Stepping onto the stage of the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride, Colo., his biceps bulging after chopping vegetables six hours a day for 21 months while in prison, Tim DeChristopher got a standing ovation for an act of insurrection.
DeChristopher became the public face of climate-change activism in 2008 with an audacious act of principled defiance. At an auction in Salt Lake City overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, he successfully bid $1.8 million for mineral leases near Utah’s Arches National Park. But he never had any intention of paying; he simply meant his bidding to be an act of civil disobedience.
Edward Abbey, who worked as a seasonal park ranger at Arches in the 1950s, coined a term for guerrilla tactics like this: monkey-wrenching. Like Abbey, DeChristopher grew up in Pennsylvania before migrating to the Southwest, where he worked as a backcountry guide between university studies in Arizona and Utah. Abbey’s fictional heroes, however, operated by stealth to save desert landscapes threatened by mining and dams.
DeChristopher, as portrayed in Bidder 70, a documentary film by Beth and George Gage, wanted everyone to know exactly what he was doing and why. He refused to plead guilty in exchange for a 30-day sentence, angling for the public stage of a federal court. There, he hoped to argue that his act of civil disobedience was a reasonable response to the threat of human-caused global climate change. The federal judge nixed that lesser-of-two-evils argument, and the jury convicted him. Now free for a little more than a month, DeChristopher told the gathering at Telluride’s Mountainfilm festival that he’ll soon attend the Harvard Divinity School.
His father, Jeff DeChristopher, who was in the audience at Telluride, said he’d urged his son to take the plea. “I felt he was throwing away his life. A felony is a lifetime thing. I remember saying something like, ‘Well, I hope somebody sends you a Christmas card.’ But this weekend, all of you, have really changed my mind on that.” Then the father, starting to choke up, stopped himself. On stage, his son wiped his eyes.
DeChristopher framed his sacrifice as a moral issue. But it’s also a complicated issue. He tried to block the development of natural gas to draw attention to the dangers of global climate change. Because of its reduced carbon footprint, however, natural gas is generally seen as the lesser of yet another evil -- coal.
Examining this teeter-totter of risk, filmmaker Robert Stone was on hand to nominate nuclear energy as his climatic hero. This was surprising, given that his anti-nuclear weapons documentary, Radio Bikini, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1988. But his new film, Pandora’s Promise, he said that only by tapping nuclear energy could we hope to tamp down greenhouse-gas emissions while powering a world population growing briskly toward 9 to 10 billion. The risk of climate change, he said, is greater than the risk of nuclear energy, and he argued that France, which is 80 percent carbon-free because of its nuclear-based electrical grid, was the better model than Germany and Denmark, both cited for their renewables but still heavily reliant on coal.
That argument, however, ignores the long shadow of the Cold War. Uranium mining damaged human health to a still-unknown extent. Southwestern Colorado today has dozens of “uranium widows.”
Even so, there’s strong local support for renewed uranium processing 80 miles west of Telluride. A lovely but difficult movie called Uranium Drive-In, directed by Suzan Beraza, delivered a respectful platform for these voices. Sounding resourceful and self-reliant, residents said they were desperate for jobs, and they saw any environmental risks, which they disputed anyway, as secondary.
After the Uranium Drive-in showing, Don Colcord, a pharmacist in Nucla, one of the hardscrabble western Colorado towns that wants a uranium mill, made a surprising comment. He said that ultra-liberal Telluride and his conservative town of Nucla shared some common ground. It was certainly not the notorious news that Nucla recently became the first town in Colorado to require every household to own a gun. It was the likelihood that global warming will produce less snow for skiing, on which Telluride depends, as well as for farming, on which his community still relies to some extent. That understanding, he said, could lead to agreement about nuclear power.
Everybody, it seems, is arguing for the lesser of two evils. If only we could agree on what the greater evil is.