The rusting fossil-fuel infrastructure of the upper Midwest connects the poisoned residents of Flint to the wreckage of Alberta’s oil sands. Can it also become the backbone for a new movement against planet-killing capitalism?
During the summer of 2016 a small group traveled, by bicycle, across the entirety of Michigan, tracing the route of the notorious crude oil and gas pipeline “Line 5,” operated by the Canadian corporation Enbridge. In addition to mapping the flow of oil as it crosses 360 waterways, the bikers stopped at every single house along the route. The principal goal of their journey, called “Bike the Line,” was to talk to the people who lived along the pipeline easement, who deal with the negligence and constant harassment of Enbridge, and who are at immediate risk when the pipeline spills.
It already has. Since 1968 twenty-nine spills have released more than a million gallons of oil into pastures, farmland, and waterways. Yet these incidents are nothing compared to the crisis they portend: five miles of Line 5 run along the lakebed at the junction of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, called the Straits of Mackinac. These straits are smack in the middle of the world’s largest freshwater supply, containing one fifth of the planet’s entire supply. Every day twenty-three million gallons of oil pass over the pipeline at Mackinac. “If you were to pick the worst possible place for an oil spill in the Great Lakes, this would be it,” said David Schwab, a research scientist at the University of Michigan Water Center, who conducted a computer simulation of a spill.
Passing though the suburbs of Detroit, traveling north through Michigan’s upper peninsula, then west towards the pipeline’s beginning on the border of Wisconsin, through treaty land of the numerous native tribes that have called for the line to be decommissioned—the canvasser-bikers sought common ground with the people who lived adjacent to it. Their journey was one small leg of a much larger journey: transforming an isolated, particular struggle against Enbridge into a collective struggle against fossil fuels and the wasteland they produce.
But Bike the Line was more than just a canvassing trip: in addition to building relationships it also sought to accurately map the route of the oil pipeline, to uncover the social relationships upon which it depends. Mapping the flow of oil helps make the climate crisis more legible, and helps us prepare for the conflicts to come. For every possible pipeline rupture there is a possible rupture of our own, a break with the system of pipelines and fossil fuels.
Mapping the Spill
Just as Bike the Line is only one segment of a much larger traversal, Line 5 is only one link in a web of fossil fuel pipelines spanning the region. And the devastation wrought by a fissure in an oil pipeline is not an airy hypothetical for rural Michiganders: in 2010 a different Enbridge pipeline, Line 6B, ruptured and spilled one million gallons of corrosive tar-sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in Southeast Michigan. This disaster is the largest inland oil spill in US history. Undetected by Enbridge’s alert system, heavy crude oil poured out of broken pipe for seventeen hours, flooded down the river, coated the shore and riverbed, and filled the air with toxic fumes. Many of those who lived closest to the river died of various cancers in the years following the spill. After six years and a $1.2 billion cleanup that further disrupted the wetland habitats, Enbridge agreed to pay a sixty-two million dollar federal civil penalty. But that’s “just the cost of doing business,” one forlorn fisherman told a newspaper, when he heard about the settlement. They have insurance. They can pay it easily.
In fact, Enbridge used the disaster as an excuse to rebuild a large portion of Line 6B. Under the pretext of improving pipeline safety, they increased the diameter of the pipe and therefore its throughput in barrels of oil. With the terror of the spill still fresh on their minds, one group called the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands (MICATS) organized a multi-year direct action campaign to prevent completion of the rebuild. From 2013 to 2014 the group organized multiple blockades across the state, halting construction by putting their bodies in the way of construction equipment and supply deliveries. Drawing from a long lineage of environmental direct-action groups, the premise of the strategy was simple: the longer you delay construction, the more money the company loses. Enbridge claimed, for example, that they lost almost $40,000 because of a blockade that lasted less than two hours.
The anti-Enbridge blockaders did more than just inflict costs upon the offending corporation; their blockades also helped to develop and refine a set of skills. These blockades required reconnaissance and planning: a map of the pipeline, a tracing of the progress of construction, and a knowledge of precisely when and where the most vulnerable choke point would be. In this way, any blockade of a pipeline, or any other infrastructure, is about more than whatever impediment to corporate productivity it provides. It’s also about the construction of a resistant force.
“For every possible pipeline rupture there is a possible rupture of our own, a break with the system of pipelines and fossil fuels.”
The practice of mapping infrastructure in order to disrupt it has spread throughout the ecological activist milieu. On the other side of the Detroit River a leg of the Enbridge pipeline system called Line 9 has been disabled multiple times, for example. Pump stations are located above ground along the route of the pipeline at regular intervals, and can be disabled by simply turning a wheel. This “valve-turning” tactic has since been repeated elsewhere, as information about pipeline resistance gets disseminated.
