The first time I saw Tim DeChristopher was on the evening news, December 19, 2008. He was on the sidewalk outside the Salt Lake City offices of the Bureau of Land Management on 400 West and 200 South, having just been released after hours of questioning by BLM officers. They were interrogating him over fraudulent bids he had made on 22,000 acres of land, totaling $1.7 million, during the oil and gas lease auction that had taken place earlier that day. At that moment, he was facing another barrage of questions from the press. It was lightly snowing in the background.
Watching DeChristopher, a college student, come to grips with his newfound celebrity, I remembered something George Orwell had written about Mohandas Gandhi: “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases.”
Not that I’m trying to imply that DeChristopher is a saint. But it was easy to see the passion play in which he was about to be cast, wherein his supporters—environmental activists young and old, local and nationwide—would praise his bravery and conviction, while his critics—bureaucrats and energy-industry representatives—would fling insults, like “eco-terrorist,” in place of arrows. This was all very predictable, so beyond taking in a few news snippets, I tuned out the DeChristopher story at first.
But I continued to hear about him from a few environmental-activist friends. They’d gotten involved with Peaceful Uprising, the group DeChristopher co-founded in the wake of the auction. In late February, they flew out to Washington, D.C., for the Power Shift ’09 Climate Policy Conference, and upon their return, had acquired an evangelical passion for the issue.
In mid-January, on a whim, I attended a public forum at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City about the possible necessity of civil disobedience to combat climate change. I was intrigued because the idea of a public forum on civil disobedience seemed anachronistic to me. As something of a failed activist who has fallen into chronic disillusionment, I couldn’t imagine many people would want to take part in such a conversation. So, I was amazed when I arrived to find standing room only in the main hall, and new arrivals being directed to an overflow room with a live video feed.
The event had obviously struck a chord. It was organized in response to an open letter issued by environmentalist and Deep Economy author Bill McKibben and Kentucky poet and farmer Wendell Berry, who were advocating the nonviolent disruption of the construction of new coal-fired power planets (Al Gore had issued a similar call not long before). In addition to talks by minister and host Tom Goldsmith and former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, Tim DeChristopher was on hand to discuss his personal experiences.
This was the first time that I’d put DeChristopher’s actions in the context of the civil-disobedience tradition, and to see them as more than an anomaly. In 2007, Greenpeace activists occupied a power plant in Kent, England, for several days. In April, dozens of climate-change protesters were arrested at the G-20 summit in London. Last month, 71 protesters were arrested in Copenhagen outside a conference of multi-national energy conglomerates.
Pat Shea, one of DeChristopher’s attorneys, made a similar but more passionate connection upon first meeting DeChristopher. “During the past 30 years, there have been very few clear examples of something that was very important to me in my youth—disciplined, nonviolent civil disobedience that challenges a government activity that is improper or immoral,” he said.
Shea, a former national BLM director, is hardly a radical, but he does strongly believe that civil disobedience is a legitimate form of recourse for citizens against their government. “It’s actually anticipated in the third phrase of the First Amendment, about the right to petition the government. It’s a responsible form of protest, but it is not one to be undertaken lightly. There are real consequences, and it requires serious forethought.”
That requisite seriousness seems to be DeChristopher’s defining characteristic. Far from being a “hippie freak,” DeChristopher, with his neatly shaven head and square jaw, is clean-cut bordering on austere. In my few social encounters with DeChristopher, I’ve found him to be courteous but reserved and maybe a little arrogant. It’s almost impossible, though, to detect any motive behind his actions to undermine the BLM auction other than pure principle. He honestly believed his actions could prevent the extraction of fossil fuels, the consumption of which releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The first time DeChristopher and I were properly introduced was on a rainy day in early April. He was alone, walking across the University of Utah campus en route to speak at a rally for “People Over Profits.” He seemed a bit despondent. Earlier that week, a federal grand jury had indicted him on one count of violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and one count of making false statements to a federal authority. He faces up to 10 years in prison, and $750,000 in fines.
His speech that day was the darkest I’d seen him give—literally, he was backlit and his face was hidden by shadows. But his words were no less stark. “We are probably going to lose the battle for a livable future,” he said. “We are getting down to that crunch time … We’ve got this quickly shrinking window in which to make radical, radical change. And that is something that sets the climate-change movement apart—that there is a deadline, and we may very well fail to meet it. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.’ That might be true. But right now, the arc of the physical universe bends toward extinction.”
