Seeing the world in a grain of sand

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

On August 22 I was arrested along with 52 other people in front of the White House. In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., we engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience, part of an ongoing sit-in aimed at convincing President Obama to deny big oil permission to build the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry filthy tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas coast for export. The action, part of a weeks-long sit-in at the White House, was peaceful and dignified. The following is a slightly edited version of the explanation I offered my fellow activists for why I had traveled to Washington to risk arrest.

Hello. My name is Rick Chamberlin and I live in Sauk City, Wisconsin. Sauk City is in Sauk County, Wisconsin, overlooking the beautiful Wisconsin River, on what was once the great Sauk Prairie, at the southern extremity of the sand counties (a.k.a Central Sands region).

You may have heard of our sand counties. It’s where, in 1935, a man named Aldo Leopold bought a worn-out, abandoned farm and transformed the old chicken coop into lodging for himself and family. Today that shack still stands, as do thousands of trees Leopold and his family and friends planted. By transforming that land, Leopold pioneered the field that would eventually become known as restoration ecology.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

With his land ethic, Leopold also transformed the way many of us look at the environment. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote that all of our environmental problems stem from viewing the land as a commodity instead of as a community to which we all belong.

In other words, when we look at a grain of sand, or a piece of land, we see only a grain of sand or a piece of property. Far too often we see only the economic potential of the environment. We don’t see, as William Blake once wrote, the world in a grain of sand. We don’t see the community that grain of sand or piece of land or creature is but a part of. We don’t see the vast web of relationships upon which life depends.

Another Wisconsin resident, who lived just a few miles as the sandhill crane flies across the Wisconsin River from the land Leopold would build his shack on once wrote that when we try to pick anything out by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. That was John Muir. As a teenager, Muir almost died after being overcome by carbon dioxide and other gases at the bottom of a well his Calvinist father made him dig, by hand, through 80 feet of Wisconsin sandstone. John Muir went on to become, like Leopold, one of the world’s greatest conservationists.

Sand, it seems, is pretty important these days – and not just as a metaphor. We’re here in Washington D.C., sitting in at the White House and getting arrested, because of some petroleum-laden sands in Alberta, Canada. In Wisconsin where I live, mining companies and speculators are now buying up thousands of acres of land from which to mine the sand used to pry natural gas out of the Marcellus shale beds of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York. Much of that gas is burned to generate the energy used to extract and process tar sands oil in Alberta.

Everything is hitched to everything else.

Some of us can see but we won’t. We choose to live in denial. Whether out of fear or out of greed or for some other reason or combination of reasons, we bury our heads in the sand.

I took the train here from Wisconsin with my son Sam and a courageous woman named Sarah because I do not want to live with my head in the sand. I don’t want my son or daughter to face a world so fractured and frightening that burying one’s head in the sand seems preferable to looking closely at the world. We’re here because we choose to see the world in each grain of sand, in every piece of land, in every creature.

And we are here because we understand, like you, that it’s time to draw a line in the sand.

Like all great movements in history, the movement to prevent runaway, catastrophic climate change will have to draw some lines in the sand. We will have to fight for legislation and regulation that prevents environmental disasters on our home soil. We will have to put our bodies on the line, as we’re doing now. But those lines will only be temporary lines if we don’t all also draw lines in our heads and hearts – lines we ourselves will not cross. That’s a big part of what Leopold meant when he wrote famously of the need for a land ethic. He knew there were limits to what government could do. He knew conservation was a struggle for hearts and minds.

“An ethic, ecologically,” Leopold wrote, “is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct. These are two definitions of one thing.”

This struggle is a struggle for existence. Tar sands mining, refining and piping is anti-social conduct. It is unethical. It is immoral.

Before I left Wisconsin to come here, Curt Meine sent me a note of encouragement. Curt may know the mind of Aldo Leopold better than anyone alive. In fact, he’s one of Leopold’s biographers. He’s also one of my neighbors in Wisconsin. Curt passed along to me these words from the man himself, written in 1947 not long before Leopold died. I now share them with you:

“It has required 19 centuries to define decent man-to-man conduct and the process is only half done; it may take as long to evolve a code of decency for man-to-land conduct.  In such matters we should not worry too much about anything except the direction in which we travel.  The direction is clear, and the first step is to throw your weight around on matters of right and wrong in land-use.  Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits, or that a wrong action is to be condoned because it pays.  That philosophy is dead in human relations, and its funeral in land-relations is overdue.”

The Keystone XL pipeline, which President Obama can stop with the stroke of his pen, is a matter of right and wrong. Mining, transporting, refining and burning more tar sands oil – the dirtiest, most carbon-intense oil on the planet, oil that along with other fossil fuels threatens to doom our children and grandchildren to a future of hell and high water – is a matter of right and wrong.

So we will not be intimidated by spurious economic arguments – arguments that the Canadian government and big oil want us to believe supersede the moral imperative to stop this pipeline, to stop the fossil fuel industry from pushing the Earth past an ecological tipping point. They know that any economic benefit from tar sands will be like a grain of sand compared to the mountain of dollars it will cost to fix and adapt to the damage caused by tar sands mining, piping, refining and burning. But they don’t care because those costs are long-term costs that we, not they, will have to pay. Partly as a result of the tar sands oil already in the gasoline we burn in Wisconsin, our state’s climate has changed dramatically and probably irrevocably. Many more jobs can be created by transforming our economy from one that runs on fossil fuels to one that runs on clean, renewable energy. Already green investment outstrips fossil fuel investment in the U.S. and Europe.

But this pipeline is not just wrong, it’s a violent crime waiting to happen. Reaping obscene short-term profits from fossil fuels that result in enormous volumes of greenhouse gas being pumped into our atmosphere is a violent crime because people are suffering and dying every day as a result of climate change. The World Health Organization estimates that already over 150,000 people perish every year as a result of human-caused climate change.

We will not stand idly by and let that happen! We will not bury our head in the sand. We will see the world in every grain of sand. And we will prevail in this struggle – because the alternative is unconscionable.

As we say in Wisconsin: Forward.

Cross-posted on on August 30.

Update (11/13/11): On November 10, President Obama sent the Keystone XL pipeline project back to the State Department for a thorough review, which most analysts believe will effectively kill the project. In his announcement, the president explicitly noted climate change as one of the things the new review will need to assess.





  1. Thanks Rick for your beautiful summary. Thanks for helping us to “stay awake” (keep our heads out of the sand).

  2. Thank you for your concern, action, and words – which make the right way forward so clear and obvious. It is great that you are raising awareness about this. Obama is a good and intelligent man – he would no doubt agree with your views. I wonder what counter-pressures are forcing him to offer some resistance? It would be interesting to have an insider’s analysis of the various issues he is taking into consideration (not just financial)… How can one pacify those?

  3. An insider’s analysis would indeed be helpful; I suspect it would reveal a good deal of political triangulation, which can put you in the middle but not necessarily on the right side of matter.