While the fossil fuel infrastructure in its planetary girth is as impossible to grasp as the cataclysmic enormity of climate change, a single pipeline or even a network of pipelines is comprehensible: it is a long arrow pointing from departure to destination. Not only do pipelines make the global flows of capital legible, they render them tractable, connecting struggles waged thousands of miles apart. There are approximately seventy-two thousand miles of crude oil pipe in the US. These pipelines establish a material link, and a basis for real solidarity between disparate groups, connecting a blockade in Michigan to the struggle of indigenous people in Ontario, connecting black and Latinx Detroiters fighting against a refinery to resistance against the Athabasca oil sands thousands of miles away. These oil-based networks are both the source of our misery and the basis of our hope that we might transcend it.
Sunrise over the Oil Sands
If you follow the oil that runs through Line 6B back to its source, you end up in Canada’s oil sands. Upstream from the homelands of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, the Athabasca oil sands are a ticking time bomb for the climate crisis. Also called tar sands, these deposits contain some of the largest reserves of petroleum on the planet. As conventional oil resources have dwindled, oil companies have had to turn to more-difficult-to-extract and environmentally-devastating sources. Tar sands oil is extremely energy-intensive to refine, meaning that as it adds more cheap fossil fuels to be consumed it also increases overall consumption. The result is more emissions and habitat destruction. It is tar sands oil that flows through Enbridge’s Line 6B, tar sands oil that destroyed the Kalamazoo River.
The fight over the Athabasca oil sands is often painted in appropriately apocalyptic terms. From their camp constructed directly in the proposed path of the pipelines from the oil sands, the Unist’ot’en people and their supporters describe the extraction process as an act of genocide: “Canada hates us all.” And according to a 2017 study by Oil Change International, “Canada can’t increase tar sands production or build more pipelines if the world is to achieve the targets on global carbon emissions set by the Paris Agreement on climate.” In Canada’s north, they are preparing a future in which most of the territory to the south is uninhabitable.
But focusing on just a single project, on the excesses of this particular site of extraction, might lead us to mistake the problem. Ending oil-sands extraction won’t address the source of demand for fossil fuels because this demand derives from the endless growth required by capitalism. Any solution to this crisis that does not also mandate a clear break with capital is no solution at all.
Without that break from capital, if it’s not a wasteland in Athabasca, it’s a wasteland somewhere else—in the Congo, perhaps, or in Chile or Central China, where the minerals necessary for renewable energy are mined. Even those reforms which would aim to abolish fossil fuels entirely won’t stop capitalism from creating new “sacrifice zones,” areas of the planet rendered largely uninhabitable. Take, for instance, the progressive Democrats’ and Sunrise Movement’s proposal for a Green New Deal, which promises to address the climate crisis by developing a plan “in consultation with civic groups and business” that could reach “100% of national power generation from renewable sources” by 2030. This goal is without doubt radical and necessary; it proposes nothing less than total abolition of the fossil fuel industry. And none of us should discount the widespread youthful optimism such a demand mobilizes. But the name of the program betrays its limits. In repurposing with its title the Keynesian and social democratic politics of the early twentieth century, the proponents of the Green New Deal indicate their faith not only in a coexistence with capital but also a reindustrialization impossible since the 1970s. As Joshua Clover’s book Riot. Strike. Riot. explains, the social movement gains of the twentieth century—the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement, and yes, the New Deal—could occur only in the context of a taut labor market, low unemployment, and high rates of capitalist growth. Since the early 1970s these three critical components have disappeared, leading us into a period that Clover calls the “Long Crisis.” (The onset of the crisis is marked in part by the OPEC oil embargo in 1973.) This period, our period, is characterized instead by increasing automation and by a growing population without jobs, even as new industries in technology and renewables emerge.
These tendencies increase the power employers have over labor, allowing wages to fall to the floor. Faced with the threat of revenue shortfalls and capital flight, the state is unable to impose any limits on capital. Indeed, many companies seem to be reveling in the new conditions wrought by climate change, such as new fossil fuel reserves and the opening of shipping routes in the Arctic made possible by the melting ice caps.
The mission statement of the Sunrise Movement declares: “We are not looking to the right or left. We look forward.” But with a strategy airlifted from an era that is long gone, they, and various other left groups, seem to be looking backwards instead. Even if the Green New Deal is somehow signed into law, is its proposed future—an economy in which capital only reorganizes itself to produce solar panels and windmills instead of fossil fuels, while still maintaining the same political and social power dynamics—really worth fighting for? To want a “new deal” means to want more growth and, by extension, more wastelands in Athabasca or elsewhere. There’s no new deal, only an old gamble.
