February 3, 2014: Remarks at Bloomington Courthouse Steps at Keystone Pipeline Rally

I’m not here to speak about why the Keystone pipeline should be opposed—others can do that, and have. Instead, I’d like to address something else: what do you do to bolster courage, to stoke the flames of passion and commitment, when the road is long, when we are so little and the challenge is so great?

Last week a professional commitment happened to take me to Southern California. I once lived in California for fifteen years. So I know—even without reading that the current drought exceeds in severity any in recorded history—that late January should be bursting with new growth, the grasses should be tall and thick by now, and the hillsides should be clothed in green. Instead, Simi Valley looked more like Death Valley, barren fields and dust, dead leaves crunching underfoot from California live oaks that should never drop them. The ridge of high pressure stalled off the Pacific Coast fending off the winter rains is part of the same polar vortex that swirls over Indiana.

Just as weather patterns are all interconnected, human beings are all interconnected. The oil that flows through the Nebraska pipeline from the Alberta tar sands fuels automobiles on the streets of Beijing, and those emissions warm the same atmosphere that blankets Nebraska. Rabbinic literature tells the story of a group of people traveling in a boat. One passenger takes out a drill and begins drilling a hole under his seat. The other passengers start yelling at him. "Why should this bother you?" the man responds, “I am only drilling under my own seat." (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6)

If a single individual action affects every other passenger on life raft Earth as she rides the ocean of empty space, then so does a single voice raised in protest. When people gather on the courthouse lawn in Bloomington, Indiana, their voices join with vigils taking place right at this moment, in Union Square in lower Manhattan, at the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco, on the green in Woodstock, Vermont, along the planned route of the pipeline in Vermillion, South Dakota, in front of the White House, and at hundreds of other locations across the nation. Yes, there are countervailing voices too, we know that—the voices of the drillers who drill under their own seats, who deny that the entire ship is in danger, including their own seat. So, yes, we know that Obama’s veto pen is wavering in his hand, because he hears those other voices loud and clear, and the rallies this evening throughout the United States will make sure that he listens to these voices as well. However, even if the president is convinced to shelve the Keystone Pipeline project permanently, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere worldwide continues to increase exponentially. Only a defensive battle will have been won. The ongoing effort, the achievement with greater long-term significance, which is the ultimate goal, is not merely to reduce the rate of destruction but to reverse the destruction.

How do we maintain our strength and commitment over the long haul? This very question was posed to one of the great American warriors of our age, a man who exemplified the power of the individual to change society, a man who, if he thought something was worth standing up for, he did it himself, a man who, just weeks before he died, was spotted on the waterfront of his hometown scooping litter into a plastic bag. The little story that Pete Seeger liked to tell is the parable of the teaspoon brigades (and it also features sand!) Here it is in his own words.

“Imagine a big seesaw. One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it's got a basket one quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons and we are trying to fill it up. Most people are scoffing at us. They say, ‘People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but it is leaking out of that basket as fast as you are putting it in.’ Our answer is that we are getting more people with teaspoons every day. And we believe that one of these days or years -- who knows -- that basket of sand is going to be so full that you are going to see that whole seesaw going zoop! in the other direction. Then people are going to say, ‘How did it happen so suddenly?’ And we answer, ‘Us and our little teaspoons.’ (Huffington Post, January 28, 2014)

We will never know everything. But I think if we can learn within the next few decades to face the danger we all are in, I believe there will be tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of human beings working wherever they are to do something good.”

That’s what Pete Seeger wrote: “if we can learn within the next few decades…” But that was a few decades ago! So, has time run out? Is it now too late to stop global destruction? Who knows when we will have crossed the line of no return? We are not omniscient, any more than the oncologist who tells the patient you have x number of months. Like the cancer patient, our job is to face the diagnosis with honesty, with truth, and with courage, not to deny it, not to try to run away from it, but to make the best choices with the life that we have today, choices that extend life, that enhance life, the life of this planet, the only life that we know, the only life that we have ever been given. Unlike the cancer patient, we are not fighting for ourselves alone, but for our children and grandchildren, that they may endure and thrive, and with them, all life on Earth.