It’s a few minutes after noon on a day in late May when I meet DeChristopher outside his house near Sugar House. He and the other residents of the triplex where he lives are cleaning out a shared garage and planting a long row of grapes along a fence. In the driveway sits Sustainable Seamus, a giant paper-m%uFFFDché unicorn constructed by Peaceful Uprising as a visual metaphor for “clean-coal” technology (implying that both are fantasies).
DeChristopher’s hands and clothes show signs of a long morning of gardening. We were scheduled to meet for coffee an hour earlier, but it had slipped his mind. After he and his friend Jessi—whom I have known since high school—briefly show me around, DeChristopher and I retreat to the backyard patio, which looks down on a gully and has a view back into the foothills.
We begin the interview by covering his basic biography: twenty-seven years old, born in West Virginia, grew up mostly in Pittsburgh, Pa. His political and environmental education began early; both parents were active, particularly his mother, who helped start up the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club in 1984.
In 2000, he attended Arizona State University but left after two years, eventually moving to Utah to work for Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, a wilderness-therapy program. He enrolled at the University of Utah in 2007, majoring in economics. He is currently a senior working on a thesis project on alternative metrics for assessing economic wellbeing.
DeChristopher’s activism has ebbed and flowed over the years but, prior to the auction, it was always conventional. At Arizona State, he founded a conservation club that worked with the National Forest Service to build trails and remove invasive plant species. When he came to Utah, he got involved with political student groups that organized letter-writing campaigns and petition drives. Through them, he met with congressional representatives and members of the governor’s office to discuss environmental issues. Occasionally, he’d attend a protest.
DeChristopher often tells the story of receiving a personal apology from environmentalist Terry Root for failing his generation, as a way of explaining how he internalized the threat of climate change. But it was a speech by the leftist writer Naomi Klein at last year’s Bioneers Conference that moved DeChristopher toward more radical action. Klein argued that environmental and economic policy is inherently made from the political center. Thus, if you want to change policy, you have to move the center. DeChristopher meditated on this at great length, concluding that moving the center is not a matter of drawing more people into the coalition but of pushing the boundaries through individual direct action.
This naturally leads the conversation to the topic of the BLM auction.
The BLM typically holds quarterly auctions for energy-development leases on public lands, with each parcel being made available after the agency conducts an in-depth impact study. It’s a process that has attracted a fair amount of controversy over the years, but the haste with which the outgoing Bush administration conducted the impact studies for the December 19 auction (not to mention the unusually large number of parcels being offered and their proximity to some of Utah’s national parks) shocked even long-time auction watchers. Several conservation groups sued to shut down the auction, but a federal court only mandated that the finalization of all sales be postponed until the incoming Obama administration had a chance to review them. The auction itself could proceed.
Louis Godfrey: You’ve said that you went down to BLM office without the intention of registering for the auction, and that the action was spontaneous. At the auction, did you just notice that the security was lax, that anyone could sign up? How did you realize, that, yeah, this could be done?
Tim DeChristopher: I had no experience with these kinds of auctions, so I didn’t know whether the [lack of security] was usual or unusual. It seemed kind of odd to me that I just walked in, and they asked if I would like to be a bidder. There was no background information that they took from me or anything.
LG: So, in a sense, you were able to do this because you had a lack of knowledge about the process?
TDC: Yeah. I suppose somebody who had more familiarity with the process would have thought, “There are normal procedures that are supposed to make sure that bidders are bonded ahead of time, so you figure there is no way to do that.” But, of course, they weren’t following those procedures.
LG: You registered under your own name?
LG: Was it nerve-racking at all?
TDC: The part that was nerve-racking was before I made a firm commitment to go all the way and start winning every parcel, when I was just driving up the cost. I had to pay attention to how the other bidders were acting and to their body language when I bid.
LG: What were your general impressions of the auction?
TDC: It was almost thoughtless and mechanical. There was a very cold feeling to it. There was another woman sitting across the room, another activist who I know, and she actually started crying. Later, she told me it was because the whole thing was just so inhuman …
LG: … Seeing the natural world reduced to plots on a map?
TDC: Yeah. And there was no acknowledgement of the land or of any of the consequences of the actions. It was just this many acres in this county, and that was it, and then a price was assigned.
LG: You have said before that, when you made the decision to win every parcel, a sort of calm came over you, and you gained a level of confidence, almost like you were having a spiritual experience. Can you explain that?
