On December 19, 2008, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Tim DeChristopher raised paddle #70 at a Bureau of Land Management auction, bidding against oil and gas companies in the leasing of Utah’s public lands—many of them situated adjacent to cherished Canyonlands National Park. Bidding started at $2 an acre and at first DeChristopher raised his paddle simply to keep the public’s heritage from going so cheaply. Then he started winning leases.
When officials realized he was not a legitimate bidder—e.g., he didn’t represent an oil or gas company, nor did he have the means to pay for the leases he had won—the auction erupted into chaos and was stopped. Tim was arrested and eventually found guilty of two felony charges: violation of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and making false statements—even though the auction he disrupted was subsequently ruled illegal.
On July 26, 2011, DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in a federal prison, a $10,000 fine, and three years of supervised probation. Before receiving his sentence, however, DeChristopher was permitted to make a statement to the court. His impassioned speech ended by telling Judge Dee Benson, “This is what love looks like.” He was then sentenced, handcuffed, and taken away.
DeChristopher grew up in an activist’s household. His mother helped to organize grassroots opposition to the coal industry’s plans for mountaintop removal mining in rural West Virginia, where they lived. Later the family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where DeChristopher attended a private preparatory school before choosing Arizona State University for his undergraduate education. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, the family vacationed in the wilderness. Once, when a teenaged DeChristopher wanted to “stop the world” to figure things out, his mother suggested he head back to the Otter Creek Wilderness, in the Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia, where the family had spent several vacations. DeChristopher spent eight days alone in the wild—an experience so powerful he credits it with his “formation as an individual.” It also led to an early career choice to work as a wilderness guide for at-risk and troubled youth in Utah.
His work with teens led DeChristoper to conclude that “the kids were all right”; the problem was an economic and political system that concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a few, while doing little to nothing to meet the needs of people in poverty or otherwise vulnerable. He transferred to the University of Utah in 2005 to study economics. In 2008 he attended the University’s Stegner Symposium, where Dr. Terry Root, a scientist for the International Panel on Climate Change, presented the IPCC’s latest findings. Afterwards, DeChristopher confronted her about a graph she had presented showing the possible emission scenarios for the 21st Century. The graph showed no scenario in which all the worst-case consequences could be avoided, yet Root had not made this point clear to the audience. When challenged about this, Dr. Root put her hand on DeChristopher’s shoulder and said, “I am so sorry, but my generation failed yours.” Like acid, those words ate their way through his consciousness; he realized that the future he hoped for, in the world he loved, had already been foreclosed.
That December, when the controversial BLM auction of Utah public lands got under way, DeChristopher finished his last final exam and took TRAX to the protest that SUWA (Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) and others had organized outside of the auction. Upon arrival, he decided that the protest needed to be moved from outside to inside. With no prior plan of action, he entered the building, approached the registration desk, and was asked if he was there to bid. He made an instantaneous decision, registering as Bidder #70.
DeChristopher was released from prison on April 21, 2013, and began touring the country with the documentary made about his activism: Bidder #70. In September, DeChristopher entered Harvard Divinity School—a move he sees as an extension of his activism, not a new direction, pointing out that history’s most successful resistance movements have often been spiritually based—from Gandhi’s “satyagraha,” or “soul force” movement to convince the British to leave India, to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the civil rights movement, to the Berrigan brothers’ anti-war activism. “I think the environmental movement has missed the boat to some extent by failing to incorporate spiritual values,” he says.
He spoke with The MOON by phone on two occasions.
Goodman: Your mother was an activist against mountaintop mining of coal in West Virginia, and your father was an engineer in the natural gas industry. Please tell us how your upbringing influenced your own environmental ethos and activism.
DeChristopher: Growing up in rural West Virginia my family shared a lot of experiences in the outdoors. As a family we took backpacking trips through various parts of the country, which steeped me in love for the environment and the desire to protect it. But I also took in a lot of activist values, primarily from my mother. My mom was an activist against mountaintop coal mining and she taught me that ordinary people need to play a role in society. They need to stand up against injustice, and even though they’re outside the organized power structure, they still need to exercise power in their own ways—by making their voices heard. I saw that demonstrated in her environmental activism, and also in her involvement in educational issues. That had a big effect on me.
