusting political system. They don’t fuss about what they are using to change society. Big oil has undercut every other kind energy (see “Who Killed the Electric Car“) and every alternative kind of society by corrupting all our institutions. Bush destroyed the US economy in a trillion dollar war against Iraq just to make sure oil stayed cheap and nothing else would ever take it’s place, as has been done in so many other billion dollar wars in the past. Corrupt subsidies, unjustified wars and corrupt legislation (Citizens United among the latest) have all made it impossible to do anything other than what oil companies tell us to do (as seen by the Arabic world!).

Oil is cheap and used everywhere in our lives not only because skewed policies makes it cheap but because oil companies do not pay the real price of extracting oil. They are allowed to destroy the planet at no cost to them, but with an astronomical price for us. How much should oil companies pay for people dying around the world because of drought and storms and war over diminishing resources? How much for a collapsing ecosystem or an island that disappears under a rising ocean? Making them pay now is a tough business since they already have our money and have captured our legal and political system, but we can try (old, but it describes the idea). Tobacco companies have never paid the cost to society of all the people they have put in cancer wards. In our rigged economic system that allows the fossil fuel industry to undermine any alternative to oil, costs are downloaded to us and we all pay with diminished lives and a bleak future for our children.

Hypocrites? Maybe, … like those hypocritical fire-fighters who set fires to stop fires. Maybe like Lawrence Lessig, who has made a superpac to repeal Citizens United and eliminate superpacs.

Hypocrites? Doesn’t matter. We just need to get the job done of stopping big oil from running and ruining the planet.

That “hypocrite” insult is particularly galling because  activists are precisely people who have accepted, at painful cost to their personal lives, to align their actions with their beliefs. I admire them, like I admire the abolitionists and the suffragettes. They are the opposite of hypocrites, but I don’t know what word to use to for that kind of person. Maybe something like patriot, but it’s planetary patriotism – a patriotism to a universal truth about what is right and decent. The same kind of patriotism that brought black soldiers, dressed in slave cotton, back to the South to risk their lives to fight for freedom for everyone. Were they hypocrites to fight against slavery since it was slavery that brought them to North America, fed them, and raised them? We are all oil slaves. Time to fight.

Of course, if you reject what climate scientists say, or if you think slavery is really ok, then these activist types, like John Brown, are just the lunatic fringe. But historically, that kind of person has made North America do what was right, like abolishing slavery, working towards civil rights and giving women the vote.

More reading:

“If we understand hypocrisy as the inevitable consequence of questioning practices and policies so dominant that it’s nearly impossible to function without participating in them, then hypocritical thought is vital if society is to move beyond the status quo. After all, how, for instance, can we begin to imagine a future beyond fossil fuels if each attempt to question their primacy invokes cries of hypocrisy from the titans of the resource industry?”


“I suggest we stop worrying about whether someone is “pure” enough to speak out against climate change and fossil fuels, and instead start embracing anyone and everyone who is ready to take a stand and say it’s time for a change.

All of us are hypocrites. All of us are agents of change.”