‘I Consider Myself to Be a Fossil Fuel Abolitionist’
A conversation with climate activist Tim DeChristopher
In 2008, climate activist Tim DeChristopher arrived at a BLM oil and gas lease auction in Utah with the intention of disrupting it. He was thinking along the lines of making an impassioned speech, but when he was offered the chance to register as a bidder in the auction, he saw an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, and made a choice he knew would likely land him in prison.
Photo by Stephen Melkisethian
As bidder number 70, DeChristopher won nearly $1.8 million in bids for some 22,000 acres of public land — bids that he had no intention of paying for — before he was pulled aside by a BLM agent.That’s when his long journey into the public spotlight, through the US justice system, and ultimately to prison, began.
Following repeated delays in his prosecution, in March of 2011, DeChristopher was convicted of two federal felonies for his disruption of the auction. In July 2011, he was sentenced to two years in federal prison. (Read his July 2011 interview with the Journal, which took place just a week before his sentencing) When he was released from prison in April 2013, he emerged with an even deeper commitment to social justice. That fall he began a Masters program at the Divinity School at Harvard. Last week, DeChristopher sat down with me before his Climate One panel discussion at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco and talked about how his time in prison and his faith have influenced his activism.
The last time you spoke with the Journal was about a week before your sentencing in 2008. A lot has happened since then. How did your time in prison impact your climate activism and your philosophy about civil disobedience?
I would say that my time in prison definitely further radicalized me. I think it made me more of a revolutionary, and it deepened a lot of my social justice commitments that I had understood intellectually beforehand. It kind of humanized a lot of the stuff that I knew intellectually. I think it gave me a more intersectional approach to the way that I do climate work that has been mutually reinforcing. Like, once I started intentionally working on prison abolition and became willing to consider myself a prison abolitionist, and understood what that meant — that our prison system is never going to become the kind of justice system that we need, and that we need to build that system from scratch, and actually abolish our current system — that then gave me clarity about where I stood in the climate movement.
In response to a lot of the folks that say, you know, “Oh we still need energy,” and, “We recognize that fossil fuels serve an important need,” and blah, blah, blah — I’m bringing that perspective that I had first understood through prison work to fossil fuels and realizing that the fossil fuel industry is never going to be the healthy and just energy system that we need, and we need to build that system from scratch.
And in fact, that is how it’s happening. All the work towards building a clean energy economy, and sort of the sane energy world that we need in terms of food systems, and that sort of thing, is almost entirely being built from scratch on its own, or by new actors in that sphere. It’s not coming from the old energy companies or the old food companies transforming themselves into clean energy companies. And so [prison] gave me clarity that that fossil fuel industry needs to be abolished, and gave me more confidence in articulating that, and saying that I consider myself to be a fossil fuel abolitionist.
A lot of what I’ve read about you discusses the spontaneity of your decision to bid on the oil and gas leases, and how that spontaneity itself was impactful. Spontaneity, by definition, can’t really be planned or organized. Is this tension between the impact of spontaneous, genuine action and the need to organize and involve more people in the climate movement something that you’ve thought about?
Yes, that’s always been a big element of the way that I feel like I work best. In fact, before I was a serious activist, I worked for a wellness therapy program, where one of our core principals among the staff was “plan with spontaneity.” That, yes, we should have a vision of where we want to see things go, but we should also be totally flexible to adapt as things develop. And so, that was kind of my approach towards disrupting the auction, seeing the need for more civil disobedience in the climate movement, looking for opportunities for that to happen, and having an intention to stand in the way of this auction. And I thought that might be going in there and making a big speech and getting dragged out by security. But, you know, I showed up and there was another option to do something else.
And I think that kind of intention continues to be an element of the way that I work. Last week, with the Climate Disobedience Center, which is the new organization that I helped start, we were up in Seattle for the Delta 5 trial of five activists who blockaded an oil train a year-and-a-half ago. We decided a couple of months ago that that trial was the first case that we really wanted to get fully behind, even though there were still a lot of question marks about how things were going to turn out at that point.
It ended up that they were able to be the first climate activists in the country that were able to make the necessity defense in their trial, and [there were] a ton of positive impacts that occurred and continue to resonate for that organizing community and for the climate movement in general. But we decided that we were going to go there to support those activists in any way that they needed. And that’s kind of the way that the Climate Disobedience Center works — we want to provide support for activists who are engaged in civil disobedience, whatever that looks like. If they don’t have lawyers, then we want to connect them with lawyers and help them get that kind of support. If they need to fundraise, we want to help them with that. Or if they need media, [we want to help with that].
In the Delta 5 case, they actually had a good team of lawyers that was representing them, so we worked much more to try to integrate what was happening in the courtroom with what was happing in our campaigns, and to help amplify what was happening in the trial, to broadcast a broader social narrative around that. And lots of surprises happened during the week. And even the final result was not something that was really in any of our contingency plans. But we had plans. So, I think it was important that we had plans, that we had prepared, that we had thought about these things beforehand, that we had tried to get the resources and all those things. But I think it was also really important that we weren’t overly attached to those plans and we were willing to roll with whatever happened and make the best of it.