Goodman: What sort of activities did she engage in that made an impression on you?
DeChristopher: She showed a lot of initiative in helping to found the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and in battling the coal companies in the early days of mountaintop removal. I remember being dragged to a lot of community events that were held to develop relationships and trust among the activists involved. I also saw the way she got involved in educational issues and the way she always represented herself in an honest way. She was willing to express anger or outrage if that’s what she was feeling. She didn’t shy away from strong emotions—which influenced my own activism when I got engaged later on. The conventional wisdom on the left is that you don’t show anger and outrage. Those are “negative” emotions, and the conventional wisdom says that we should focus on the positive and express optimism—regardless of whether that’s the truth about how we’re feeling. I was willing to reject that “wisdom” on the basis of my mother’s example. In fact, I got tremendous positive response from other activists when I expressed my anger and outrage—because they were feeling the same way. They had been led to feel that there was something wrong with them—that they were less evolved people—because they were angry. But these are very genuine and appropriate emotions for the environmental situation we find ourselves in.
Goodman: I understand that Alice Paul, the women’s suffragette, has also been an inspiration to you. Why, in particular, does her example motivate you?
DeChristopher: She absolutely is an inspiration because I see her example as very timely and relevant to the environmental movement now. Alice Paul came into the women’s suffrage movement at a time when her predecessors had done a lot of education. They’d spent decades reaching out to the public, but not being especially confrontational. They were sort of begging for the rights. In many cases they even used self-deprecating arguments to try to “be given” the right to vote. Although they’d won lukewarm support, they hadn’t made many tangible gains when Alice Paul got involved in 1914. She rose to leadership by saying, “We shouldn’t be begging for our rights; we should be demanding our rights.” She saw the need to pressure those in power—even by being confrontational; in fact, specifically by being confrontational. She organized acts of civil disobedience, which the police reacted to by arresting the women, beating them up, and abusing them in prison. Alice Paul responded by leading a hunger strike. The net result was a pretty shocking portrayal of the reality of power politics in this country. This strategy eliminated the middle ground that a lot of Americans were hanging out in—the perspective that “Yes, women should get some more rights, some day; not necessarily now.” By eliminating that middle ground, the suffragists forced people to take sides: do you favor voting rights for women now, or do you favor continued subjugation of and violence against women?
As it turned out, the majority of Americans favored granting women’s rights immediately—and the movement even achieved the substantive victory of a constitutional amendment within just a few years—when that goal had seemed unattainable at the early part of that decade.
The environmental movement today is at the same point, I believe. For decades environmentalists have been educating the public and bringing a lot of people into sort of a comfortable middle. Most Americans now understand environmental issues in a way that they didn’t in the ‘60s or early ‘70s—to the point that many agree that we should have clean water, and clear air, and we should do something about greenhouse gas emissions at some point, and we should slowly wean ourselves off of fossil fuels at some point. But if we did force people into a choice between a serious and immediate shift away from fossil fuels and continued violence against children—which is what climate change really is, the continued denial of options and rights to future generations—I think people would come down on the side of an immediate shift away from fossil fuels. Environmentalists just have to decide that we’re willing to take that chance.
Certainly there have been social movements in our history that have taken the risk of confrontation and polarization, and lost. The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) is a classic case in point. They pushed the boundaries, created that confrontation, and got slaughtered. Either they didn’t do a good enough job of making their case to the public, or the public just wasn’t ready to accept what they stood for. So they were crushed, without much in the way of consequences for the powers that crushed them.
I do appreciate the work of my predecessors in the environmental movement. Because of it I think we are ready to push harder. This movement didn’t just start yesterday, with a radical message coming out of nowhere. I think because of the groundwork that has been laid, we have a chance at winning a larger stake—now that the stakes are so high.
Goodman: You’ve said that your family valued intellect and logic, rather than spirituality, and instilled in you no form of religion. Yet here you are, in divinity school. What path have you followed to arrive at your own spirituality?
DeChristopher: My spiritual path has largely been Christianity—a label that I embraced and then rejected and have partially embraced again, as my understanding of Christianity has changed over time. When I accepted the mainstream, dogmatic definition of Christianity there came a point when I had to say, “Well, if that’s what a Christian is, I’m not one.”
