Western Lessons

I have crossed the American West, particularly Montana, several times in the last two years. The first time was by car, via Interstates 90 and 84, when some friends and I were traveling from Seattle to Friends General Conference (FGC). After that, I started visiting my beloved, Adrian, in Chicago. The trips, and what I’ve learned subsequently, have taught me vital lessons about what Friends—and indeed, all humans—are now called to do.

The friends I traveled with to FGC are dedicated environmentalists. One is the founder of the Seattle chapter of 350.org, and the other is her daughter, who planned and led a protest against climate change at the Federal Building in downtown Seattle before she left for college this fall. As we crossed the western plains we saw hundreds of windmills, generating electricity with no carbon required, and we were cheered to see them. But as we drove we reflected on the emissions we were pumping out, for even though we were driving a Prius, we were still burning oil.

I learned a lot from my friends on that trip, and their examples and reminders made me mindful of my carbon footprint as I criss-crossed the country for my love, riding jet planes with their terrible use of fuel. So this spring I decided that I wanted to start taking the train when possible. Thus when school was out for the summer, I decided I could take the time to take the train out to Adrian and Chicago. It would be much slower—about forty-eight hours instead of four—but I felt so virtuous.

The train trip, however, was delayed, and delayed, and delayed. At first we were only held up a little—half an hour there, an hour there. Time easily made up with a little extra speed where possible. But in Montana we began to hit truly massive delays. Amtrak owns no rail lines, and must rent them from other railroads. When the railroads decide to shunt Amtrak onto a sideline (literally) to make way for freight traffic, the passenger trains have to get out of the way. Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the major railroad company that owns the tracks between Seattle and Chicago, had other priorities that weekend. We had to pull over for any number of freight trains passing by. Then, just short of Glasgow, Montana, the BNSF dispatcher made the breathtaking mistake of forgetting how long my Amtrak train was, creating a puzzle of geometry that led to a 110-car freight train having to slowly back up fifteen miles to let us onto a siding.

As so often happens when a major delay leads to scheduling conflicts, the conflicts cascaded. We were so late that our train crew ran out of hours—they could no longer legally work the train—and so they had to pull over and wait for a relief crew to be flown in. We were bumped for more freight traffic after that, and inched our way through the Gordian Knot which is Minot, North Dakota. Putting Minot behind us at last, we were now held up by freight trains ahead of us, and we crawled through North Dakota at an average speed of roughly twenty miles an hour. We were repeatedly left in the dark, and by “we” I mean the whole train, Amtrak people and all—at one point the conductor announced that since we hadn’t heard anything from BNSF lately, we were just going to inch forward and see what was going on. It was almost as aggravating as being stopped dead. Then, outside Fargo, we were informed that there was a train parked in front of the Amtrak station, with no crew, meaning we had to wait yet again while someone was found to move it. In the end I reached Chicago fifteen hours late. The bright side was that I finished my novel—writing it, that is.

And why is it that Minot is such a tangle? Why is it that there’s so much freight traffic out of there, fanning out west and east?

Oil. I saw oil tanker cars and gas tanker cars on most of the trains that passed us by, and by reading between the lines of Amtrak messages, plus comments from locals, it would appear that the oil boom going on in North Dakota (which is mostly done via the process called fracking, which is wildly polluting and wasteful of water) has snarled up the rail lines, moving the fossil fuels out to the coasts. I’ve confirmed that since—see here.

So the oil was tying up the tracks. In fact, one Amtrak employee told me that there’s actually a theory among Amtrak workers that BNSF wants Amtrak off the Montana-North Dakota route entirely, so as to free up more track time for the oil cars. In other words, there’s a possibility (though totally unproven, of course) that BNSF was deliberately fouling up our train.

My fellow passengers grew more irate with each further delay and each extra hour. Many swore they would never take Amtrak again, threatening to trade in their return tickets for air fare. And though I was more patient than some (despite my own quite acute reasons to get to Chicago as fast as possible), I still had my resentful moments. What made me furious and sorrowful was that the fossil-fuel industry and its railroad allies have snarled up one of the few viable alternative modes of transportation in this country. Train travel is the most fuel-efficient form of rapid transportation, bar none, but it’s the most inefficient way to travel in terms of time, because in part of the system of business interests that sets cargo and profit ahead of people. It makes perfect business sense for the railroad to kick the passengers aside; they are only getting a portion of the revenue from the passenger trains, after all, and moreover the freight trains are larger and more numerous, particularly the oil cars. They have every financial incentive to let Amtrak deal with the delays. And the more delays there are, of course, the less traffic Amtrak is likely to have, meaning that less money is at stake for the railroads, and so it spirals downward.

