The Naivete and Danger of Opposing Pipelines (and other forms of modern technology)

            PIPELINES!!!!! Evil! Dangerous! Huge threats to the environment! MUST BE OPPOSED! Could there be a clearer example of how naïve and simplistic we’ve become about the harms of modern technology, blinding us to the benefits of these technologies and the tradeoffs they always involve. This knee-jerk Back to the Cave (okay, back to the cabin in the woods) romanticism of an earlier less industrial time and rejection of modern technology is getting not only a little extreme. It’s getting dangerous.


            Yes, pipelines do sometimes leak. Yes, they do sometimes explode. But of course, mostly, they don’t. Mostly they just quietly carry the oil and natural gas that are quite literally the lifeblood of modern life, the fluids that turn on the lights, heat our homes and schools and offices, run our motor vehicles, power our factories, and produce a immense range of petrochemical-based products. Here is a map of the arteries – oops, I mean the pipelines - carrying  natural gas in the U.S. at the moment. Most of them have been operating for decades, mostly without incident.

       There is no question that the recovery, transport, and especially the use of fossil fuels has done and continues to do egregious harm to the environment. But opposing the pipelines that carry them, which has become a de facto position one must hold to be a true environmentalist, is Quixotically naive, sort of like blaming the road for car crashes or your faucet for delivering water from a contaminated source. No roads would mean no crashes. No faucets would mean no contaminated water. But how obviously foolish it is to think so simplistically, and how dangerous.

        Dangerous, because the opposition to pipelines is really about something much larger. It is really opposition to what they represent. It’s the same as opposition to power transmission lines, even the ones needed to carry renewable wind and solar and hydro energy from where the wind blows and the sun shines and the water flows, to where the people are. It’s the same as opposition to fracking, to genetically modified food, to nuclear power, to industrial chemicals. It’s a BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anytime Near Anything) rejection of modern technology generally. It’s a naive Bill McKibben-esque cry that modern human life has essentially meant The End of Nature. You know, pure nature, the real kind, the true kind, the unspoiled kind that was around before we mucked it all up.

     That romantic idea, that the human species and all we do - good and bad - are not part of nature, is indeed quite dangerous, not only because it’s ridiculously naïve but because it rejects out of hand all the ways that human technology can help, as well as harm. Fracking, when done carefully and safely, harvests a fossil fuel that emits only half the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide that coal does. Nuclear power, which poses risks from radiation that are nowhere near as threatening as common fears assume (see Why Are We Afraid of Nuclear Power), emits none (no particulate pollution either). Solar farms may indeed have negative effects on desert tortoises or other species that live in wide open sunny places, but they supply energy in a way that obviates the need for fossil fuels and their evil pipelines. Wind farms do too, even if they require cutting down some trees and they kill some birds and they stick out like sore thumbs in those pretty Vermont hills.

    Power transmission lines can not only bring renewable energy to the end users, but smart grid technology can do so in ways that make energy use far more efficient. But such arguments fall on deaf ears to some in northern New England opposing the Northern Pass project to bring hydro power from northern Quebec down to the northeast energy market. Opponent’s signs in New Hampshire, the ‘Live Free or Die’ state, say things live “Live Free or Fry”. Cute, but climate change will produce a lot more frying than power lines.

     Biotechnology (genetic modification) offers enormous potential to feed a hungry world and develop species that can deal with climate change, but environmentalists oppose it. They oppose food irradiation too (low doses kill the living germs in the food but don’t change the food), even though it can reduce millions of cases of food-borne illness. Industrial chemicals, perhaps the ultimate automatic enviro-bogeyman, help produce most of the physical products of modern life. Without them you wouldn’t have the device on which you are reading this, and a whole lot of other stuff.

     Yes, industrial chemicals do harm, and we should be more cautious than we have been. Yes, pipelines leak. Yes, wind and solar farms and power line rights-of-way kill trees and birds and desert turtles. And yes, such industrial facilities look a whole lot uglier than the natural environment that’s there before the bulldozers and chain saws show up.

     But as emotionally appealing as a love for a purer, cleaner, less despoiled natural world may feel, it naively ignores current human reality; we’re here, we’re a species that is part of the biosphere, and we are in deep trouble because of the damage we’ve done to that biosphere. Our intelligence has helped produce that damage, but it has also produced some of the most dramatic gains in the quality of life humans have ever known. How ignorant it would be to ignore those gains and focus only on the harms, and, going forward, to reject what our intelligence has provided, the tools and technologies that can help us solve at least some of the problems we face.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.