Ten years ago this week, a 27-year-old University of Utah student sat in on a Bureau of Land Management auction, raising a paddle, over and over again, until he found himself the would-be owner of 14 oil and gas leases near Arches National Park and other iconic Utah landscapes.
But “Bidder 70,” better known as Tim DeChristopher, lacked the $1.8 million needed to pay off his bids, and thus began his journey through the criminal-justice system and into a limelight few climate activists have ever experienced.
Some observers viewed DeChristopher’s spontaneous act of civil disobedience as a brilliant protest, drawing much-needed attention to the rigged way the BLM obligates public land to the fossil fuel industry, whose products are the primary drivers of the climatic changes disrupting ecosystems around the globe.
Others, however, saw it as felonious stunt that thwarted responsible energy development that would otherwise support rural communities and schools.
A federal jury concluded that DeChristopher had committed serious crimes by bidding on leases he had no intention of buying, even though the auction later was invalidated because the offered parcels were not properly vetted. DeChristopher’s refusal to apologize in exchange for lenience inspired countless activists, but it did earn him a 2-year prison sentence.
In the decade since his arrest, the Obama administration has come and gone, and President Donald Trump has largely erased policies intended to restrain oil and gas development on public lands and reduce carbon emissions. Master leasing? Shelved. Sage grouse protections? Lifted. Clean Power Plan? Trump digs coal. All in the pursuit of “energy dominance.”
These days, BLM auctions routinely offer as much Utah public land as the one DeChristopher monkey-wrenched in the waning weeks of the George W. Bush administration. On Dec. 11, the agency’s Utah office accepted bids on 139,000 acres, mostly in San Juan and Uintah counties on lands rich in archaeological resources and wilderness values. More than 215,000 acres in 156 parcels go on the block in March.
As bald and eloquent as he was a decade ago, DeChristopher served 21 months in prison, earned a graduate degree from Harvard Divinity School, settled in Pawtucket, R.I., and married fellow climate activist Meghan Kallman, a professor of social development at the University of Massachusetts Boston and author of a forthcoming book titled “The Death of Idealism.” They both help run new organizations they recently co-founded, Climate Disobedience Center (DeChristopher) and Conceivable Future (Kallman).
In the Q&A that follows (edited for clarity and length), DeChristopher, now 37, discusses his life and climate activism in the decade since his arrest:
Ten years out, do you have any insights about your experience?
I’m at a pretty low point right now, feeling demoralized looking at the state of the world — not just in terms of our political situation but in terms of the reality of climate change, where things have continued to get worse at a much more rapid pace that we expected 10 years ago. I’m also demoralized looking at the state of our progressive movements that have not stepped up in the ways I thought we had the potential to. It’s a difficult time for a retrospective. There certainly are a lot of points over the past 10 years where I was encouraged by the direction we were going, encouraged by our potential as a movement, where I felt my activism had big impacts and positive implications. It’s hard to feel that way right now.
Do you feel that the activism that drew so much attention 10 years ago has worn off, to a degree?
In some ways the things I was saying and pushing for 10 years ago, in terms of the climate movement being more like a social movement and less like a corporate lobbying force, a lot of that has been taken seriously. We have more civil disobedience and confrontation than we used to. Just today [Dec. 10], there’s a huge group of young people in Washington, D.C., occupying the leadership of the Democratic congressional representatives, over 1,000 young people are sitting in those offices. In Poland, a huge group disrupted the Trump administration’s farcical pro-coal event they were having at the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] conference. At the same time, we have seen our opponents step up in big ways and become more effective repressing our movements, both in terms of passing new legislation that criminalizes dissent and with physical violence, as we saw at Standing Rock [in the Dakotas]. They are getting more effective at infiltrating our movement and convincing us that the way we should be spending our time is attacking each other rather than our real opponents.
Back to the Obama years, one of the issues [then-Interior Secretary] Sally Jewell raised was that the “Keep It in the Ground” movement wasn’t entirely realistic and the federal government is obligated under the law to make these fossil fuel resources available for extraction. Can you explain why she was wrong to take that position?