TDC: I think that was because I had firmly chosen my path, and I knew that I was doing as much as I possibly could, and I knew that my actions were in line with my sentiment about how severe this crisis is. Up to that point, I had always felt on some level that this crisis was so huge, and I wasn’t doing enough. That riding my bike and saving energy and writing letters—that I wasn’t really doing enough. And so, at that point, I knew I wasn’t holding anything back. I think that that is where the calm came from.
During a break in the auction, DeChristopher was escorted out of the auction room by BLM officers and taken to an empty office somewhere in the back of the building. DeChristopher was very forthright about his purpose at the auction, and he says the tone of the officers’ questioning was exceedingly polite. He even detected a hint of sympathy from the officers, who were all about his age and who had probably joined the BLM out of a desire to help preserve public lands.
But mostly, the officers seemed confused. Not just about what to do with DeChristopher (they spent a good deal of time that afternoon on the phone with the U.S. Attorney’s Office trying to figure that out), but why a straight-A student with no criminal record would do something like that.
For Henry David Thoreau, the natural world is only properly understood when men do not impose their own purposes upon it.
Thoreau was jailed in Concord Massachusetts on July 23, 1846, for refusing to pay a poll tax. He had refused to pay such a tax for years, objecting to the state of Massachusetts’ passive support of Southern slavery and the Mexican-American war. Thoreau spent one night in jail until, to his chagrin, a relative paid the tax, and he was released.
Recounting the experience in his seminal essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (later re-titled with a phrase Thoreau had coined, “Civil Disobedience”), Thoreau wrote, “If [an injustice] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”
DeChristopher first read Thoreau when he was 17. And, as we discuss it, he concedes that, far from being a selfless act, civil disobedience is derived from a selfish impulse—to extricate one’s self from complicity in corruption. This is true whether it is Thoreau refusing to pay a poll tax or Leo Tolstoy counseling war resisters. At its best, though, civil disobedience can reflect that disobeyer’s aspirations for society as a whole, and can serve as a bond between the individual and society.
When DeChristopher was 18, he read Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. The novel, published in 1975, tells the wild tale of four eco-avenging misfits sabotaging development projects throughout the Western United States, with the law not far behind. If there were a particular genius to DeChristopher’s actions at the auction, it was that, like Abbey’s writings, multiple generations of environmental activists were able to recognize their own idealism in it.
But, DeChristopher has a complicated relationship with the legacy of Edward Abbey. In March, he was invited to take part in a commemoration of Abbey at Ken Sanders Rare Books (Sanders himself was a close friend of Abbey, who died in 1989). DeChristopher talked about the meaning that works like The Fool’s Progress and Beyond The Wall hold for him, but he mostly focused on the differences he has with Abbey.
“There is never really that happy of an ending with Abbey,” he says. “And I think that that is in part because that style of monkey wrenching isn’t very effective at doing anything. And I think that’s part of the point that Abbey was making with his books, that people take this action to make themselves feel better, rather than to really effect change.
“And, actually Ken Sleight [who inspired the character Seldom Seen Smith] talked about some of the monkey wrenching that he and Abbey would do, and it was mainly because they were angry and they needed a way to express that.”
The local media has thoughtlessly branded DeChristopher as a “monkey wrencher” but, according to both Sanders and Sleight, what DeChristopher did at the auction does not fit the definition. Monkey wrenching is pranksterish, destructive, and its goals are limited, none of which fairly describe DeChristopher’s civil disobedience. But, more importantly, monkey wrenching is supposed to be anonymous—the whole point is to not get caught. DeChristopher never tried to evade responsibility for his actions. His very intention was to personally confront authorities by getting arrested.
DeChristopher’s formative years were also spent studying American social movements, some of which included radical action. Of particular interest was the civil rights movement with its lunch-counter sit-ins and interstate Freedom Rides (Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door for negotiation”). The women’s suffrage movement was similarly significant; women picketing at the U.S. Capitol—while commonplace today—was radical enough at the time that police on horseback beat and drove the women away.
There is, however, a fundamental difference between civil disobedience employed by past social movements and civil disobedience regarding climate change. With past movements—whether they were in opposition to Jim Crow laws in the American South, colonial rule in India, or apartheid in South Africa—the civil disobedience reflected a greater opposition by members of an oppressed community. This opposition stemmed from what the political theorist Hannah Arendt called, “The simple and frightening fact that [the people engaged in disobedience] had never been in included in the original consensus universalis—the tacit social compact—of [their respective governments].” Because of this initial exclusion, individuals felt that they had the right to deny the validity of the compact, to essentially withdraw from it, and force society to amend it.
