The Bigger They Are, the Harder They Fall

How Simple Geography Insulates Centers of Power

What needs to be done to stand out in 2011?  Aside from the problematic blind spots that the media normally sports, so much has been happening around the world during the first two-thirds of this year that it takes something pretty special to get on the radar.  The rolling protests against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline — recently concluded at the White House — seem like a good contender for coverage.  Despite the normally smart-but-tough environmentalist Bill Mckibben stating that “[t]he last thing we want to do is harass the president,” and a policy of only allowing sit-down tactics, the action is gutsy, huge, exciting, and the level at which the climate movement needs to be thinking.  Over 1,200 were arrested between August 20th and the finale on September 3rd.

The ease with which so many splintered greens agreed to come together is an indicator of what a disaster the dirty fuel corridor would be.  Through its sheer 1,700 mile proposed stretch from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, however, the pipeline and the protests it has prompted draw attention to a more subtle subject that affects many of the biggest issues we face.  That subject is distance: getting to Washington DC or any particular place in a continent-spanning country is extremely difficult.  The unspectacular but useful insulation that this provides to those causing harm in the world is something we have failed to properly acknowledge.

There are, of course, many reasons why it’s hard to get large numbers of people together here for an event worthy of 2011.  An openly smashed and undermined public transport system coupled with the extreme normalization of the car plays a part.  As does the criminalizing and marginalizing of protest.  A bad economy makes any kind of travel expensive, and even in the good times those who most needed to voice their discontent had a hard time getting cash together or time off work.  And in the case of environmentalism, the desire to not be seen as hypocrites who drive or fly to protests is an understandable if misguided notion.

Geographic realities, however, may appear free of blame, and to some extent, they are.  Despite the best efforts of industrialism to reshape the Earth’s crust and coasts, no human is responsible for the overall shape of the Americas or any other landmass.  But significant decisions made over centuries have dictated where people will live and of what nationality they will be.  There is irony in the fact that the past imperial expansion of Manifest Destiny, scattering populations until they started to pile up on the West coast, today provides protection to the architects of further expansion.  The American founders made no secret of their wishes to see their country bathing over a massive area; among the objections to King George III in The Declaration of Independence is his “raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

It makes sense that they would seek to grow.  There is a connection between physical country size and power.  Medium-sized Western European nations managed to attain global rule through a groundbreaking form of energy exploitation that allowed them to mimic bigger places: a single barrel of oil contains the equivalent energy of five agricultural laborers, working 12 hour days, 365 days a year.  As the glorious new pathway to prosperity spread, it was, in the words of British economic historian John Clapham, inevitable that “a continent would . . . raise more coal and make more steel than one small island”1 – thus came the rise of the United States and the USSR.  We see this today in the increasing influence (however bogeyman-style distorted by current rulers) of coal-filled China, biofuel-powered Brazil and even Harper’s Canada, which is not pushing tar sands for fun or social programs.  In this age where fossil fuels are at the epicenter of many issues, irony is compounded, as those countries most in need of dissent (mainly still the US) are the ones with the best geographic insulation.

In what way should we frame this problem?  Some may think back to that old phrase “think globally, act locally.”  As our oil-hungry and autistic economic systems2 continue to unravel, local work is essential.  But the centers of power are not going to collapse politely.  Large, confrontational events are essential as well, as we have seen across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.  Simply turning our backs on the places where big decisions are made will give the players there further free reign.

The Declaration of Independence also complained that the Monarchy had “endeavoured to prevent the population of these States.” Could population growth be part of the solution here?  Perhaps, but it is a very blunt instrument.  As the population rises, more space is taken up and proposals for better mass transit could emerge – but a certain density is needed, and by the time any significant impact was to be felt in this regard, the destruction of hundreds of millions more American lifestyles would be evident.  With over half the world’s people living now living in cities, it’s also obvious that we tend to live in places that are already more on the heavily populated side.  And although it’s not a direct correlation, more citizens mean you need more protesters for the same impact: this is one reason we don’t hear about China experiencing “. . . riots worse than those in England every single week.” (Another reason is we’re being groomed to think that the Chinese are a monolithic hive-mind who are going to steal our freedom or our African oil or something.)

Building better long-distance transport should remain a goal, but it would be a mammoth task to get even a modest amount of the population an improved way into D.C.  Plus, in the short term at least, high-speed rail will remain as expensive for passengers and around as polluting as cars and planes.  Dynamiting the continent into smaller pieces is probably not a popular or sensible option.  This appears to leave reshaping the arbitrary map lines in which we put so much stock, and how we relate to them.  Perhaps it is because of the presence of strong regional and state identities — coupled with the balance of state/federal power — that Americans seem more concerned about the possibility of separatism than people of other nations.  The name of the country might be a powerful sedative, but neither it nor the fact that 50 is a lovely round number should be sufficient argument for holding together.  And then there’s the memory of the civil war – an occasion when preventing a perverse practice (to stick with the usual simplistic narrative) was a good, ethical reason to overrule Southern autonomy.  Not all — or even many — conditions meet this grade.  While the politics that dominate in some states today may be ugly, they are not akin to chattel slavery.

At the risk of upsetting liberals, there is nothing inherently more progressive or effective about governments that preside over large populations and areas than those that work in one-fiftieth of that space.  Even governments of much smaller countries are often clueless about what life is like beyond a certain radius of the capital city.  Conservatives who advocate states rights are on to something (where they fall down is identity confusion).  The thought of having to win political victories in 50 (or more) separate locations as opposed to one may seem daunting, but that’s because we lie to ourselves if we think getting anything done at the current federal level is in any way easy.  If it seemed, under a revised geopolitics, that raising objections weren’t so pointless, you might even get more protesters from within any individual state than you would in making a US-wide call-out for everyone to converge on that state.

It is a prime time for this topic to be discussed, as several actions even more ambitious than the Keystone XL demonstration are coming up soon, and their success may depend in part on whether distance keeps numbers down. On September 17th a group suggesting a “US Day of Rage” wants non-violent assemblies to take place at the local and national level, demanding that the influence of money be booted out of politics.  In an associated event, the magazine Adbusters is behind a call to occupy Wall Street with a tent city on the same date making similar demands, and hopes people will stay for the long haul.  In October, the Afghanistan War goes into an 11th year, the 2012 federal austerity budget begins, and on the 6th another ongoing square takeover is planned for Freedom Plaza in D.C.  The former of these plans acknowledges that local options are necessary, though it comes with the risk of diminishing totals at the main event.

Even though protest targets and decision makers know that any number of activists suggests wider support, the likes of square occupations require physical bodies to have the desired effect.  Cautious optimism suggests that if nothing else these mobilizations will be stepping stones and warning shots, but pessimism whispers that if they do not produce results, it will harden the perception that change and revolution are things by, and for, other people in other places.  For an example of what it would be like to live in a different kind of place, see Iceland.  In November 2008 when the neoliberal dream died there, 9000 people took to the streets against banks and government, as a modest part of a more radical movement.  Mathematically adjusted, that is the equivalent of 9.5million Americans.  That many converging on the White House is physically unlikely and a logistical and safety nightmare.  That many across a continent of autonomous and easily accessible small governments would be a big moment of excess.

  1. J. H. Clapham, qtd in The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money, Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong, 2010, Basic Books, p38 []
  2. The author realizes that there is a spectrum of autistic conditions; however, the use of the term to describe an intelligent but tunnel-vision economy is not his own []

Gary Gellatly is an activist and writer from the UK. He enjoys beer and indie music. Read other articles by Gary.