Goodman: Why? What were the objectionable aspects of the definition?
DeChristopher: I don’t read the Bible as the literal word of God; I don’t view Jesus as a God. I’ve rejected both those statements. I view Jesus as a model for how we should live, and by that definition I do consider myself a Christian. It wasn’t until I started reading the history of religion that I understood that the definition of Christianity has shifted in many different directions over time, and the mainstream view today certainly doesn’t have any exclusive ownership of what being a Christian means. Realizing that freed me to use the terminology without needing to be tied down to it. In other words, I don’t necessarily think it matters whether other people would define me as a Christian or not. I think that’s part of why I ended up finding my spiritual home in the Unitarian Universalist Church, which cares less about labels and respects the individual’s search for truth. That tolerance empowered me to continue my own search for spiritual truth without worrying about whether I fit into other people’s religious definitions or dogmas.
Goodman: Spiritual people frequently advise me that “what you resist persists.” Therefore, we’re not to resist war; or environmental assault; or other injustices we see occurring. Certainly we don’t want to strengthen that which I hope to overcome, so how does one go about it? What do you see as the appropriate role for spirituality in politics?
DeChristopher: Spirituality has to play an important role, particularly in resistance movements. The institutions we are fighting against—corporations and governments—use alienation as one of their primary weapons. A big part of their messaging is intended to make people feel separated from each other, which disempowers them, which makes them ever easier to exploit. I started to see that this is really a spiritual weapon they are using. It isolates people and breaks their spirit. Isolated people feel more dependent upon their consumer role because they’ve been broken apart from their other roles in society—as family members, community members, and members of the human race. So it’s absolutely vital that we counteract that by reminding people of their spiritual connections—to each other and to the planet. If we’re going to resist the forces of alienation it has to involve some sort of spiritual resistance.
We fight against isolation and alienation by building communities. Religious communities have historically been designed to counteract the forces of alienation. That’s why so many successful social movements have relied upon the strength of spiritual communities and a large base of their organizing has been through them. The climate movement in particular, but other progressive movements of the past generation as well, has lacked that spiritual basis.
The environmental movement has spent a generation focusing only on expediency and really becoming detached from our shared values. Its leaders of the last thirty years have failed to articulate a coherent worldview and, instead, have focused only on what was necessary to take the next step or to win a particular environmental battle. So we’ve lost those shared principles that could bring us together as a movement and remind people what it is we’re fighting for.
Goodman: How would you articulate those values, or build a spiritually-based environmental movement?
DeChristopher: I actually spent a lot of time wrestling with this issue, as initially I wanted to include the non-human world in my spiritual values to the extent I include other humans. But I came to the conclusion that that isn’t the truth of how I feel. My values are primarily motivated by love for other people. I value the non-human world in large part because it’s so vital to human beings. Even my appreciation for wilderness grows out of an understanding of how important wilderness can be for people—because it was so important for my own positive development. Wilderness offers us a space to think freely apart from other influences; it enables us to develop our own ideas and character. I don’t, however, think a worship of nature is necessary to mount a really strong defense of the environment.
Peaceful Uprising, the organization I helped to create after the auction, developed a good set of principles, or values, upon which to build a spiritually based environmental movement. They don’t call them spiritual values, but I think they are. They include things like respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every individual; recognizing that our human stories are immensely powerful and need to be shared with the world; refusing to be obedient to injustice; recognizing that nonviolence is the most effective means of creating a just and healthy world, and so on. (The complete list is on the website: http://www.peacefuluprising.org/about/peaceful-uprisings-core-principles)
The Unitarian Universalist Church is another institution that is organized around principles, rather than dogma or hierarchy. Their principles include things like the inherent worth and dignity of every person; affirming and promoting justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; affirming and promoting a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. These principles guide the church and are very much in alignment with my principles, as well, which is why I found my spiritual home in the Unitarian Universalist Church.
I think that a large reason for the contentious political debate in our country derives from differing views of human nature—for example the difference between how conservatives and progressives view the poor. Progressives are more likely to recognize the institutional factors that have contributed to their poverty—from lack of education to lack of capital, discrimination and other forms of oppression, and so on. Conservatives are more likely to blame poverty on character flaws: the poor are lazy, irresponsible, or stupid; in other words, bad people. Progressives have a more positive view of human nature that says no one is destined to be poor because of their nature.
