For Tim DeChristopher, Civil Disobedience is a Duty of Love

Tim DeChristopher by Robert Shetterly
Tim DeChristopher, co-founder of the environmental group Peaceful Uprising, protested an highly contested oil and gas lease auction of 116 parcels of public land in Utah’s redrock country by signing a Bidder Registration Form and placing bids to obtain 14 parcels of land (totaling 22,500 acres) for $1.8 million. He didn’t have the money. DeChristopher was removed from the auction by federal agents and taken into custody.

On March 2, 2011, DeChristopher was found guilty on two felony charges for violation of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and for making false statements. He refused any type of plea bargain. On July 26, 2011, he was sentenced to two years in a federal prison with a $10,000 fine, followed by three years of supervised probation. After several transfers from three states, he is now serving the remainder of his time in the Herlong Federal Correctional Institution in California.

His courtroom statement, reminiscent of Thoreau’s On The Duty of Civil Disobedience, was a deeply inspiring call to action. Author Terry Tempest William interviewed DeChristopher in May 2011. Below is an excerpt from Orion magazine:

TIM: I think what I was really trying to get across was the idea of not backing down. Because it’s important to make sure that the government doesn’t win in their quest to intimidate people into obedience. They’re trying to make an example out of me to scare other people into obedience. I mean, they’re looking for people to back down.

TERRY: Right. And I think democracy requires participation. Democracy also requires numbers. It is about showing up. And we do need leadership. And I think what your actions say to us as your community is, “How are we going to respond so you are not forgotten? So that this isn’t in vain?” And I think that brings up another question: we know what we’re against, but what are we for? Our friend Ben Cromwell asked this question. What are you for? What do you love?

TIM: I’m for a humane world. A world that values humanity. I’m for a world where we meet our emotional needs not through the consumption of material goods, but through human relationships. A world where we measure our progress not through how much stuff we produce, but through our quality of life—whether or not we’re actually promoting a higher quality of life for human beings. I don’t think we have that in any shape or form now. I mean, we have a world where, in order to place a value on human beings, we monetize it—and say that the value of a human life is $3 million if you’re an American, $100,000 if you’re an Indian, or something like that. And I’m for a world where we would say that money has value because it can make human lives better, rather than saying that money is the thing with value.

TERRY: I think about the boulder that hit the child in Coal River Valley. What was that child’s life worth—$14,000? The life of a pelican. What was it—$233? A being that has existed for 60 million years. What do you love?

TIM: I love people. [Very long pause.] I think that’s it.

Read Terry Tempest Williams’ complete interview with Tim DeChristopher.

Terry Tempest Williams at Capitol Coal Plant

climate-action-march-2-in-dcterrytwcropsmallwebI’ve enjoyed Utah-based essayist Terry Tempest Williams since I read her 1991 book “The Clan of One-Breasted Women” (“I belong to a Clan of One-Breasted Women. My mother, my grandmothers, and six aunts have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead. The two who survive have just completed rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.”) about her family’s experience living as Downwinders from the Nevada Desert Nuclear Test Site.

A few weeks ago, at the Artists for Climate Action event in downtown D.C., I heard her speak. She highlighted some work she’d been doing with creative writing students in collecting oral histories from coal-mining communities in Wyoming. It turned into “an unprecedented experiment in the art of listening,” as Alexandra Fuller described it in her New York Times OpEd piece. You can read the students’ Weather Reports and see photos they took during their community listening project.

Terry’s newest book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, is a study of the art of mosaics, which she then applies to examining ecological mosaics in Bryce Canyon and the to the broken land of Rwanda attempting the art of putting what’s broken back together again in a shape that is beautiful.

I saw her at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network demonstration on Monday to close down or convert to solar the Capitol Hill Power plant (which runs on 49 percent coal supplied by Peabody Energy). There was a great line up of Kentucky essayist Wendell Berry, Methodist environmental leader Bill McKibben, head of NASA scientist James Hansen, country music star Kathy Mattea, and Terry Tempest Williams all under the banner “Save Our Mountains.” It was a beautiful sight to see.