With climate change, the civil disobeyers do not deny the validity of the social compact. But they see that action, or lack of action, by the state threatens the long-term survival of that compact, and of society itself. This model of civil disobedience, rather than being a withdrawal, is actually an engagement—a plea for more and different intervention by the state.
This is not to say that climate-change-related civil disobedience is less morally legitimate than past civil-disobedience movements, because assessing the legitimacy of any act of civil disobedience is necessarily a retroactive process.
Eminent legal scholars such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin have tried to formulate what preconditions must be met to justify the use of civil disobedience—the action must “defend the principles of justice,” or it must be in defiance of a law that “wrongly invades upon one’s rights against the government” (respectively). But none of that can erase the fact that when someone breaks the law, they forfeit an assumed legitimacy and the morality of their actions becomes relative. Animal-rights activists freeing minks from a fur farm, ATV enthusiasts riding en masse on restricted federal lands—one person’s civil disobedience is another person’s criminal activity.
Why Societies Need Dissent, lawyer Cass Sunstein (now the regulatory czar for the Obama administration) convincingly points out that the moral legitimacy of civil-disobedience actions are judged, historically speaking, not only by the breadth of support they receive from various communities but by the number of people who are compelled to emulate those actions. In order for one’s own civil disobedience to be proved legitimate, it must inspire others to take similar risks.
This presents a problem for DeChristopher and the climate-change movement. Previous movements were fueled by the immediacy of the injustice that they were fighting; that the injustice was a palpable part of daily life. The injustice of climate change is not yet felt in that visceral way. It remains an abstraction and, even though it is with great certainty, a prediction.
Wendell Berry, speaking over the phone, described what detriment he can already see befalling his Kentucky farmland: “I live on the Kentucky River, which heads back up into the coal-mining country of Appalachia. For some reason, the willows have all died off along the river. Something is happening to this river before it gets to my place. So, if you begin to see a thing that is no longer making it possible for willows to live, you have to start to wonder if it is going to make it no longer possible for humans to live.”
Berry believes that our modern disconnect from the natural world and the sources of our economy are the real diseases that produce the symptom of climate change. “But, the death of willows, let alone the melting of ice caps, is not penetrating the consciousness. It’s not in our educational curriculum.”
After Berry co-authored the open letter with Bill McKibben advocating civil disobedience, the pair helped organize Capitol Climate Action, which, on March 2, 2009, blocked the main gate of a coal-fired power plant in Washington, D.C. All in attendance fully expected to be arrested, but police decided not to move in.
This illustrates a particular mechanical problem with civil disobedience against climate change. Not only does the disobeyer have to find an appropriate target, but he or she also has to be incarcerated to focus public attention on the problem. (When you think about it, this makes DeChristopher’s action all the more remarkable.)
“It was pretty much symbolic, and the police refused to cooperate,” Berry says with a slight drawl and a chuckle. “It was supposed to go according to a script—we cross a line and then submit to arrest. But the police would not play along, so we were left with the option of climbing over the fence [onto the actual grounds of the plant], which would have been larceny. And it would have been an act of violence.”
That last line is prescient one. Civil disobedience is, by every definition, going back to Thoreau, nonviolent. But a strict definition of what does and does not constitute violent action has never been arrived at.
TDC: I never think we should be sacrificing our humanity to protect our civilization, and I think that is what violence does. And I think it makes us less able to deal with the kind of future that we are going to have. Even if we take all the steps we need to avoid catastrophic climate change, we are still going to have a lot of changes, and we are still running out of resources. So, our hyper-individualistic kind of world that we are living in right now—where we never need to rely on anyone else—that’s going to change. We’re going to go back to a world where we have to rely on each other, where we need our friends, and our neighbors, and our families.
LG: Would you include property destruction as a violent action?
TDC: You know, I just heard someone quote Martin Luther King Jr. the other day, [something to the effect] that there is no way to commit violence against a nonliving object. But for me, I think it kind of depends on the situation. I certainly don’t think we should go around blowing things up or burning things down.
LG: But, you do think there is sort of a gray area there?