For a long time, conservatism was simply an awareness of, and cautiousness regarding, human depravity. I think that shifted in the 1940s and ‘50s when conservatives actually started celebrating it. The philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, is the first that I’m aware of—other than Satanism—that actually celebrated human selfishness, greed, and pride. Before that, there had been a recognition that these traits were sins. In a lot of belief systems these were the most fundamental sins—the root of all others. Before Rand, conservatism recognized the shortcomings of our attempts to do good in the world, but Rand said, in effect, “Since we so often fall short in our attempts to do good, we should just accept who we are and make the most of it.” Greed and selfishness were her path to a better world.
In climate change we see the ultimate difference between these two world views. Conservatives refuse to address the issue, while progressives say that it’s not just about shifting our energy sources; we have to make drastic changes in the structure of our economy, as well. We need to reject not only outdated fossil-fuel technology, but also an outdated economic system and an outdated corporatist political system. The progressive view is that we are smart enough and ethical enough to not have to be subservient to corporations. We can create our own resilient, localized communities.
A lot of conservatives might think we’re smart enough to come up with the technology to save ourselves, but they’re not willing to let go of the current economic and political structure that has led to the current situation—because they don’t necessarily have the positive view of human morality. So I think there’s a spectrum of belief—with complete human depravity on one end, to a view that humans are smart but not necessarily good in the middle, to the view that we are both smart and ethical enough to create a world in line with our shared view of morality, as well.
Goodman: I guess I have some resistance to the notion that we can wean ourselves from fossil fuels and still have access to all the amenities we currently enjoy. In my view, that’s not possible—as it would take an estimated five Earths for everyone on the planet to “enjoy” an American lifestyle. And, unfortunately, there aren’t five Earths; there’s only one. And even if it were true that some future technology could solve our energy problems, perhaps we shouldn’t be allowed to discover and develop it yet because the Earth can’t sustain us consuming her at any faster rate.
DeChristopher: I definitely reject the notion that meeting our needs and maintaining the current American lifestyle are the same things. There’s a huge difference between being able to feed ourselves and keep the lights on versus maintaining people’s second and third five-thousand-square-foot homes, driving SUVs down the block, and sitting in traffic alone in our cars for two hours every day to get to and from work. But the good news is that the latter lifestyle doesn’t, by and large, contribute to quality of life. Excess consumption doesn’t make people happy. We can continue to provide for our needs, but we can’t continue the endless pursuit of ever more consumer goods. There is no energy source that can provide enough consumer goods to meet our human and emotional needs; there never has been, and that’s why it’s been such a fruitless pursuit. That’s why there is such alienation, depression, and despair in our society—because the means we’re employing doesn’t lead to the ends we desire, no matter how hard we work, nor how much “stuff” we accumulate.
Goodman: Before you were sentenced you told the judge who presided over your case, “This is what love looks like.” Please tell us what you meant by that and what the judge’s reaction was.
DeChristopher: What I meant is that civil disobedience—the willingness to stand in the way of injustice and put oneself on the line—is an act of love. That was at the end of a very long statement, which folks seem to remember only the tail end of: “This is what hope looks like; this is what patriotism looks like; this is what love looks like.” It is actually a line I stole from a speech Chris Hedges gave when he was getting arrested outside of the White House in 2010 or 2011. The rest of the speech explained how I’d reached that conclusion; how we’d gotten to the point that hope, patriotism and love had to take on the mask of civil disobedience because other methods of communication had not worked.
The judge’s reaction to my speech was nothing. That was his reaction to me throughout the trial. He never said anything in response to anything I said. He followed my statement with about a half-hour speech of his own on the rule of law; but he said nothing in response to anything I had said. I was prepared for him to interrupt me the whole time I was talking, because my lawyers had warned me that he might jump in and ask me questions, and there would be an opportunity for dialogue. But the judge didn’t do that. In his sentencing statement he said I was an enigma; that he really didn’t understand me. The irony was that he had never once tried to understand me. In all the times we had spent in the courtroom together, in his chambers together, throughout the two-year period of pre-trail motions and proceedings, and finally the trial, he had never asked me a single question. So the fact that I was an enigma was an outcome he had committed himself to from the beginning. He never had any intention of understanding me. As I mentioned in my statement to the court, he had also never looked me in the eye. I interpreted that to mean that he didn’t want to have to acknowledge my humanity, because it would have made his job harder. That seemed to be a conscious decision on his part because it was so purposefully executed; he never allowed himself to look me in the eye.