(Some might blame the sorry state of inter-regional passenger railroad traffic on Amtrak’s existence, seeing it as Federal interference in business stifling competition, but I doubt that the railroads would be doing much better if they were carrying the passengers themselves; there’s still far more money tied up in the freight traffic, and at the moment there’s too little market for passenger traffic. And if, as that frustrated Amtrak worker suggested, BNSF is actively out to prevent passenger service across the northern edge of the country, then it would seem that handing passenger service back to the private companies would simply end it. BNSF does provide good passenger service in the Chicago area, with its Metra commuter rail, but that’s a high-demand market.)

But at least all those windmills in Montana are a good sign, right? Well, I’ve heard rumors that the electric power from those windmills is flowing north—north to the tar sands of Alberta. Extracting oil from the tar sands is an extremely energy-intensive process, so much so that if it were to be any less efficient, you’d spend almost as much energy in the process as you’d get in burnable oil at the end. So the tar sands are hungry for power. And that’s a major source of demand that cropped up just as the wind farms were starting to boom. I haven’t been able to confirm this connection after some thorough Googling, but I have been able to confirm that Alberta imports quite a bit of energy, even as it pumps out oil from the tar sands.

It would be seriously disheartening to learn that some of those windmills I saw on my travels across the west are actually powering the dirtiest oil extraction in history. And it is seriously disheartening to learn that train travel across the American West is severely hampered, to the point of ineffectiveness and market implosion, by the market forces at work on the railroad and by the fossil-fuel industry.

So what lessons do I draw from this?

First, individual choices are not enough. It is not a bad thing to live your personal life with as small a carbon footprint as possible; it sets a good example and makes other people in your life think about their own actions. But these lessons from the West show me that this is not enough. We can create alternatives, but merely creating them does not end the systems and forces which brought us to this risk of climate catastrophe.

Indeed, the second lesson is this: the problem is not a lack of alternatives. The problem is that the alternatives are immediately put to destructive use, because that’s where the money is. Railroads are the most efficient means of hauling cargo overland—so naturally they will be used to move fossil fuels.

So an enormous part of the problem is the simple existence of those extractive industries. As long as they continue to exist, they will hijack the alternative methods of transportation and energy production and put them to their own ends. They must—after all, if they don’t extract and sell the oil and coal and gas they know about, then their business model falls apart and they cease to exist. They cannot repay their loans unless they extract and refine that carbon so that it can be set on fire. The banks and investors which loaned them the money can’t survive, either, unless that carbon gets pulled out of the ground. For them it is a matter of corporate life or death.

It’s a matter of actual life or death for all humanity, though. So if the system of financial incentive actually leads to short-term gain and long-term disaster, then the system itself must be changed.

So this teaches me that we cannot buy our way out of this crisis by adjusting our purchases. We cannot make tweaks and try to carry on as if nothing were seriously different. We must face that everything about our lives, materially speaking, is bound up in the nightmare that could destroy human civilization.

I recently had a brief Facebook conversation with a few Quakers who are deeply concerned by climate change but have no patience for big schemes to restructure the economy. They felt climate change is too huge and crucial an issue to be “sidetracked” by vast reorganizations. But as my recent experience shows, if we create alternatives, the current market will instantly abuse those alternatives. Moreover, as I just laid out, every market force compels the carbon companies to keep extracting and burning. To get them to stop doing that cannot be done with purely market forces; it will require community pressure, be that government intervention, creating social stigma, massive boycotts or protests, or other means. Either we take the carbon from the companies, so they cannot burn it, or we remove the need for the carbon, so they cannot sell it. But everything depends on oil and coal these days, from the food on your plate to the computer you read this on. So I do not see how we can fight climate change without severe changes to our economic system.

This puts Quakers in a particularly important position. One, our testimony of integrity calls on us to look at the nightmare that is our materialist way of life, and its sources of power. Two, our testimonies of community, peace, and simplicity compel us to change that way of life. Three, we have the blessing of a spiritual life to carry us through the change.

Small changes will make small difference. Creating alternatives within a broken system will only give the brokenness another tool to use. So we must go much deeper. That is what the West has taught me.


1 thought on “Western Lessons

  1. What does it mean to not be of this world?
    Is the first task of Quakers to settle people under the inward teacher?
    Does pressuring people into change violate their integrity?
    Is creation one interconnected whole?
    If it is, is experiencing that wholeness what opens us up to looking deeper where Spirit is speaking about an alternative way of life?

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