Environment

Are You Willing to Go to Jail for What You Believe In?

Tim DeChristopher faces up to 10 years in prison for an environmental action, and he believes others will have to risk the same to protect the planet.

The words sent shivers down my spine. Last Thursday Tim DeChristopher stood on the steps of the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City and told a large group of supporters: "We know that now I'll have to go to prison ... That's just the job that I have to do. ... Many before me have gone to jail for justice and if we are going to achieve our vision, many after me will have to join me as well."

In case you've missed the Tim DeChristopher saga, here's some quick background: In December 2008, DeChristopher, then a 27-year-old economics student at University of Utah, attended an auction hosted by the Bureau of Land Management to sell off oil and gas drilling rights on public lands. The leases up for auction were especially controversial since they were right near Arches and Canyonlands national parks. While a small group of protesters chanted outside, DeChristopher decided to go inside the auction, where he grabbed bidder's paddle number 70. In just a short time he snapped up 13 leases on 22,000 acres of land -- and "spent" $1.79 million he didn't have. When the carbon barons realized that the young man with the quick bidder's panel wasn't, in fact, an aspiring oil tycoon, the auction was shut down ... and Tim DeChristopher was arrested.

Last week, a jury of eight men and four women found him guilty of two felonies: making false statements and violating the Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act. DeChristopher now faces up to 10 years in federal prison and as much as $750,000 in fines. Given that the judge in the case, George H.W. Bush-appointee Dee Benson, has appeared unsympathetic to DeChristopher (the judge, for instance, wouldn't allow the jury to learn that Obama's Interior Department later invalidated the auction as an overreach by the outgoing Bush administration), it seems likely that DeChristopher will spend many years behind bars.

DeChristopher's creative courage in monkeywrenching the auction and his grace during the trial have galvanized environmentalists. Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace, called DeChristopher "a hero in the long American tradition of the original Tea Party, the Underground Railroad, and the civil rights movement of breaking a law to highlight the fact that some laws fly in the face of a higher, shared moral principle."

In a statement released after the verdict, Rebecca Tarbotton, head of Rainforest Action Network, said: "If the government or the oil and gas industry think that today's verdict has intimidated or will silence people of conscience, they can think again."

Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, wrote that actions like DeChristopher's are "what we need more of. More willingness to ... do civil disobedience on a mass scale, and I think we're going to have to."

The way in which DeChristopher has ignited inspiration among greens is impressive. But the enthusiasm leaves a crucial question hanging over the environmental movement: What would such mass civil disobedience look like? Or, more to the point: How many people are willing to follow DeChristopher to jail?

Such questions, it seems to me, are especially timely given the recent demonstrations of people-power in the Middle East and Wisconsin. The massive protests in Cairo and the marches in Madison have reminded the world that nonviolent civil disobedience works. Direct action can, at the very least, draw attention to an injustice; at its most powerful, it can topple governments. So what would it take to see that same kind of people-power translated to environmental concerns?

Comparing environmental activism with the pro-democracy wave in the Middle East or the populist revolt in the Midwest might be a stretch. In Cairo, people were willing to face down the truncheons of Mubarak's thugs because they were tired of their lives being controlled by a corrupt dictator. In Madison, the 24-hour vigils at the statehouse have been fueled by people's righteous indignation over the attack on their livelihoods and basic rights. For many, saving the polar bears doesn't exactly match up.

That fact, I think, reveals one reason why U.S. environmentalists struggle to build a broader movement. Despite the best of efforts, environmental issues don't strike a visceral chord with many Americans. Unlike the LGBT movement (in which people are demanding basic civil rights) or the labor movement (which combines enlightened self-interest with a broader call for social justice), environmentalism can seem detached. It's often about saving far-off places and unheard-of species, or eliminating chemicals we can't see, much less pronounce. There's a lot of jargon. The result is a political movement that -- aside from the tiny EarthFirst! contingent and the fever of animal rights activists -- can often feel emotionless. Or emotion without context, like screaming that the house is on fire when nobody can feel the heat.

This is what I call the problem of eco-empathy. The threats to our shared environment are so big that it's hard to attach emotion to them. Climate change is the best example. Green campaigners sometimes complain that global warming is "hard to understand." True enough. But it's not just that climate change boggles the mind -- it also turns off the heart. Emotions depend on closeness. Yet the most worrisome of environmental threats is planetary in scale. We simply don't know where to begin feeling. Which helps explain why participants at the biggest U.S. environmental protests of the past two years -- a Washington march to shut down the capitol's coal plant and the Hands-Across-the-Sand rallies in the midst of the BP disaster -- numbered in the thousands, and not the tens of thousands.

If greens hope to generate what McKibben calls "civil disobedience on a mass scale," they are going to have to find some way to build a force of passion that matches what we've witnessed in Egypt, Tunisia and Wisconsin. And that's going to require making the environment -- our environment -- something personal.

Perhaps the best model for how to do that is the effort against coal mining and coal-fired power plants. In the last few years, a coalition of more than 100 organizations -- from big national groups like the Sierra Club and NRDC to small, local outfits -- have prevented the construction of 151 coal-fired power plants in the United States. These anti-coal battles have been won by connecting the mega-concern about climate change to home front issues like air pollution, water pollution and public health. As Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune told me in an interview last year: "People could look out their windows and see this giant coal plant spewing pollution into the air, or the prospect of another coal plant being built that would do the same, and they had a very tangible way to stop that plant from being built, or to shut it down."

Another example is the growing opposition to natural gas extraction. The battle against what's known as "fracking" is gaining force because it has the immediacy that drives emotion. People will fight to keep their drinking water clean.

Tim DeChristopher's own story helps to prove the point. DeChristopher wasn't some parachute activist who dropped into Utah with a premeditated plan to stop the oil and gas leases. His monkey-wrenching was completely spontaneous. And it came from deep feeling. DeChristopher, a Utah local and sometime wilderness guide, had led expeditions in the very landscape he took such great risks to save. He knew the place. I'm sure it's fair to say he loved it.

The power of love (and, believe me, I know that sounds fatuous) holds the most promise for building the kind of mass movement required to halt the steady destruction of Earth. There's nothing else I can think of that works so well at transforming observers into activists.

By way of proof, take veteran journalist Mark Hertsgaard. For close to 20 years Hertsgaard has tracked the science and politics of environmental destruction, and during that time has written about how pollution and global warming are impacting people, especially young people, in Russia, Sudan, China, and other nations. But, as he says at the start of his new book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, they were always "other people's children." Then, in 2005, Hertsgaard had his first child, and he began to "understand, viscerally, how it feels to see one's own child sick, in danger." Today, he has, in his words, "reached beyond the tools of journalism" and embraced a more muscular form of advocacy. These days he's busy exposing what he calls the "climate cranks" such as Senator Jim Inhofe with Michael Moore-style interventions. With his daughter's future in the forefront of his mind, Hertsgaard's political concerns about the environment are now intensely personal.

We will need millions more of that kind of Damascus Road conversion experience if we are -- as McKibben, Radford and Tarbotton wrote in a bold call-to-action released on Monday -- "to keep escalating the struggle for climate justice." Many more people will have to recognize that "the environment" is not over there, in the far-off distance. Rather, our environment is the places we love, the people we love. The environment is our home.

When more of us arrive at that understanding then Tim DeChristopher -- just as he wished -- will no longer be alone.

Jason Mark is editor of the quarterly magazine Earth Island Journal and a volunteer co-manager of Alemany Farm in San Francisco.