To my mind, if the people in our judicial system can’t recognize the humanity of the people whose fates they are deciding and still do their jobs, it means that our judicial system is inhumane by definition. If you can’t see people as people and still exercise justice, then our system must not exercise justice. Even Benson must have recognized that what he was doing in my case was inhumane because looking me in the eye would have made it harder for him to do it.
Goodman: What was prison like?
DeChristopher: It was a pretty reflective environment. A lot of my day was made up of walking, reading, having conversations with people. As an introvert, I really enjoyed that aspect of it—having a lot of time for reflection. I found that the people I met in prison were pretty much like the people I meet outside of prison. They were across the spectrum: some were nice; some had difficult personalities; some were outgoing; some were shy. I found that was one of the consequences of mass incarceration. We have an order of magnitude more people incarcerated today than we did a generation ago. That hasn’t happened because of some dramatic change in human nature, but because laws have been changed under lobbying pressure from the private prison industry that allows us to lock up normal people for much longer periods than before.
Goodman: You’ve said that “All these people are worrying about how to keep me out of prison, but I feel like the goal should be to get other people in prison. How do we get more people to join me?”If our incarceration rates continue, you might get your wish: we might all be in prison with you.
DeChristopher: That was not my most articulate statement—that more people should be willing to risk prison—but I don’t mean necessarily that more people need to go to jail. First, there is a huge difference between people choosing to go to prison to resist injustice, and people who are locked-up because they got caught with drugs. The latter is an attack on liberty, while the former is a conscious exercise of liberty. My comment was intended solely for climate activists.
I think the people fighting climate change need to be willing to risk their comfort. For some people that may mean risking jail. For others it might mean risking their jobs, or their reputations. There are many kinds of risks out there. My point is not to elevate jail time over other kinds of risk; it’s an acknowledgement that it’s really hard to change the world when your first priority is making sure that the little world around yourself doesn’t change. People need to be willing to let go of their immediate security if we’re really going to strive for a different world.
Getting arrested has become sort of a mainstream tactic of the climate change movement, with the result that we’re seeing what I call “photo opportunity” civil disobedience. People have celebrated getting arrested without thinking about the full impact of their civil disobedience; in other words, what happens AFTER you get arrested. We’ve got some activists in the movement that have been arrested and are now facing trials on felony charges. By and large the movement that has recently embraced civil disobedience hasn’t considered their strategy beyond arrest—with the result that those activists are facing felony trials without the support of the movement. They’ve gone on to face the consequences of their actions, but the movement hasn’t kept pace with them.
In my case, a lot of the value of my civil disobedience—the part that got people’s attention—was well after my arrest. When I got taken into custody by the police, no one knew who I was. All of the potential for movement-building and public education happened well after the point of arrest.
Goodman: Part of what was so compelling about what you did was that it was so creative; it was so brilliantly surprising; it was so unplanned. We’ve so often seen activists staging a protest, blocking a bank entrance, or chaining themselves to the White House fence, that we’ve kind of become inured to it now. I mean it’s mildly shocking to see journalist Amy Goodman being pushed to the ground with her hands cuffed behind her, but so often the protest seems like a charade; like just more drama, but on the progressive side. It certainly doesn’t seem like systemic change; or even like a truly revolutionary act.
