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Crunch Time

Facing trial for disrupting a BLM lease auction, Tim DeChristopher thinks time is running out... for everyone.



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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.

The Group

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.