The continued exacerbation of climate change shows how absurd that response is. We still don’t have an energy policy that is remotely realistic with what’s necessary to preserve civilization. To say it’s unrealistic to change a policy over which they have control, this shows how deeply embedded climate denial is at all levels of our government and really at all levels of our society. It shows we haven’t really grappled with the reality of climate change.
Your thoughts on the Bureau of Land Management’s oil and gas auctions that now offer more land for leasing in Utah than the auction you disrupted in 2008.
What we have seen over the past 10 years is a cycle where more of the public was paying attention to these auctions, so the industry and their government enablers have looked for ways to get around the popular will of the people who oppose these auctions and oppose the nation’s energy policy more broadly. It is not just the Trump administration. It was the Obama administration that, in response to massive protests at the auctions, put those auctions online so there could be no public participation.
Should auctions be held in person?
I feel they shouldn’t be held. The Obama administration denied and ignored and tried to shrug us off for years. [President Barack] Obama could have done a huge amount to address climate change, shift our energy policy and protect public lands, and he refused to for the eight years he was in office. This set the ground for this new administration, which has dropped all pretense of pretending it cares about democracy or any sort of common values. That’s what’s paved the ground for them to come in with incredibly destructive, reckless policies.
You went to Harvard Divinity School after your release from prison. Why did you make that decision and where are you going with your life?
I realized the challenge of the climate movement was beginning to shift from being about reducing emissions quickly to also being about this challenge in how to deal with catastrophic impacts of climate change. How do we hold onto our humanity as we navigate that period of chaotic hardship? Our religious traditions did have a set of tools and skills for that. Just basing a movement on physical science leaves a lot about the human condition and experience absent from the leadership and the critical piece we need to build an effective movement and more broadly build a societal response.
What are you doing with your career now that you are out of graduate school and have another organization established. What’s next?
It’s difficult for me to think of a career when we are on track for so much disruption. When I was at divinity school, I started another organization as a support and resource center for other folks engaging in civil disobedience. We felt there was a bigger potential there to use civil disobedience as a more powerful strategy than just creating a good photo-op.
You see a moral imperative here?
There’s always been this sense of accountability to the generation that will come after me. When I began this 10 years ago, I identified as a young person. Now I’m definitely not a young person anymore and I’m seeing this next generation of activists step up in ways like what the Sunrise Movement is doing today in D.C. The challenge for a lot of us, as movement leaders, particularly when we talk about tactics that involve sacrifice, we can’t impose our personal motivations onto others. People ask, ‘What do you think we should be doing?’ That’s a difficult thing to answer when what some people need to be doing is putting themselves in harm’s way and challenging very ruthless power structures, going up against the richest, most powerful industry in the world that has killed people for profit through their whole history.
Where are you living?
Rhode Island. I moved down here [from Massachusetts] for my partner [Meghan Kallman]. We got married a year and half ago. I’m getting settled in.
Are you going to start a family?
Possibly. We’ve had a lot of big discussions about the implications of it. Part of Meghan’s activism is she started an organization called Conceivable Future that is a storytelling project, primarily of women talking about how climate change is impacting their decision whether to have children. The people involved are coming down on all sides of that decision but are grappling with the same questions and finding solidarity within the space to discuss those questions.
Do you ever think about coming back to Utah?
I would love to, but I’m kind of rooted here at this point.
Do you see any signs of hope?
I see it in the resilience of people. There was a little video that went viral during the latest California wildfire with a father [escaping the burning town] with his 3-year-old daughter and she is saying, ‘Are we going to burn up, daddy?’ and he starts singing to keep her calm while they drive, with walls of flame on either side. It is that sort of beautiful resilience of the human spirit that gives me hope, not that things are going to be OK and we are not going to face unprecedented hardships, but that there is a loving part of our humanity that’s going to carry us through that time.