DeChristopher: Right. I think a lot of those “photo op” civil disobedience acts have the feeling of being safe and sterile. By contrast, a lot of the power of true civil disobedience is the power of vulnerability. The reason people pay attention to civil disobedience is because they see someone making themselves vulnerable. That’s compelling. People connect with that. But when vulnerability is staged, when it presents only the appearance of vulnerability, people can tell the difference, and so the actions lack some of that power. In my case, the creativity of my protest gave me the opportunity to tell a new story—a story that didn’t fit into pre-established narratives about sit-ins, or other protests we’ve seen before. I was able to tell a new story and control it from the very beginning, which is why it was important for me to speak out from day one, to tell people who I was and why I was doing what I was doing. That gave me the chance to control the narrative from the beginning, which is not a position protestors usually enjoy. Usually we’re trying to overturn a pre-existing narrative about who we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing, which is much harder. But in my case, the fossil fuel industry had to try to overturn the narrative I had established, and they were never really successful in doing that. They were never able to get the public to see me as a dangerous terrorist or fitting some other narrative they wanted to use, which is why I received a lot of support across the ideological spectrum.
Goodman: How did you become the person who could succeed that way? How did you get to be that guy?
DeChristopher: I’m sure there were a lot of factors that prepared me, but the bottom line really was that I jumped into it. I took the action and then I had to live up to it. I often come back to the Annie Dillard line that sometimes we jump off the cliff first and develop our wings on the way down. That’s what my experience was like after the auction. I’d jumped off the cliff and then had to find a way to make it work. Part of it was living up to the role that I’d shoved myself into.
Goodman: Why, or how, did climate change become the issue that made you willing to risk your comfort and security? What was it that brought that realization home so heavily to you, and why are most Americans not really getting it?
DeChristopher: I think it was spending a lot of time thinking about the human consequences of climate change. So often we stop our thinking at the scientific impacts of climate change—sea levels will rise by this much; mean temperatures will rise by this much; weather patterns will change by this much—but we don’t allow ourselves to translate that data into its human impacts. When sea levels rise and displace people, for example. Hurricane Katrina showed us what it looks like when an American city goes under water—and the chaos and human suffering that arise out of that. Katrina also showed us that it took the resources of an entire nation to return even a semblance of security to that city, which has never really regained “normalcy.” If you imagine Katrina laid over entire regions of the national coastline and you consider the massive migrations of people it would cause, and the hardships that would create for the regions they relocated to, which might already be stressed because of changing weather patterns and disruptions to agricultural practices, and then you start to imagine the potential for conflict and for scapegoating, and insecure people turning to desperate measures as a result of their insecurity—the whole thing becomes a pretty scary exercise. My first reaction to the conclusions I was drawing was to fall into the pit of despair that so many in the climate movement are trying to avoid. But I went through the despair that accompanied exploring those very real possibilities—and I came out the other side. I saw that, while drastic changes to the status quo are inevitable, the very dark future is not inevitable. We may be on track for very rapid and intense changes—perhaps more intense than our civilization has ever seen before—but we don’t have to respond with violence and chaos. We can respond to stressful times by turning towards each other, rather than away from each other. Being forcefully rattled out of our consumer mentality—our addiction to comfort and convenience—which really hasn’t been that satisfying anyway, can create an opportunity for us to reconnect with what we really value and with the qualities of life that really can sustain us—which include reconnecting with our roles as citizens, community members, and human beings. Although the transition we face will have hardships, recreating a society based on emotional and spiritual values, not consumer values, will be a satisfying reward and certainly preferable to descending into violence and chaos. So it was seeing those two possibilities—neither of which is inevitable—that really pushed me into activism and continues to compel my activism. Each of those scenarios is possible, and it’s up to us to choose.
My activism is also motivated by my recognition that as we enter a time of really intense change and disruption, it matters who is steering the ship. Going through intense change with an ignorant and apathetic citizenry, driven by a corporate agenda, is a really, really scary proposition. But going into it with an educated and empowered citizenry that feels it can determine the course of its society and can hold its corporations and governments accountable has a lot of power and potential to it. To me, that’s what makes activism so important—especially now. We’re going down one path or another, because we can’t maintain the status quo. That’s the truth about climate change that made me into an activist. Basically everything is on the table right now. A new world will be created, and our level of engagement will determine what that world looks like.
Goodman: It seems to me that the corporations are in power and that most people are hoping that the status quo can somehow be maintained, or that change will be gradual…so what about our situation galvanized you that hasn’t galvanized the rest of us?
