• 20 September 2017

Internet activism, pipeline politics and climate change in North America

Recent graduate from our ECM programme, Jodie McNeill, examines how internet activism is impacting public conversations around pipeline politics and climate change in North America in a recent paper published in the Annals of American Association of Geographers.

Photo: CC-by-2.0 flickr shannonpatrick17

Commentary by Jodi McNeill

A recent paper published by Jodi McNeill and Dr. Thomas Thornton in Annals of the American Association of Geographers (AAAG) explores the new forms that social protest and collective action are taking in the age of the Internet. As this pertains to pipeline politics and climate change discourses in North America, the multifarious yet ambiguous impacts of 'cyberactivism' on proposed transcontinental Alberta oil sands pipelines since the mid-2000s are frequently discussed in popular culture. With the support of digital tools and platforms for facilitating – and, in some cases, driving – protest actions over the last decade, proposals by oil sands corporations for new or expanded export pipelines toward coastal ports have become mired in political conflict spanning local to transnational scales. These pipelines have become a lightning rod subject for articulating broader societal discourses of climate change, energy security, market access, social justice, and environmental stewardship.

Despite the influences of cyberactivism in changing the way North American citizens engage with and relate to energy and environmental policy through fossil fuel infrastructures, the internal dynamics of these forms of collective action are not well understood. There is currently a robust body of academic literature investigating how Internet-based collective action campaigns undermine traditional theoretical assumptions about rational choice and social pressures in collective action. In their trailblazing 2012 paper published by Information, Communication, & Society, Bennett and Segerberg correspondingly theorized that cyberactivism is in fact governed by a unique logic of connective – as opposed to collective – action, wherein participation thresholds are low, collective identities and social incentives are weak, relationships are defined socially rather than spatially, and contentious politics are highly personalized.

Relatively few studies, however, have empirically substantiated these burgeoning theories. McNeill and Thornton address this critical research gap with this paper, which seeks to disinter the social and spatial landscapes of contemporary Internet-facilitated political engagement. The authors realize this objective by exploring the human geographies comprising online petitions on the platform Change.org, which challenge three proposed pipelines from the Alberta oil sands: the Keystone XL Pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico, the Energy East Pipeline to the Atlantic Coast, and the Northern Gateway Pipeline to the Pacific Coast. Using a combination of social science and geospatial research methods, hetero versus homogeneity in signatories' sociopolitical commitments and geographic locations is investigated. This mixed qualitative and quantitative method approach is theoretically grounded in political ecology, with particular emphasis on the associated notions of 'Environmentality' (Agrawal 2005), 'Glocalization' (Wellman 2002), and 'Actor-Network Theory' (Latour 2005/Barry 2013).

This is among the first academic studies to empirically corroborate the dynamics of nascent connective action theory, by establishing a generally weak relationship between online petition signatories' geospatial locations and their stated concerns and identifications. This effectively generates spatiotemporally extensive (read: globalized) and highly individualistic weak-tie networks in cyberactivist campaigns challenging Alberta oil sands pipelines. These dynamics directly challenge traditional theoretical assumptions about collective action, and provide insight as to how online petition data might be proactively utilized to better inform North American energy and environmental policy research and deliberation.

"These pipelines have become a lightning rod subject for articulating broader societal discourses of climate change, energy security, market access, social justice, and environmental stewardship"

About the Lead Author

Jodi McNeill is a recent graduate of the Environmental Change and Management (ECM) Programme (2014-15) at the Environmental Change Institute. Since graduating, she has been working in her hometown of Calgary, Canada at the Pembina Institute (Pembina). Pembina is a non-profit and non-partisan environmental think tank, working to reduce the harmful impacts of fossil fuels in Canada while supporting the transition to an energy system that is clean, safe, and sustains a high quality of life. Jodi is especially interested in the relationships between global oil prices and demand trends, decarbonizing energy systems, and resource development in Alberta.

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