By Elana Sulakshana
Have you ever tried sleeping on a bus? It’s hard. I found this out during Presidents’ Day weekend in February when Elaine Forbush ’13, fellow Environmental Club member, and I spent 19 hours in a bus from Boston to the Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C. and back. It was a 33-hour trip, and all together I got about 30 minutes of sleep.
Organized by two major international environmental organizations, 350.org and the Sierra Club, the Forward on Climate rally is the largest climate rally in US history. The protest targeted the Keystone XL Pipeline, an extension of TransCanada Corporation’s Keystone I Pipeline that will transport bitumen, crude oil, from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to Oklahoma and Texas.
Why did this inspire nearly 50,000 people (the estimations range from 40,000 to 50,000) to flock to the National Mall on a cold Sunday afternoon? The Keystone Pipeline is not just any pipeline. It would transport 700,000 barrels per day of dirty oil, drilled from “the biggest carbon bomb on the planet,” according to Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org. The energy required to extract and process the tar sands produces three times more greenhouse gas than conventional oil. James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, declared that the pipeline would mean “game over” for the planet because it would add significantly to our current rate of carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change.
I was there, with thousands by my side, to ask President Obama not to approve the pipeline. It was an empowering experience, to stand next to the Washington Monument, with the Capitol and the White House in view, and speak out. As Jamie Henn ’03, now the Communications Director of 350.org, wrote in a blog post, “Our message for President Obama was crystal clear: time to live up to your rhetoric, take us forward on climate, and say no to the Keystone XL pipeline.”
The first part of the rally had a range of speakers, including indigenous leaders from Canada whose homes and lands are being destroyed by the pipeline, young activists such as Nolan Gould, an actor who plays Luke on “Modern Family,” and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
These speakers energized me and the crowd, and they affirmed the importance of our presence in Washington that afternoon: “This is the last minute of the last quarter of the most important game in history. We can’t have the president on the sidelines being the referee. He needs to be on the field, being the quarterback and leading,” former White House Green Jobs Advisor Van Jones said. “You elected this president. You reelected this president. You gave him the chance to make history. He needs to give you the chance to have a future. Stop being chumps!”
And so we did just that. We took to, rather, flooded, the streets of Washington. In a semi-organized fashion, I marched, near the back of the crowd, from the National Mall to the White House. Despite the freezing cold, I made my way to the President’s home. Two days later I found that while I was standing outside the White House fence chanting “Hey, Obama, we don’t want no pipeline drama” with the thousands around me, Obama was playing golf with oil company executives. At one point, on my march back to the Mall, I turned around, and all I could see was a sea of people. The street was packed with college students, children, and even the elderly. Protestors were dressed in polar bear suits and as astronauts, some carrying bright homemade signs. Others beat drums and tambourines as they walked or towered over us on stilts. It was an incredible sight.
The evening after the rally, I settled back into the bus, dreading the eight-hour drive but exhilarated from the events of the afternoon. I was talking to a friend, a sophomore at Tufts, about why we decided to make the trip. She said something that stuck with me: “Because I wanted to be part of history.”
We made history that day. Though Obama may approve the pipeline (the signs currently point to this), or oil from the tar sands may be transported some other way, witnessing people fill the roads all around me made me feel that I was a part of something. My efforts here in the Environmental Club and outside of school with my internship at 350 Massachusetts are tied to something. There is a movement dedicated to protecting my future—our future.
Photo: Elana Sulakshana and Elaine Forbush (both ’13) join thousands of others in a D.C. rally. Courtesy Elana Sulakshana.