The trial of Tim DeChristopher

By Emily Bowers:

A spur-of-the-moment decision to throw a monkey wrench into a 2008 Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leasing auction made Tim DeChristopher an unforeseen leader within the environmental movement.  DeChristopher was found guilty on two felony counts on March 3, 2011 after disrupting the auction in Salt Lake City, Utah.

One outcome of his disruption was the eventual voiding by the Obama administration of most of the leases after improper leasing procedure was discovered on the part of the BLM. Some of those canceled leases included eight parcels surrounding Canyonlands and Arches national parks. You can read more background on Tim’s story in part 1.

After the auction, DeChristopher co-founded Peaceful Uprising, a Utah-based grassroots organization committed to empowering non-violent action for the sake of defending a livable future. In an interview with Whole Terrain, DeChristopher said that although there’s no clear definition for “a livable future,” it would have to be a world in which “we can continue to hold onto our humanity.”

He spoke about the corporate control of government that threatens such a future to crowds at Powershift 2009 and again in 2011 as a keynote speaker. He has rallied crowds at 350.org and climate justice events, educated students at universities across the east coast and empowered environmental groups nationally to rise up against climate and environmental injustice.

One word that audience members use repeatedly after listening to DeChristopher is inspirational, but this doesn’t equate with sugarcoated speeches of naïve hope and false promise. Instead, DeChristopher tends to call it as he sees it, perhaps saying things others wouldn’t.

As he said in his 2011 keynote speech at Powershift 2011, “Sometimes the truth isn’t very nice and it needs to be said anyway.”

He has repeatedly told his audiences that it is likely too late for modern society to take the steps necessary to prevent the collapse of industrial civilization due to the deleterious effects of climate change.

“Right now we don’t have a livable future,” he told Whole Terrain. “We have a very dark, bleak future.”

But the news isn’t all bad. DeChristopher continually emphasizes that we as individuals have the power to direct society in the direction we want if we have the courage to do so.

DeChristopher says civil disobedience is the most effective way to raise awareness about the climate crisis. “[Civil disobedience] reframes the issue,” said DeChristopher. “Rather than saying, ‘Look, climate change is so serious that we are going to see four degrees of temperature rise and we’re going to be at 650 parts per million [of CO2 in the atmosphere],’ it says, ‘Look, it’s so serious, that I’m going to put myself on the line to do something about it.’”

“People who are distant from us, that might only read the newspaper story, they can still blow that off too,” he continued. “They still have that power of denial and can say whatever they want about the person taking action. But for people around us, I think that’s going to have an impact. And I think that’s the kind of movement-building that we need to be doing, is telling our story through our actions—making our actions line up with how serious the crisis is and then inviting others to join us and having that ripple effect in that way.”

He is critical about the hesitancy that he says defines the current climate movement. He attributes this hesitancy, this unwillingness to take loud and drastic actions in protest of climate and environmental injustice, to a fear of the consequences associated with such actions.

“Certainly it’s true that our actions have consequences,” said DeChristopher, referring to climate-centered activism, “But our inactions have huge consequences as well. I think this is a case where our inactions are scarier than our actions—those consequences are bigger.”

DeChristopher’s own motivation for disrupting the oil and gas leasing auction were in part due to the consequences he thought that inaction might carry.

Although afraid of going to jail,  DeChristopher said he’s been scared for his future for a long time, “and scared for something much bigger than spending a few years in prison.”

“I think the scariest thing is to stay on the path that we’re on now, and that doesn’t mean that prison is not scary,” DeChristopher said, “It’s just less scary than the alternative and I think that’s something that more people need to realize in the movement.”

He is equally critical of attempts to usher in sustainability solely by switching to the green brand of consumer supplies when shopping. He said that it takes more than our identity as consumers to change the course of a society.In his November 2009 blog post titled, More Than Consumers, DeChristopher wrote, “To get to a sustainable culture who we are as consumers will have to become a small part of who we are as human beings…then the spiritual void that begs for material consumption begins to be filled by a more human identity.”

When asked for further explanation about the need for a national identity change, DeChristopher pointed to an estimate that Americans see around 3,000 advertisements a day. “So that means that basically 3,000 times a day we are reminded that we are a consumer,” said DeChristopher. “We don’t have nearly as many reminders that we are also citizens of what was once the greatest democracy in the world. We’re also people with the ability to connect to one another and inspire each other through our actions. I think that’s the kind of identity that we need to be building up.”

When asked about some positive indications of change he’s seen in his journey through the past few years, DeChristopher spoke passionately about global signs signaling a return to “people power.” He mentioned revolutions in the Middle East and rallies against government austerity measures.

“I think Egypt was kind of a tipping point, for a lot of the world, in that we saw that people standing together are tremendously powerful and there’s nothing that can stop them,” he said. “I think,especially for our generation, we haven’t seen that before.

“You know, I was born the year that Ronald Reagan took office, and throughout my life we’ve always seen that corporations are powerful and people are weak and that nothing people can do is going to make a difference. That’s been kind of like the paradigm that has defined most of my life and now we’re starting to see that that’s not true, that people, when they stand together courageously, stand on principle, that they can make a difference—that they can rise up against injustice and create the world that they want to see.”

DeChristopher said he was encouraged to hear about tens of thousands of citizens uprising to protest anti-union legislation in Wisconsin early in 2011. “I think that’s what a lot of us have been waiting for a long time,” he said. “We’ve had this sense that the world is not okay, that there are definitely things wrong and there’s got to be something we can do about it. If people would just get together and if people would just start standing up…we could be powerful.”

Originally set for June 23, DeChristopher’s sentence hearing was rescheduled for July 26.

You can visit www.peacefuluprising.org and www.bidder70.org for more information about the organization and Tim DeChristopher’s trial.

Read our interview with DeChristopher here.

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