DeChristopher: I attended an International Panel on Climate Change conference in 2008 at which Terry Root gave a presentation. I’d been studying climate change in college quite a lot the year prior, so when I went to her talk I had a basis of understanding that was ready to grasp what she was presenting. But she didn’t say in her presentation that it was too late. She did, however, show projections for all the various emission scenarios that the IPCC had come up with—including “business as usual,” “skyrocketing increases,” and “turning emissions around and bringing them down.” The best-case scenario showed emissions peaking around 2030 and then coming back down.
After her presentation I went up to her and asked, “Didn’t the IPCC’s most recent report say that if global carbon emissions didn’t peak by 2015, the damage would already be done and we wouldn’t even recognize the planet?”
And she said, “Yes, that’s right.”
So I asked her, “Didn’t your presentation just show a best-case scenario in which emissions peaked in 2030?”
And she said, “Yes, that’s right.”
And I said, “So what am I missing? It sounds like you guys couldn’t come up with a scenario that avoids all these worst-case consequences.”
And she said, “Yes, that’s right. There were things we could have done in the’80s, and things we could have done in the ‘90s, but now it’s in all likelihood too late.” Then she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry my generation failed yours.”
That was quite a shock. Even though I’d studied climate change enough to understand the numbers she’d presented, I still hadn’t grasped that it was too late. That’s part of what put me onto that path of despair I told you about.
So I said to her, “You just gave a talk to four hundred people and you didn’t say that. You didn’t say that it’stoo late. That we’re definitely on the path to six degrees increase in mean global temperatures.”
And she said, “Yeah, I know, I feel like I can’t tell people how bad it really is because it will scare them into paralysis.” That’s something that I hear from a lot of people involved in climate change—both scientists and activists—who themselves have grappled with the fact that it’s too late to prevent drastic disruptions. Yet they continue to lead the way on climate change. They’re afraid that telling people the truth will paralyze people; yet the truth didn’t paralyze them.
I don’t think this makes good sense. I don’t see it in my own experience. Being told the truth is what propelled me into action. It’s also what propelled other climate leaders into action. Going through the despair and finding their own way out of it is what made them climate leaders.
The paralysis argument doesn’t make sense to me from an evolutionary perspective, either. I mean, if our ancestors froze in dangerous situations they’d have been eaten by saber-tooth tigers long ago. It’s the ones who faced danger and figured out a solution, who adapted, who lived to pass on their genes. That’s what we need to do here, as well. I don’t see any possibility of success for this movement if we don’t tell people the truth.
Certainly people need support in facing despair. It’s hard to go through it alone. I didn’t; I had other people going through the process with me. Which is another reason we need to be an actual social movement—one that treats people like people. Part of why scientists don’t like to tell people the truth to people is because they’re not equipped to handle the emotional response they might provoke. They didn’t become atmospheric researchers because of their ability to deal with human emotions. That’s where the movement comes in—to provide the sense of community support for the grief people experience when they face the facts. We need to be the ones willing to engage with the emotional reaction engendered by facing the truth of climate change.
Goodman: Where is the social movement that can provide support? I’m an environmentalist nominally involved with climate change, and I have support during protests or other actions, but not support for engaging others, or dealing with grief. I belong to a spiritual community, but that community advises me to focus on the positive because “what I resist persists.” Of course one has to find balance and appreciate the beauty of the planet that still exists, but focusing on the positive doesn’t engender change.
DeChristopher: I’m not surewhere that kind of social movement is going to come from. I’ve spent years trying to build it within the climate change movement, with limited success in isolated pockets. I’m not sure that the social movement we need is going to come out of the existing climate movement, or the older environmental movement. As the challenge becomes more one of maintaining our humanity as we navigate this period of intense change, I’m not sure that the NGO climate movement has enough of a soul to rise to that challenge. It’s more of an intellectual movement; a political movement with its roots in science rather than spirituality. I think the type of movement we’ll need to provide emotional support will have to come out of other social justice movements, or religious or spiritual organizations.
Goodman: Is that why you’re in divinity school?
DeChristopher: Yes. I don’t know what my future path is going to look like after divinity school, but I do feel as if the social movement we need is going to have to grapple with these issues on a much deeper level. We’re going to have to grapple with our humanity on a much deeper level than the current NGO climate change movement has been willing to do up to this point. I don’t know if my future engagement with climate change will be through religious organizations or other kinds of organizations, but I do feel as if that is the perspective that’s needed. If the existing NGO climate movement isn’t willing to have that paradigm shift then I’m willing to build a new movement.