TDC: Well, I mean, some people would say costing a company profits is property destruction. And I certainly don’t think that that is true. There are certainly people who see it that way, but I think that that is a really distorted view.
Tim DeChristopher’s example forces us to reconsider what we think about climate change.
CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere have increased by 100-parts-per-million since the mid-18th century, and are on pace to increase by 100-ppm more by 2050. Each incremental rise in CO2 levels corresponds with a rise in the Earth’s average temperature (a 1 degree increase since 1900; a possible 5 degrees by 2050). As temperatures increase, oceans will become more acidic, violent storms will increase, droughts will become prolonged, and the Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves will continue to erode. If those ice shelves collapse, it could raise sea levels between 10 and 20 feet, displacing hundreds of millions of people. The strain this would place on governments and resources could plunge the world into unending violent conflict.
If we accept the science, then we essentially believe as DeChristopher does, that climate change is an existential threat to our civilization, and that we currently stand at a tipping point where strong action must be taken to avert catastrophe. If we believe this, then the question isn’t just, “What should we do?” Or, “What are the limits of what we can do?” The question is, what are we compelled to do?
That question consumes the collective mental energies of Peaceful Uprising.
The origins of Peaceful Uprising lie with a few activists who gravitated towards DeChristopher to support him after the auction. The idea was to create a support system for those who engage in individual direct action against climate change. When DeChristopher attended Power Shift ’09 with a number of fellow university students, the core of the group expanded to about 30 people. The group has gained national recognition, working closely with other environmental groups around the country, including the Energy Action Coalition (EAC).
Peaceful Uprising is not a member of the “environmental lobby,” like the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) or the Sierra Club. Nor does it reject politics outright, like the Earth Liberation Front.
The group has no guiding ideology and no formal structure, no assigned leaders, no elected officers—only a few amorphous subcommittees that tackle specific projects and report back to the whole.
The first Peaceful Uprising meeting I attended was in early April—Jessi, DeChristopher’s friend, invited me—and it was held at DeChristopher’s house. Twenty-plus people crammed into his living room, sitting on couches, stools and other makeshift chairs. In the center of the room was a coffee table with a bowl of grapes and several back issues of The Nation.
Members of a subcommittee (I promised not to use any names) reported that they had met with U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson that morning to discuss the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES). The bill—which is known in shorthand as Waxman-Markey, after its two Democratic sponsors, Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts—was about to be taken up by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on which Matheson sits. Those who met with Matheson said that, while he did not waver in his support of clean-coal technology (which proposes to sequester CO2 emissions in underground chambers), he did seem open to most of the group’s concerns about the bill.
“So, you don’t see any need for us to take the hard road here,” DeChristopher asked, likely referring to the idea of a hunger strike he had floated in the “People Over Profits” speech a few days earlier.
“No,” several of the subcommittee members said.
Most of the debate over climate-change legislation has focused on whether a straight carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system would be more effective in reducing emissions. Under a cap-and-trade system (which is almost certain to prevail at this point), total emissions are limited by government-issued permits, which are either freely distributed or sold at auction and can then be sold or traded amongst polluters themselves. This, in theory, creates a market to determine the price of emissions, and, as fewer permits are made available over time, encourages reductions.
Peaceful Uprising generally favors a direct carbon-pricing mechanism, which is like a tax. However, they are not necessarily opposed to cap-and-trade as long as nearly 100 percent of the emission permits are auctioned off. This, they argue, will not only fairly price carbon, but it will assert that the climate is a public commons, not a private commodity. A 100 percent auction is not a pie-in-the-sky idea per se, but it was never part of the Waxman-Markey conversation, either.
The group also insists upon a strong renewable-energy standard, which the original Waxman-Markey bill approached, with a mandate for 25 percent renewable energy by 2020.
Overall, the bill was not thrilling, but the group felt they could tentatively support most of its provisions at that time.
As for advocacy tactics, the discussion stuck strictly to the conventional. Letter-writing campaigns and video e-mails were batted around, but what was settled upon was a rapid-response phone tree. Peaceful Uprising would recruit friends, family and community members to phone Matheson’s D.C. offices at specific times, delivering targeted messages related to the bill’s progress.
When the ACES hearings opened up on April 21, Peaceful Uprising members were glued to C-Span. The next afternoon, they came through with about 50 phone calls urging Matheson to support the construction of a nationwide smart energy grid. Two weeks later, they placed nearly 300 calls in a single afternoon, begging Matheson to support limits on permit exchanges under the bill’s cap-and-trade framework. The EAC said it was the single largest number of calls to any one representative organized by a single group in their network. Matheson publicly said he had never before seen such a committed public-lobbying effort.