Part of this shift in the nature of capitalism has meant a shift from manufacturing to circulation. Michigan’s history is instructive here: while it was once the center of manufacturing in the United States, the decline of manufacturing has meant that Michigan’s status as a corridor for flows of commodities has increased in relative importance. As the auto industry continues to depart the region—General Motors just announced yet another string of factory closures—the state is attempting to shove itself into the center of the global capitalist supply chain: Michigan, the shipping corridor. The Great Lakes State is the site of three key pieces of North American shipping infrastructure: the Soo Locks, the Detroit-Windsor Ambassador Bridge, and Route I-69 (the Mexico-to-Canada highway nicknamed the “NAFTA Superhighway”). This infrastructure has turned Michigan into a vital hub in the global network of supply chains. Investors such as Amazon and Penske Logistic describe Michigan as having both “Great Lakes . . . and great logistics.”
By logistics, Amazon and Penske mean not just the precision-shipping of commodities but an attempt at a perfect synchronization of the production, circulation, and consumption of commodities facilitated by shipping. The importance of the Soo Locks in this logistical web cannot be overstated. The Soo Locks consist of four locks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that facilitate the passage of ships between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes. These ships carry 90 percent of the iron ore in the United States as well as coal, limestone, cement, salt, sand, and grain. The Poe Lock, with the largest capacity of the four, was rebuilt in 1968, during the first decade of the revolution in logistics. This lock is particularly important to the US economy; numerous studies have pointed out that a prolonged shutdown of the Poe Lock could lead to a recession, depending on the time of year, because there would be no other adequate way to get iron-ore pellets to steelmakers. This would in turn affect downstream manufacturers. Even a short shutdown of the lock during peak shipping season could halt as much as 76 percent of the nation’s steel output. A bill, recently sped through both House and Senate on bipartisan wings and signed by Trump in October, testifies to the importance of the lock. This bill will combine two of the other existing locks into a mega-lock that would handle larger ships and provide a safety net in case of the technical failure of the Poe Lock.
What the Soo Locks are to maritime transport the Ambassador Bridge is to transport by truck. This suspension bridge connecting Detroit, Michigan with Windsor, Ontario is central to the US and Canadian economies, trade between them averaging $1.5 billion per day—more than the US trade with the entire European Union. Fifty percent of that trade passes through Michigan, and almost all through Detroit. The Detroit-Windsor Ambassador Bridge is currently the only over-land crossing at this international border. This bridge is both the busiest land-border crossing in North America and the only privately-owned border crossing in the north. It is currently owned by Manuel Moroun, the billionaire proprietor of CenTra, a massive trucking company.
The Ambassador Bridge has already been targeted as a choke point for the flows of commodities. On June 5, 2000, during a meeting of the Organization of American States, it was blockaded for a few hours by activists opposed to NAFTA. The bridge was blockaded again on October 30, 2011 (during the height of the Occupy movement) as people protested not only against capitalist globalization, but the health impacts of bridge traffic on the mostly Latinx community surrounding the bridge. This action followed a June mobilization in which people tore down a fence that the bridge baron Moroun had erected, prohibiting access to a portion of Riverside Park next to the bridge. The park is a favorite spot for picnics, fishing, and evening strolls, activities at odds with the high-velocity flows of North American free trade. In the face of these blockades, as well as the traffic jams produced by increased border trade, the crossing has been identified as a bottleneck, and a second bridge, this one publicly owned, is now under construction, with its declared aim to “accelerate the flow of goods and services.”
While targeting the Soo Locks and Ambassador Bridge does impede corporations effectively, successful blockades can be difficult. In her essential book, The Deadly Life of Logistics, Deborah Cowen explains that “the threat of disruption to the circulation of stuff has become such a profound concern to governments and corporations in recent years that it has prompted the creation of an entire architecture of security that aims to govern global spaces of flow.” In this brave new world, “threats to circulation are treated not only as criminal acts but as profound threats to the life of trade.” In Michigan, the police place a high priority on the security of these shipping routes. The Soo Locks in particular were considered so vital to the economy that during World War II a garrison was stationed there in case of an attack from Nazi Germany. And the presence of the US-Canada border ensures the significant presence of the many law enforcement agencies organized under the Department of Homeland Security, including ICE. But as the state develops the capacity to secure these flows at any cost, so must any serious communist project develop the capacity to disrupt them.
