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In Defense of Planet Earth

In Defense of Planet Earth

Some people have the power to change things … to make others pay attention, to challenge the status quo, to ask the hard questions, to inspire action by example, maybe even to leverage the course of events.  When I heard Tim DeChristopher speak last summer, I sensed he was that kind of person.

Tim is one of us, a Unitarian active in our church in Salt Lake City.  The talk I heard was a fundraiser for his legal defense, for by that time he had had already been convicted of the crime that made him an environmental celebrity.  While protesting a Bureau of Land Management auction leasing the oil and gas rights to sensitive acreage near Arches National Park back in the waning days of 2008, the then twenty-seven-year-old DeChristopher had strolled inside the federal building in Salt Lake City for a drink of water when a woman asked if he was there to participate in the bidding.  When he answered “yes,” he was handed a bidder’s paddle.

Now these auctions were intended for cronies in the oil business.  That fall, just three months earlier, the New York Times ran a story about Department of Interior regulators taking bribes of sex and drugs from the very companies they were supposed to monitoring.  Ken Salazar, who was named new head of Interior when the White House changed hands, told ABC News that “At the end of the day, the Bush administration attempted to get as much public land leased for oil and gas development as they possibly could.”  Some of the land was being sold off, essentially in perpetuity, for as little as $2 an acre.  Which was why DeChristopher was there, with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance: to demonstrate, not to participate.

So for half an hour, he just watched the proceedings.  Then the University of Utah undergraduate decided to raise his paddle.  The other bidders went higher, and Tim began to sense his power.  Several times, he forced other speculators to pay increased prices for the parcels, and then suddenly Tim started winning.  By the end of the day, bidder Number 70 (as he became known) was the proud owner of 22,500 acres of prime wilderness valued at $1.8 million.

As I said, when I heard him speak last summer, DeChristopher had already been convicted of making false statements and violating other federal laws, facing a potentially stiff sentence.  So when he entered the auditorium, I was glad to see that he looked like a bulldozer, shaved head, neck like a pile driver, biceps bulging from a black T-Shirt inscribed with the slogan “Peaceful Uprising.”  This was a guy who could survive the slammer, I thought.  Not your typical tree-hugger.

And then when he started speaking, I was even more impressed.  Full paragraphs and grammatical constructions.  Ninety minutes (without notes) of passionate, informed analysis of the ecological crisis that’s threatening our planet and the political quagmire that keeps us from doing anything about it.

DeChristopher said the turning point, for him, had come when he attended a lecture by Stanford biology professor Terry Root, who shared a Nobel Prize for co-authoring a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that concluded global warming had become an inevitability and that many of its worst effectsfrom acidifying oceans to mass extinctionswere basically unavoidable. Even the best case scenarios were not pretty to contemplate. After the lecture, Tim asked Dr. Root if there wasn’t anything that could be done to prevent this catastrophe and she said sorry, no.

But instead of being demoralized by that answer, DeChristopher was energized. “We must let ourselves be shattered by the hopelessness of the crisis,” he would go on to say.  “When we abandon the hope that that things will work out, the hope that we will be able to live the easy and comfortable life which we are promised, the hope that someone else will solve this problem, then we are free to act.”  For him, abandoning hope meant realizing that incrementalism was not working.  Changing lightbulbs and recycling were not going to forestall the crisis.  Working around the edges of partisan politics, hoping the Democrats might be less bad than the Republicans, was not going to stop the earth from continuing to heat for the next hundred years.  More drastic and forceful actions were needed, and if that meant breaking the law, so be it.  As he told the court, “The power of the Justice Department is based on its ability to take things away from people,” their liberty, for instance, their property, maybe even their lives. “The more that people feel that they have nothing to lose, the more that power begins to shrivel.”  The opposite of hope, Tim said, is not despair but empowerment.

Now I suggested a few minutes ago that some people have the power to change things. And Tim DeChristopher wants us to believe that we all share that power.  His message is as much about grassroots, citizen democracy as about environmental activism, and his speech is peppered with references to the founding fathers, jury nullification, freedom riders and, of course, civil disobedience.  That’s a tactic that makes sense to Tim, after growing up in Appalachia.  When he was a kid, his mother was active in the Sierra Club. As he explains, “my mother was one of many who pursued every legal avenue for making the coal industry follow the law.  She commented at hearings, wrote petitions and filed lawsuits.”  But Massey Energy had bought and paid for the judges of West Virginia.  They’d broken the law thousands of times, killed their own miners, poisoned the people living downstream and barely paid a penalty because they’d dished out millions to every politician in the state.

“As a native of West Virginia,” DeChristopher told the court, “I have seen from a young age that the exploitation of fossil fuels has always gone hand in hand with the exploitation of local people.  In West Virginia, we’ve been extracting coal longer than anyone else.  And after 150 years of making other people rich, West Virginia is almost dead last among the states in per capita income, education rates and life expectancy.  And it’s not an anomaly.  The areas with the richest fossil fuel resources, whether coal in West Virginia and Kentucky, or oil in Louisiana and Mississippi, are the areas with the lowest standards of living.  In part, this is a necessity of the industry.  The only way to convince someone to blow up their backyard or poison their water is to make sure they are so desperate that they have no other option.  But it is also the nature of the economic model.  Since fossil fuels are a limited resource, whoever controls access to that resource in the beginning gets to set all the terms.  They set the terms for their workers, for the local communities, and apparently even for the regulatory agencies.”

