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By Candice Bernd
September 6, 2011
Caption : Ben Kessler served in Afghanistan and now spends most of his time fighting to counter the negative effects of climate change.     

The two-week long Tar Sands Action protest has been an inspiring testament to the commitment of environmental activists. And it may be taking the environmental movement to new heights at a time that could prove crucial in the battle to stop climate change.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heinemen and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) recently called on President Obama to deny the permit for the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin also said he opposes the pipeline over the weekend. Former vice-president Al Gore also officially endorsed the rolling sit-in at the White House, and activists are holding solidarity rallies in cities across the globe. (More on CampusProgress.org: Challenging the Tar Sands)

The total number of arrests from outside the White House topped 1,200 on Saturday—an astonishing number of people from all ages, races, genders, religious faiths, and parts of the country.

One of those 1,200 was young veteran Ben Kessler.

Kessler was arrested in front of the White House on Aug. 21, the second day of the action. He served in the military from 2002 to 2005 and did a tour in Afghanistan. In 2009, he enrolled at the University of North Texas as a philosophy major and is finishing school on the G.I. Bill. A member of Rising Tide North America, Kessler recently went to St. Louis for Midwest Rising!, the organization’s conference. He also attended the Power Shift climate summit earlier this year.

Kessler was also involved with the march on Blair Mountain, the site of a historical battle between thousands of union coal miners and armed police and strikebreakers in West Virginia. The march was organized to save the Blair from mountain top removal coal mining. Locally, Kessler is working to get the University of North Texas to stop using coal.

Campus Progress spoke with Kessler about his experience being arrested during the Tar Sands Action.

What first inspired you to become an environmental activist?

Well, ever since I was a kid, me and my brother have always been all about the environment. We didn’t think about in a scientific way. We didn’t know about climate change and extinctions and carbon and ozone or fossil fuels. Our ideology growing up was just that animals and trees are better than civilization, and I kept that with me. That sort of was always how I felt.

What started me in environmental activism was my anti-war activism, which I really started while I was in the military, and continued it until I learned more about climate change and that there was environmental groups fighting.

What’s the connection between the war and environmental degradation?

The most obvious one is that the U.S. military is, I believe, the largest single emitter of carbon, and burns the most fossil fuels, outside of China.

Our military—the wars, shipping stuff overseas like tanks and planes—burns incredible amounts of carbon, takes huge amounts of natural resources, not to mention constructing it. There’s that, and then there’s just the amount of pollution that comes with dropping bombs and destroying habitats.

Why drive all the way from Texas to attend the Tar Sands Action?

The Tar Sands Action is really important because it’s trying to spark a mass movement.

There’s sort of been a certain kind of mass movement in environmentalism, but it’s a very benign saying ‘We’re going to petition them until they do what we want,’ and we need a mass movement of civil disobedience. This is really one of the very first steps that is sort of feasible toward making that happen so I think it’s very important for everybody that can possibly be there to be there.

How were you feeling when you got arrested?

I was kind of happy. I’m not sure why. I guess part of it is a lot of people are really afraid of getting arrested. I see part of my job as lessening that fear because I’m not afraid of getting arrested and going to jail for a couple days or even a couple weeks.

There’s a lot scarier things out there that some of us are going to end up having to do in this fight, which is like going to prison for years, and that’s a real possibility for some people who are doing environmental work. I feel like if I can be saying ‘Jail’s not that big of a deal’ it can maybe help other people feel like it’s a comfortable next step they can take.

What about President Obama’s environmental campaign promises in 2008?

I’m totally over Obama’s campaign promises. As far as I’m concerned he’s lived up to none of them, except for the bad ones like Afghanistan. I don’t trust a word that comes out of his mouth. I wore the veterans’ shirt during the protest to show that Obama does have the chance to do this himself and stop the pipeline, but I’m not holding my breath.

What was the best part about participating in the Tar Sands Action for you?

The best part of all of these things is seeing the community and the people.

You start to build relationships with them even though you only see them a couple of times a year.That is increasingly the best part whenever I go to a national event—seeing all my friends again. But it’s not just seeing your friends it’s also constantly inspiring because you see all these people making the same trips as you, going across the country to do this stuff and to see all those dedicated people is really inspiring.

What aspects of the Keystone XL pipeline stick out to you the most?

I think the Keystone pipeline is more of a strategic target right now, as far as what we’re trying to fight, but what sticks out is the tar sands to me. That’s really why Keystone is important because tar sands are, like James Hansen says, game over if they continue to develop them.

I’m really inspired by a new movement to try and stop the tar sands, and Keystone is sort of an easy target for the media because it is going through the whole country.

What’s next for your tar sands activism?

Rising Tide North Texas is doing a forum locally at the beginning of October to talk about tar sands and hopefully show a video.

There are a number of groups on campus that have already expressed interest in wanting to do work on the tar sands. We’re also going to be reaching out to a number of groups in east Texas to really get together on a local level and figure out what we can do.

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