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Using non-academic writing to address Indigenous sovereignty and cross-border oil and gas development

Photo credit: Howl Arts Collective - Flickr: tar sands, Alberta, CC BY 2.0,

August 9, 2019

Patrick Christie, Professor, Jackson School of International Studies and School of Marine and Environmental Affairs

In July 2019, I took part in a writing workshop hosted by Orion Magazine—an online and print outlet that explores culture, the environment and justice. I have been an avid Orion reader for years and frequently use essays and poetry published in the magazine in my Jackson School classes. One particularly powerful collection of poems from Orion focused on the women of Standing Rock. The themes of women as cultural leaders and oil pipeline resistance leaders resonate with many UW students.

These are fraught times. As the effects of climate change become increasingly evident, UW students realize that their future is in the balance. And as international accords such as the Paris Agreement flounder, activists and the general public are taking to the streets, boardrooms and pipeline construction sites in an attempt to stop fossil fuel development projects and, ultimately, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Indigenous people are at the forefront of many protest movements, especially those in response to plans by the Canadian government and large corporations to extract oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. The tar sands are massive near-surface deposits of oil that require tremendous use of energy and chemicals to extract. Bill McKibben, the founder of, maintains that the world will experience runaway climate change if tar sands development plans are implemented. Most of the oil pipelines from Canada enter the United States and its refineries.

Because many Indigenous people belong to sovereign nations and because the oil crosses the US–Canadian border, international studies can help us understand what is at stake in cross-border extraction and resistance, and to identify environmental and development policy options. I’m particularly interested in how and why oil pipeline resistance social movements arise, when they succeed and who is leading them. Professor Jonathan Warren of the Jackson School and I have co-taught courses that explore how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people form powerful coalitions.

I learned from remarkable teachers and fellow students during the Orion workshop. We wrote, critiqued and read our work aloud. Given the urgency of climate change and the importance of resistance movements, academics need to make their research understandable to wide public audiences. The Orion workshop helped me work toward becoming a better non-academic writer and public intellectual.

Patrick Christie is a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs and Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. His scholarship focuses on the human dimensions of marine conservation and climate change social movements. In particular, he studies why citizens, fishers, and policy makers either accept or reject environmental policies. He believes, like many, that ‘we don’t manage the fish, we manage the people.’