Bellingham’s Coal Train Blues, The Fractured Left, and The Ego?

There’s been a flurry of activity here in Bellingham recently concerning a coal shipping terminal proposed for construction just north of the city, a terminal that would bring a massive increase in train traffic and millions of tons of toxic coal, in uncovered cars, rolling right through the heart of town. (See my former posts on the subject: 1, 2, 3, 4)

I won’t go into all of the details of the latest developments here, so I’d recommend listening to two episodes of Weekday, from Seattle’s KUOW (1, 2), and then reading the latest editor’s column from our local news, arts, and entertainment paper, the Cascadia Weekly.

The latter is what really inspired me to write today, as it talks about the various groups that have organized to fight the coal terminal — Protect Whatcom, Coal-Free Bellingham, Safeguard The South Fork, RE Sources For Sustainable Communities — and they don’t even mention national groups like the Sierra Club or Communitywise Bellingham, a group that states that they aren’t strictly an opposition group, and that their goal is to keep the public informed about the potential impacts of the coal terminal and the intricacies of the environmental review process that the County and State are partnering on.

This brings to mind an issue that I’ve wrestled with for years. A frequent source of frustration throughout my lifetime has been the lack of coordinated and unified grassroots activism on the political left, the end of the spectrum where I unapologetically reside.

What I see over and over again is a lot of people out there doing a lot of good work, but scattered about in hundreds, if not thousands, of organizations, many of which overlap and sometimes even compete with each another over donations or attention or nitpicky differences in their platform or approach.

Another event this past week reminded me of this.

Back in August 2011, I wrote about protests in D.C. over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would transport the dirtiest possible form of oil from the tar sands of Albert, Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, the project seemed to have been killed by the Obama administration despite the pipeline’s well-funded lobbying and PR campaign, but paid-for members of Congress this week tried to attach approval of the pipeline to a highway funding bill.

Well, it looked like there might be a vote on the bill Monday or Tuesday, so there was a widespread internet campaign to bombard the Senate with petitions, emails, and phone calls, and I received no less than a dozen emails from various groups who were participating.

And while President Obama has threatened to veto the highway bill if the pipeline approval is included, we have certainly not seen the last of this zombie of a fossil fuel project, and I can’t help wondering how much more effective the opposition would be if it weren’t scattered around amongst all of these different organizations.

So, what is the deal here? With all the surging grassroots discontent about how bought and sold our government is, after the extraordinary events of the Occupy movement, and with the continuing threat of more consolidation of power amongst the 1%, more decline of the middle class, surging numbers of poor, and utter disregard by the powers that be for climate change, couldn’t we accomplish more if somehow we could all unite under one banner?

Why is it that, in Bellingham alone, there are so many groups organizing separately to oppose the coal terminal?

One theory I have: It starts with ego. You get a small group of committed, well-meaning people together, they get an enormous buzz from their shared passion for the cause, they glow with self-righteousness, they can’t wait to share what they think are original and exciting ideas with the masses, so that the masses are inspired to join them, and they throw together a spiffy website and get some attention from the press, and now they’re this organization, they need money to grow, and once they have this established identity and some money and they feel good that they are working for a good cause, why would they ever consider disbanding and joining with others to create a bigger, broader, more effective, strength-by-numbers movement?

I know it’s much more complex than all that, and one of the biggest reasons why this persists has to do with a lack of leadership, big vision leadership, someone or some group that understands how all of these causes are connected, and that we, the 99%, are all connected too, and that we just need be shepherded together with the hope that we can reclaim our country, of the people, by the people, for the people.

Anyone out there up for the task?



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