So, what was the outcome of the trial?
The outcome of that case was that they were able to present all of the evidence that they wanted, and present absolutely amazing testimony that ended up being a comprehensive case for climate activists. It was really, really impressive... The jury came back and acquitted each defendant on the obstructing the train charge, and convicted them on the trespass charge…
But perhaps the more interesting part was that then, after the verdict, when the jury was dismissed, half the jury stuck around and talked with the defendants and thanked them, and said they respect and support their actions so much, and said they learned so much and were really awakened by all the testimony this week. Three of them signed up with the lead defendant to show up for her next lobby day, when she lobbies at the state capital. Two of them signed up with the Climate Disobedience Center to help us train future activists that are going on trial. It was really an amazing and touching kind of result that I think showed in an interesting way the power of civil disobedience to rattle people out of their everyday lives and really wake them up.
A lot has happened in the climate movement since you first disrupted the lease sale in 2008. Are you heartened by how far the movement has come? Is there anything in particular that stands out to you as inspiring?
Yeah, I think there have been several tremendous shifts in the climate movement. One is a shift towards an increasing acceptance of civil disobedience. At the time when I disrupted that auction, a lot of professional activists were telling me not to promote civil disobedience, because they were working on a strategy of trying to make the movement seem non-threatening so they could appease those at the top of the current power structure. And that strategy failed in really obvious ways, so it’s opened up a lot of space for more confrontational strategies in the climate movement. So we are seeing a lot of progress in that area.
And I think, then, once the movement stopped trying to make itself amenable to those who profit from the status quo, we opened up the space to make allies with all the other communities that are oppressed by that status quo, that weren’t particularly keen on working with us when we were trying to sell a vision of a cleaner, greener version of the world that we have now, in which all of those other structures of oppression remain the same, and we just have cleaner energy sources. There’s been a lot of progress, and of course, a lot of missteps in trying to build those relationships with marginalized communities and other social justice campaigns.
You know, I was part of the Keep it in the Ground coalition that last fall launched the campaign demanding the end of fossil fuel leasing on federal lands, which was a bold and radical ask. I think [that ask] reflects a shift in the movement, where in 2008 and 2009, most of the climate movement was operating from the perspective of what is considered to be politically reasonable, and limiting themselves to asking for what experts in Washington tell them is politically feasible.
Some of the groups that had the best access to the White House, like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund, refused to sign on to that campaign because they said it was too unrealistic. Then two months after we introduced that campaign, Bernie Sanders and Senator Merkley introduced the Keep It in the Ground Act that was calling for exactly what we were asking for, and then two months after that, just last week, Obama put a moratorium on coal leases on federal lands, which was a big part of our ask. So, you know, it’s showing real results when we are being ambitious enough to ask for what we really want.
And I think the folks spearheading that campaign were some of the same organizations that have also made that transition to being willing to be confrontational. Like the Center for Biological Diversity was one of the main groups that really made that Keep it in the Ground campaign happen. And now two of the main folks form the Center for Biological Diversity, Taylor McKinnon and Kierán Suckling, are out in Burns, Oregon, actually standing up to the Bundy clan out there in Malheur.
That’s something that a lot of the environmental movement is not willing to do, even though this is kind of a critical juncture for standing up for our public lands. But it’s a dangerous situation, and they’re going out there making it known that there are environmentalist who care about our public lands and want to keep them as public lands, which puts them in a dangerous situation. I talked to Taylor the other day, and we ended up talking about signing wills before they go out there. I mean, it’s that serious in terms of a willingness to confront injustice and deal with the consequences and potentially make real sacrifices.
What role has faith played in your philosophy about civil disobedience?
It’s played a lot. The reason that I decided to go to divinity school was that I felt like we were reaching the limits of what could be accomplished without faith, and that increasingly part of our work in the climate movement was figuring out how we maintain our humanity as we navigate this period of really chaotic change that is largely inevitable.
I don’t feel like the climate movement has many tools and skills for addressing that question, and I think that religious communities have a lot more experience addressing those issues of how we hold on to our humanity in desperate times, of how we hold onto our values when things seem to be helpless. And I think that more and more, we need to be able to tap into those skills and traditions in order to continue doing this work. That we are reaching a point, where, on a certain level, some of the things that we have to do don’t make sense on a strictly logical level. And yet, they need to be done anyway. So we need a deeper grounding on which to stand to be able to move forward.
I think that was also one of the lessons that came out of the trial last week, because where they fell short in terms of being able to use the necessity defense all the way was in failing to distinguish what is entirely unique about civil disobedience, as opposed to the legal alternatives for raising awareness and all of those things. What I think that is, is that civil disobedience uses the power of one’s own vulnerability to connect on a deep level with those who witness that vulnerability, and arouse people’s conscience, and arouse their empathy. I think, to really articulate that, would have been moving more towards a spiritual argument than a legal technicalities argument, and yet that what was necessary to actually address the requirement of the legal technicalities. It would take a case about making a claim about our fundamental nature of who we are and how we are connected on a deep level.
Not an easy task.
Yeah. But I think in order to actually be as impactful as we need to be and have those successes, we have to bring that faith element into it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.