Goodman: I understand that you believe our resistance has to be nonviolent. Why? If we’re fighting for the existence of a healthy planet—to say nothing of the quality of life of future generations—aren’t more extreme methods justified?
DeChristopher: Aside from ethics, the primary reason for nonviolence is pragmatic. If you had to face the grandmaster chess champion Garry Kasparov in a competition where, if you lost, you’d lose everything you value, but you got to choose the type of competition, you probably wouldn’t choose chess. You’d race him, or wrestle him, or play Trivial Pursuit, or compete in anything besides chess.
So when we consider who our opposition is—corporate forces aligned with our government—that opposition is the greatest force of violence that the world has ever known. Those corporations and that government have mastered violence better than any institution in the history of the world. So why would we ever want to play their game? That’s what they’re good at. That’s why government agents who infiltrate our movements try to encourage us to violence because they want us to play their game. Then they crush us and no one will care.
So part of the reason I embrace nonviolence is that it’s the most effective thing we can do. It’s a more advanced tactic than violence. If people who engage in violence want to escalate their tactics, they would escalate to nonviolence.
Goodman: You’ve called Jesus a revolutionary leader. How so?
DeChristopher: A lot of the ideology that Jesus brought into the world was revolutionary for its time and remains so today. For example, his elevation of the poor as being closer to God, or more ethical, than the rich. This was a core part of his philosophy. Jesus criticized those who were materially rich and who scorned or looked down upon the poor without realizing that God valued the poor just as highly as “He” valued rich people. This idea has been fought against—and continues to be fought against—by those who distort Jesus’s message into a “Prosperity Gospel” that God wants us to be rich. But this is clearly the opposite of Jesus’s message.
Jesus also had a pretty revolutionary philosophy around loving our enemies and standing up to violence with nonviolence. The idea of “turning the other cheek” has often been interpreted passively, as in “turn the other cheek and walk away.” But Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek for your enemy to strike as well.” This is a really confrontational way to deal with violence. It requires getting in the face of a violent opponent and accepting being struck—not once, but twice. This is the model that inspires nonviolent civil disobedience—actively confronting injustice with a more ethical and nonviolent stance. This is the authentic vulnerability that gets people’s attention.
Goodman: I love this quote of yours: you “originally thought that going to prison meant sacrificing my freedom, but I found out that it meant grabbing on to my freedom in an entirely new way.” What did you mean by that?
DeChristopher: I wouldn’t say that the actual time I spent in prison is what gave me the freedom; it was making the choice to risk going to prison that liberated me. I was freed the moment I shifted from being afraid of what those in power might do to me if I wasn’t obedient. I wasn’t basing my decisions based on fear of the consequences any longer. I was operating on the principles of my own beliefs.
Goodman: You’ve said that anger, fear and outrage are evolutionary human traits and we shouldn’t stifle them: “All the people who were threatened and didn’t feel fear, or whose children were threatened and they didn’t feel outrage—those people all died off. And now that we’re facing these very real threats to ourselves and our children, if we don’t feel and find a way to constructively use anger and outrage and fear we should expect to meet the same fate as all those dead-end roads of human evolution.” Can you say more about that?
DeChristopher: Dealing with our negative emotions is a crucial preparatory step to taking effective action. You have to grapple with the hard stuff, with the hard realities of the world. This builds your confidence that you can handle those intense situations when they arise. If we’re constantly suppressing our strong, heavy emotions—like fear and anger and outrage and sadness—it weakens us. But when we’re not afraid to confront the hard emotions—when we don’t turn away from the pain and the suffering of the world—it builds the confidence that we can do whatever we need to do. Our security doesn’t come from turning away from the hard stuff; it comes from the knowledge that we can handle it.
Goodman: So was it really a matter of letting go of the fear, or “feeling the fear and doing it anyway”?
DeChristopher: I think initially it was “feeling the fear and doing it anyway.” But once I started down that path the fear started to fall away, and I found that a lot of what I was afraid of wasn’t that big a threat. That applies to actions I took as an activist and going to prison, as well. Having gone to prison, I’m not nearly as scared of it now.