Line 3: Climate, Culture, and Just Transition

An act of genocide involves violent and purposeful destruction of life; it implies that some lives, or forms of life, are more valuable than others. Although we normally think about genocidal acts as emerging directly from war or other kinds of human conflict, including colonial encounters, genocide can occur in other ways – including through forms of “slow violence”  that occur as a result of environmental destruction, often in the name of capitalism. In my view, we are contributing to the genocide of the climate and, simultaneously, to cultural genocide, in the form of the Line 3 Pipeline. 

Enbridge, a multinational energy infrastructure company, has financed the rebuilding of Line 3, a tar sands pipeline running from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin, crossing the Mississippi River and Lake Superior. It runs through many sovereign nations and treaty territories where Indigenous people have rights to hunt, fish, and gather. With this project, critics say, Enbridge is threatening sovereign nations and treaty territories, and threatening wildlife, natural spaces, and sources of water for many in North America – Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. 

This summer, while participating in an experiential education program on the shores of Lake Superior, I was immersed into the cultures and traditions of some of the people who will be directly affected by this pipeline. I learned about the negative impacts from Anishinaabe farmers, artists, elders, and activists, as I was also learning about the forms of Indigenous knowledge that have supported lives lived in balance in this environment for centuries. This included learning about fights for food sovereignty and rights of nature, including specifically the threat Line 3 poses for manoomin, native wild rice. I listened to locals talk about their efforts to challenge the fossil fuel industry to protect the lands they steward and, simultaneously, guard against further destruction of Indigenous lifeways. Confronting this reality led me to ask these bold questions: How can one be a non-Native co-collaborator in the fight for Indigenous sovereignty? And, how do we move away from extractive capitalism and implement Just Transition? 

This concept involves changing from the extractive capitalist model of the “taking more than you give” mindset where everything in nature is seen as a “resource” to be used, toward a truly more sustainable approach to economies, as they relate to human communities and broader ecologies and forms of life.

Just Transition is also about ensuring that the people whose jobs are threatened or need to change from said transition (like people who work in the fossil fuel industry, which includes a lot of Indigenous people) will not just be abandoned, but will instead be part of a solution that creates space for them to be retrained in a career path that is better for the planet and the future.

Just Transition is necessary because often it is only wealthier people with significant resources who can make the decision to divest from harmful industries or pursue lifestyles that are more sustainable, but this concept is focused on allowing this to be possible for everyone.

The fight for Line 3 also bears on our criminal justice system. Opponents say Enbridge has been paying the Minnesota police to be their “guard dogs” defending the pipeline, and many people who are trying to do this difficult activism peacefully have been targeted. Together with African Americans, Native Americans and First Nations in Canada are largely over-represented in prisons. This is a different sort of “pipeline” that leads minority groups from one challenge to another, through channels of structural inequality. In other words, stopping the Line 3 pipeline is not just about energy and a shift away from fossil fuels, it is also about shifting the model of extractive capital in general and the way that work is approached in our country. 

The battle over Line 3 also involves understanding the limitations of our own (non-Indigenous) environmental knowledge and asking hard questions about the ways that we can truly cohabit and live on this planet without committing further climate or cultural genocide that puts the living physical environment as well as people and other animals in danger. According to a coalition of activists and scholars who run, Enbridge first proposed the pipeline in 2014 — even though this Canadian company was responsible for “the largest inland oil spill in the U.S.”  This group also reminds us that “all pipelines spill.” They make the point that Line 3 “isn’t about safe transportation of a necessary product” but that it is instead “about expansion of a dying tar sands industry.” In fact, by some estimations, Line 3 would have a greater negative impact on the climate than Minnesota’s entire economy. 

And yet, the pipeline now has oil running through it, when, by many estimations, it should be decommissioned. (Re)construction is ongoing, but it has slowed due to activism by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies. Many multinational banks — including Barclays, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, and SMBC — are helping to fund this project.

So, as consumers, we can also make thoughtful choices and write to our banks to divest. The longer construction takes, the more investors may pull out. However, Enbridge is putting everything they have into this fight because they don’t want to lose what they have invested so far. Part of the importance of stopping the pipeline is that it is a practical step in fighting climate change: this is an example of a huge company that is contributing to climate genocide and, in the process, contributing to new forms of cultural genocide too. If this pipeline ends in failure, it will serve as a success leading towards Just Transition.

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