A 2015 report from the American Truckers Association, aptly titled “When Trucks Stop, America Stops,” describes “how any disruption in truck traffic will lead to rapid economic instability.” In order to convince “well-meaning public officials” not to halt or restrict truck traffic, the report details the economic and social outcomes of possible disruptions. After twenty-four hours of a total truck-traffic disruption, manufacturers will run out of components and hospitals will lack essential supplies. After forty-eight hours, ATMs will run out of cash, container ships will sit idle in the ports, and food shortages will escalate. Within two weeks, the entire nation’s drinking water supply will begin to run out due to shortages of purification chemicals. But these are only the primary effects, with secondary effects including “inability to maintain telecommunications service, reduced law enforcement, increased crime, increased illness and injury, higher death rates, and likely, civil unrest.” The case studies included in the report focus primarily on trucking in the Great Lakes region and the international trade with Canada.
This report implies both a crisis for capital and the state and also a crisis for us, who depend upon these commodities to survive. This is a fundamental problem for any revolutionary strategy of disruption. If blockades succeed in stopping the circulation of commodities, how will people acquire the commodities they need to live, commodities that they have no other way of acquiring? Yet, by framing industry as the guardian of order, the trucking report conceals a truth about supply chains, and about the Great Lakes in particular. The oil pipelines here pose an equally consequential threat to civil society and to capital, imperiling the largest supply of freshwater in the world, currently pumped from the lake and sold back to us in bottles. Nestlé corporation was recently approved to pump up to four million gallons of water per week from the lakes of the state and sell it back to us in Ice Mountain bottles. (Significantly, this request attracted a record number of public comments — with 80,945 against the permit and 75 in favor.)
This fight for water—in this case a fight won by Nestlé corporation—has made the tragedy of the water crisis of Flint, Michigan even more bitter. It is a story that at this point has already been told many times: the state and city governments valued a budget cut over the health and safety of the poor, black, and brown people who live in Flint. During 2014, the state-appointed Emergency Manager temporarily switched Flint’s water source away from the city of Detroit to the Flint River because they believed it would save money in the long run. During the switchover the state environmental agencies failed to use proper chemicals, leading to corrosion and contamination, as the aging water pipelines bore lead and bacteria into the working-class homes of Flint. It was more than a year before the city and state governments heeded residents’ accusations that they were being poisoned; it took even longer for the city to take seriously the needs of the inmates in Flint’s jails, who were hit especially hard by the contaminated water.
“There’s no new deal, only an old gamble.”
When it finally arrived, the state response consisted of the governor declaring a state of emergency and the National Guard distributing cheap, three-month tap water filters, along with cases of plastic water bottles. This grossly inadequate response underscores how elites view the people forced to endure the consequences of decaying infrastructure: these people are as disposable as a water bottle or a short-term anti-lead filter. For a more recent example of this mindset, one need only watch the video of Donald Trump smiling, waving, and tossing paper towels to survivors of Hurricane Maria.
Corroding infrastructure is the defining feature of the Midwest. In Detroit, broken water and sewage lines have become commonplace, even while the city charges exorbitantly high rates for water. The city continues to shut off the water for poor, black residents of Detroit while busted pipes leak water into unoccupied and abandoned houses and flood into streets. Faced with this crisis, numerous Detroiters opt to either pay a plumber to turn their water back on illegaly or they attempt the task themselves. And beyond, in the larger Rust Belt that deindustrialization has left in its wake, aging railroads and bridges, power lines and sewage plants multiply disasters by the day. Occasionally, shiny new infrastructure is built—a bridge, a greenway, a jail—but it often has little relationship to the needs of poorer residents beyond increased surveillance or control.
In his 2018 book Hinterland, Phil Neel describes these “large urban zones of collapse” as a “hinterland” that in Rust Belt cities like Flint “actually reproduces a quasi-rural landscape, as fields open where public housing complexes once sat.” As Neel argues, “The main difference between the Rust Belt’s inner cities and the far corners of rural America is simply the fact that they are still adjacent to relatively affluent, if shrinking, zones of accumulation.” For Neel, the hinterland is partially defined by its abandonment by the government, a categorization that certainly applies in Flint and Detroit, where activist response frequently involves not petitioning the state but building community alternatives that provide infrastructural needs autonomously. Projects currently range from water catchment systems and ecological remediation to community-facilitated health care. Although some needs do not yet have safe or widely successful do-it-yourself mutual aid replacements, residents in these neglected communities are experimenting with solutions where they can. Despite their limits, these projects offer a glimpse of life outside the ongoing disaster of the market.