But you can’t own or monopolize the sun or wind or tides in quite the same way you own an oilfield, Tim explains.  You can’t hoard sunlight.  And so the rewards from harnessing energy from renewables are more likely to go to the people who actually do the work.  It’s a less centralized system, which leads to a more democratic outcome.  When someone in the audience asked Mr. DeChristopher during the question-and-answer if he thought capitalism was the problem, Tim explained that he’d gotten his degree in economics.  And he didn’t think the United States was operating with a capitalist economy, at least not with the kinds of competitive markets Adam Smith envisioned.  “Competitive markets,” not “free markets” was the term that Smith actually used, and to be  “competitive,” Tim pointed out, those markets need to insure
that the price of goods truly reflect the costs involved (those costs can’t simply “externalized” or sent up a dirty smokestack, leaving the next generation to pick up the bill).  According to Smith, no company should be so big or powerful that it can control prices.  America right now could use a little old-fashioned capitalism, DeChristopher proposed.  How’s that for radicalism?

Instead of capitalism, he called our current economy a form of corporate nationalism, where monied interests had become so thoroughly enmeshed with government there was no separating the two. That’s why it’s so hard for ordinary people to feel they’re making a difference, because while politicians call themselves public servants, they’re not really serving the public.  They’re serving their paymasters, the big donors and lobbyists.

Consequently, he says, “one of the dominant characteristics of the climate movement is a sense of disempowerment.  We’re fighting against these entrenched interests, against the richest and most powerful corporations in the world, often in collusion with our federal or state government.” It’s a David and Goliath match-up.

But little people do have power, DeChristopher insists; they just don’t realize it.  “From a disempowered perspective,” he says, “we look at opinion polls and we think, ‘Oh, only so much of the population agrees with us and only 10 or 15 percent really understand the urgency of the issue.”  Folks feel helpless because they’re in a minority. “We’re missing out on the fact that even if 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population really get the issue of climate change, that’s 30 or 40 million people.  That’s more than enough to bring the fossil fuel industry to its knees.  If even a tenth of those people were willing to engage in significant nonviolent civil disobedience, that’s an incredible force.”

DeChristopher asks us to consider, for example, what would happen if 100 people a day decided to stop the machines from doing mountaintop removal in his native West Virginia.  Disillusioned as he is with the current administration, which has taken a tough line on his prosecution, Tim thinks that if push came to shove—peaceful unarmed protestors versus Massey Coal—not even Obama would send in federal troops to defend the permanent scarring and denuding of Appalachia.

In an interview with Brooke Jarvis, Tim referenced “Vaclav Havel, a leader of the revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989, who spoke about how the first and most important thing they did in overcoming the tyrannical regime was to just start acting as if they lived in a free and democratic society.  They basically started pretending that they had that kind of democratic power, and that started to make it true.”

Or look at Egypt.  All along it was the people in Tahir Square who had the power, not Mubarak.  “In Egypt, once they made the decision that they were going to be a powerful force, there was no stopping them.”  Because fundamental change begins in the mind. Not in the streets. Not on the barricades, but in the consciousness and the decision to act.  When enough people decide to take responsibility for their own future, reform happens.

Crazy talk like that is what landed Mr. DeChristopher in a federal prison, spending much of the last month in an 8′ x 10’ isolation cell.  Shortly after I heard him speak, last July he was sentenced to two years behind bars and a $10,000 fine.  At the trial, his defense team wasn’t allowed to tell the jury that dozens of other bidders at BLM auctions have walked away without paying for their parcels over the years and have never been prosecuted for this offense.  (But those bidders, of course, were industry insiders.)  The jury wasn’t allowed to hear that by time of trial Tim had actually raised $80,000 to begin paying for the land he purchased, to buy it outright, but that the offer was rejected on the grounds that the fraud had already occurred.  The jury wasn’t allowed to hear his necessity defense, that he was trying to stop an illegal auction because the BLM wasn’t following its own statutory requirements to assess the impact of the sale on air quality in nearby national monuments.  Tim was not allowed to make any political appeals to the jury.  But his politics were very much taken into account by the judge when it came time for sentencing.  Calling his actual crime “not that bad,” Her Honor Dee V. Benson made it clear that DeChristopher’s “continuing trail of statements” was the real offense for which he was being punished.  In other words, Tim was getting an extra stiff sentence for exercising his First Amendment rights.  Which to my mind makes him a political prisoner pure and simple.

“I have no desire to go to prison,” DeChristopher said at his sentencing, “and any assertion that I want to be even a temporary martyr is false.  I want you to join me in standing up for the right and responsibility of citizens to challenge the government.  I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience.”  Quite a few people seemed to be listening and take those words to heart, for just a few months later over 1200 individuals including Bill McKibben were arrested in Washington, D.C. in an attempt to stop the XL pipeline, the largest direction action in the history of the environmental movement.  They at least slowed the project, which would tap oil from Canada’s massive tar sands and which James Fallon, NASA’s top climate scientist, called “game over” for the planet.  Obama as usual waffled, initially putting the pipeline on hold, then announcing he wants to “fast track” construction of the southern leg through Texas and Oklahoma.  This month, the 99% Spring is hoping to train at least 100,000 Americans in civil disobedience to stop the juggernaut of global warming, and on May 5, International Climate Action Day will bring out citizens on every continent to create pressure for change.

“At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like,” DeChristopher told the court. “In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like.  With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”

Tim’s actions inspire me, sharing as I do this this spiritual heritage of dissent.  From Henry Thoreau to Susan B. Anthony to James Reeb, Unitarian Universalists claim a long history of breaking the law in obedience to a higher authority.  But how far outside your own comfort zone are you willing to go?  How much are you personally willing to risk?  What do our religious principles require of us in defending planet Earth?  Tim’s final words to the judge before being led to prison are a challenge to us all: “The choice you are making is what side are you on.”