But the effect was negligible. The committee continued to hear testimony from CEOs, union leaders, scientists and economists—all arguing that key provisions in the draft bill would be detrimental to the U.S. economy and its workforce. Republicans and moderate Democrats, including Matheson, chiseled away at the offending provisions over the course of the bill’s markup.
“There really is no limit to the phrase ‘money talks,’” said one Peaceful Uprising member, who traveled to D.C. for the hearings.
The final draft of the bill, which has now passed through the House and awaits consideration in the Senate, calls for a cap-and-trade system, where nearly 85 percent of emission permits will be freely distributed (meaning only about 15 percent will be auctioned). The renewable-energy standard was lowered to 15 percent by 2020, but that can be offset in various ways, meaning that realistically only about 9 percent of energy will have to come from renewables over the next decade. The bill passed out of committee by a 33 to 25 vote. The full House vote was 219 to 212. Matheson voted against in both instances.
As watered-down as the bill has become, it is hard to deny that it does represent a policy shift towards the regulation of carbon emissions. Both Al Gore and the big environmental groups have urged passage of the bill, and President Obama has signaled that he will sign it.
But Peaceful Uprising was outraged by how the bill evolved, decrying it on the group’s blog as a dangerous half-measure. DeChristopher, for his part, seemed to know from the start that the group’s efforts were not going to be enough. The frustration was visible on his face at the Peaceful Uprising meeting.
TDC: Certainly we are not doing enough, because we are still losing (chuckle). You know, the bill that is working through Congress, though, is not going to protect our future. And I think that this bout of playing by the rules has taught a lot of people in the organization something.
We played very hard by the rules, and yet, it clearly wasn’t enough. Jim Matheson wouldn’t even show up to the hearings. And, all indications of what he did behind closed doors were that he did a lot to weaken the bill and give more handouts to the fossil-fuel industry. And, what he was saying after he voted “no” on the bill anyway was the exact same stuff he was saying after the draft bill was written in March. It’s like he wasn’t even paying attention.
LG: The bill may be far from perfect, but it may also be the extent of what is politically possible right now. Is it possible to get a bill you would consider adequate?
TDC: Not with the tactics that we are using right now. I don’t think there is any way that we can get a really adequate climate bill without jail cells being full of young people fighting for their future, and old people fighting for their children’s future. I think it would take something on the order of a national student strike to make that happen. And, I think a lot of the other groups out there think that that is impossible, or they aren’t willing to take those types of actions. And so, they say this is the best that we can get.
But, I interject, it was those other groups, like NRDC and the Sierra Club that, through lobbying and lawsuits, pressured the new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to invalidate the results of the BLM auction. DeChristopher rejects this argument, saying that those lawsuits did not put any real pressure on the Obama administration, but this comes off as an emotional argument rather than a factual one.
A few weeks later, in late May, I attended a second Peaceful Uprising meeting—this time at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City—to discuss how to respond to the final version of Waxman-Markey. On the agenda was everything from organizing teach-ins on climate change to the possibility of direct action, and even civil disobedience, demanding that the bill be scrapped and replaced.
Newcomers dominated the meeting, with only a few core members in attendance. The free-flowing single-mindedness that defined the previous meeting evaporated at the start. The newcomers shoved aside the agenda with questions about the group’s structure, ideology and issues only loosely related to climate change. But, more disconcerting for core members was that newcomers felt the need to raise their hands and be called on before they spoke.
“It was a learning experience for us,” DeChristopher said. “We had never before had a meeting where people had felt the need to raise their hand [to speak]. And, afterwards, some of us realized that we are not trying to breed obedience, you know, we are not trying to teach people that they need to be called upon. (laugh)
“What we are trying to teach people is that if they feel this passionate about the issue, they need to stand up and take action on it.”
Teaching disobedience is something of a contradiction in terms, though. Disobedience is not an intellectual exercise but a physical expression of the sentiment in one’s heart. And, for most members of Peaceful Uprising, it is not clear to them what exactly is in their hearts. The group defines itself strictly in terms of what they are not—the closest thing they have to a mission statement is that they are willing to do what the other environmental groups won’t.