After the Map
The logistics industry frequently uses the metaphor of the “pipeline” to describe the ideal flow of commodities: continuous, never at rest, mostly automated. Therefore, struggles against pipelines provide a useful starting point for conceptualizing the larger commodity flows of capitalism, especially inasmuch as the connection is literal, since global capitalism currently depends on oil. From pipelines, other infrastructure sprouts. A framework that can begin by identifying choke points within fossil fuel infrastructure might broaden from there. Tools for the creation of such maps are widely available. For instance, maps of all the fossil fuel pipelines in the United States are accessible online at the Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Administration (PHMSA) website. This is the tool the Line 5 biker-canvassers used to map Line 5. Myriad other uses are surely possible with such a resource.
And there have already been attempts from which we can learn. In 2015 a group of kayaks bravely tried to block ships departing from the port of Seattle to drill for oil in the arctic. In 2017 partisans in Olympia, Washington blocked railroad tracks and prevented trains carrying fracking supplies from reaching the Port of Olympia. Everywhere a new pipeline is proposed a blockade springs up to stop it. And for countless tribes, the blockade of new pipelines has become part of everyday life.
Even more importantly, each of these blockades has the potential to generalize and overcome the limits of a purely oppositional politics. Some of these names might now be familiar: the ZAD struggle against the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport in France, the No-TAV struggle against a high-speed train in Italy, the camp against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the territory of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. These struggles against one type of pipeline or another have all “broken through” from isolated environmental movements to incorporate issues of racial, economic, indigenous, and environmental justice. They have become rallying points for thousands of people from different backgrounds, convened around practical resistance in the form of blockades and occupation camps. Significantly, these have also been opportunities to experiment with building communities that are partially autonomous from capital. In her preface to the book that the Mauvaise Troupe Collective has written about the ZAD and the No-Tav, Kristin Ross lays out the stakes for such projects:
Preventing one’s territory from becoming a mere node in a global capitalist system, a space of pure transit where people do nothing more than pass through, is a way of stabilizing in time—and perhaps even, with luck, a lifetime—a way of life that lies at least partially outside of and against the state and the market.
But if a single camp is going to exist outside of the market in the long term then it must come to terms with the limits of a donation-based means of persisting. In other words, in addition to a blockade, such a camp would need to re-appropriate resources, whether that’s farmland, warehouses, or water-pumping stations. These actions would be undertaken, not as disruptions intent on gaining a response from the state or corporations, but as people meeting their needs directly, without the mediation of such entities.
If there’s a path out of capitalism, in conditions of climate collapse and deindustrialization, it might look something like this. In Jasper Bernes’s 2018 article “The Belly of the Revolution,” he describes a contemporary communist strategy for appropriating and reorganizing the agricultural industry. He argues that “we must assume that revolution will break through—that is, defeat the reigning powers, and find itself in possession of the means of production—in isolated zones first, as part of a global revolutionary wave.” Outlining the conditions of success, he continues: “if most of what people needed to live were organized this way successfully, on a communist basis, communism would stabilize. And if it stabilized it would spread, as the existence of people meeting their own needs and thriving without the mediation of money, wages, or violent compulsion would be enormously destructive for capitalism and class society elsewhere.” As the climate and capitalist crises increase their tempo, activist projects today might provide the basis for such departures later on. At the very least, mapping oil pipelines and water distribution infrastructure would be a necessary preliminary for the sorts of prospects Bernes describes.
The New York Times recently reported in a piece about the UN climate report that “avoiding the damage requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has ‘no documented historic precedent.’” They are more right than they know. The Keystone XL pipeline is on its way, and various tribes across the Great Plains have already avowed that they will fight it. The fight against Enbridge Line 3 in northern Minnesota is already underway. Winona LaDuke and others are frank about their opposition to the project, saying, “Enbridge—they need this to stay alive. This is their last vampire suck of blood. I’m looking at this vampire, and I’m like, I’ll do everything I can for you not to get that.”
As the next anti-pipeline camp emerges, an understanding of the flows of oil and capital linking it to other rebellious groups could become the basis for a real solidarity—a material solidarity—cutting across the territories that unite and divide us. Bridges and locks could be blocked as pipelines are shut off and pieces of the water distribution infrastructure are reappropriated. In actions like this we find our only hope for an immediate and general break with capital and for an adequate response to the climate crisis. As they become camps, these pipeline-blockades have already demonstrated their potential for reorganizing life autonomously. But this prospect requires a material base that could ensure survival of the camp which, in turn, requires an understanding of the flows that structure our world. Let’s begin that work, right here, at the end of the line.