Activism, particularly when it comes to climate change, is often derided as a form of secular religion. This is a crude assertion, but not a totally unfair one. Activism is not a religion, but it does require faith—faith not just in the righteousness of one’s cause, but in one’s ability to take meaningful action, to change the minds of others, to influence a process that is so much bigger than the self.
Activists, particularly young activists, seem to be drawn to DeChristopher because they see him as confirmation of that faith. He shows that it is possible to set aside one’s privileged background and concern for security and take direct and meaningful action. It’s a faith I recognize, because I myself was once an aspiring activist. While attending a small liberal arts college in upstate New York in the early ‘00s, I helped organize anti-war demonstrations and plan a civil-disobedience action on an Army base in Georgia.
“What I faced when I was there in the auction,” DeChristopher says, “was this choice … of taking the action that I did and disrupting the auction, or being complicit … in this destruction of our land, destruction of our democracy, and the destruction of our climate. And that is something we want to show in the trial, that climate change presents such a serious threat to our future that it creates a moral imperative that is higher than just following the law as it exists.”
Pat Shea has elaborated on this strategy, noting that it is called the “necessity” or “lesser-evil” defense and that it has a long history in American jurisprudence. “A crucial question will be: Was the danger presented imminent? Most courts have defined “imminent” as in the next second, or immediately life-threatening,” Shea says. “But, when you are talking geological time [as is the case with climate change], a month, six months, a year is imminent.”
U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman, aside from a few platitudes about preserving the rule of law, has not stated publicly why his office decided to press charges against DeChristopher. Punishing civil disobedience is not like punishing other crimes. Not only is the question of deterrence much more complicated, but punishing civil disobeyers means making a political judgment about where the real breach of justice occurred. Did the fraud lie in DeChristopher’s false bids or in the auction process itself?
Punishment also poses questions for the disobeyer: Are disobeyers required to submit to the court’s verdict? Or does submitting to punishment only confer legitimacy on the laws the disobeyer broke? DeChristopher does not seem especially interested in delving into this except to explain the conclusion he has reached in his own mind.
TDC: You know, that was the choice I was making at the time. Because I knew there would be serious consequences. I figured that I would most likely go to prison.
LG: Even then, as you were spontaneously taking this action, you knew that?
TDC: Yeah, I realized that at the time. And the decision that I made at the time was that I can live with the consequences of going to prison, but I really can’t live knowing that I had an opportunity to avoid this unprecedented human suffering that we are on track for and that I didn’t take it.
LG: You would be separated from all of this [I wave my hand at his back yard, his house, the gully below and the distant mountains], and you are at peace with that?
LG: But aren’t you doing violence against yourself? Couldn’t you be doing more good—with your media-savvy and organizing skills—out of prison?
TDC: The most powerful effect I can have is to speak with my own life and to speak with my own example. No one can be a leader and hold back in what they are willing to do. If I was going to say, “Well, I’m really good at speaking to the media, so I shouldn’t have to be the one to go to prison—so I’m going to find other people to make that sacrifice.” If I were to say that, then I wouldn’t be a leader anymore.
LG: Do you ever, in private, have any doubts?
TDC: Not in regard to my own actions. The only dark moments of doubt that I have are whether people will really stand up and take the action that we need to.
LG: So you are totally resolved?
The last part of our exchange hangs there, as the interview ends and DeChristopher shows me back around to the front of the house. It continued to bother me as I climbed into my pickup truck and pulled away from his house, spewing more CO2 into the atmosphere.
And, it bothers me now as I write this. The Catholic theologian Thomas Merton wrote, “Faith means doubt.” For persons of conscience—saintly or secular—doubt is a necessity. It is the test—different in each case, but always essentially the same in nature—that Orwell wrote of.
If members of Peaceful Uprising are looking to DeChristopher for confirmation of their faith, there are others, like me, who look for confirmation of their doubt. It is probable, if not likely, that some Peaceful Uprising members will carry out acts of civil disobedience in the future. But, those actions alone won’t be effective enough to bestow legitimacy on the enterprise as whole. In order for that to happen, they need others, many others, to be inspired to take similar actions. They need people like me. But, after all the questions raised here—about acting within the system versus acting outside it, about what nonviolence means, about what constitutes an imminent necessity, etc.—how can one not have doubts about taking those actions?
And therein lies the problem. On an intellectual level, I can understand and defend DeChristopher’s actions at the auction. But I cannot see myself performing them.