When the news spread last year about Tim DeChristopher’s impromptu act of civil disobedience in Utah, I thought: Somebody is finally reviving the lost art of environmental monkey-wrenching.
So I made certain to attend one of DeChristopher’s talks at the Telluride Mountainfilm festival in May. Appearing on a breakfast panel billed "Three Generations of Monkey Wrenchers," he was by far the youngest at 28. Sitting in the middle was Dave Foreman, 63, the gray-bearded, achy-backed co-founder in the 1980s of Earth First!, the anarchist eco-saboteurs’ group. Next to Foreman sat the 90-year-old protest singer Katie Lee, who fought with all she had against the early-‘60s damming of Glen Canyon on the Colorado River.
DeChristopher said he’d gone to Moab to protest the auctioning of gas leases on the border of Arches and Canyonlands national parks. "I had thought of yelling something or throwing a shoe," he said. He ended up bidding on leases and winning some of them.
Eventually, the agency in charge, the Bureau of Land Management, realized what was happening and spirited DeChristopher out of the room, but not before he had sufficiently jiggered the proceedings so that the entire lease sale had to be tossed out.
The charges against DeChristopher are not insubstantial; if convicted, he could get 10 years in jail and a fine of $750,000. But his sudden inspiration kicked off a re-examination, from The New York Times op-ed page on down, of the role radical gumption can or should play in an environmental movement gone milquetoast. When was the last time tree-spiking made the news?
The injustice in this case is not only the desecration of public lands, DeChristopher said, but the broader issue of global warming and our heedless use of fossil fuels: "My generation will suffer the effect of the decisions we make today. I take the threat personally."
A disclaimer: So do I. I live on a split estate in western Colorado: My wife and I own the surface, but, as is the case with 80 percent of private land in this state, we don’t own the subsurface mineral rights, and those rights were auctioned off a few years ago, without notice to us, by the selfsame BLM. So, yes, I take it personally, too.
DeChristopher went on to say that what pushed him into action was a belief that things were hopeless. "I let go of the expectation of career, old age, etc., the things my parents and grandparents had. Hope stands in the way of action."
Foreman and Lee both expressed a hard-earned misanthropy. "I don’t like the human race," Katie Lee said. "The Glen Canyon dam broke my heart." (A much-reproduced photo of Lee in the buff in the since-drowned canyon failed to convince Congress to stop the dam.) Lee was rolling now: "Mother Nature is going through menopause, hot one day, cold the next. She’s going to take other actions as well (including bring down the Glen Canyon dam). One day she’ll get rid of us. And that’s a good thing, baby!"
What to do in the meantime? "The problem," DeChristopher said, "is believing that you are a powerful agent of change. Once you act, only then do you see the opportunities."
Following his arrest -- trial is set for September of this year -- DeChristopher participated in several actions, including the symbolic renaming of the Snowbird ski resort; he now calls it "Coalbird." He also organized the Christmastime delivery, and secret videotaping, of gift-wrapped lumps of coal to Snowbird executives after it was learned that resort founder Dick Bass was investing in a giant Alaskan coal mine. "Sentiment without action," DeChristopher said, quoting Ed Abbey, "is the ruin of the soul."
Katie Lee chimed in: "Anger is my ally. Anger is heavy. The heart comes up; tears come up. Channel it or it will tear you to pieces. Channel it and you do what you are supposed to do!"
DeChristopher urged everyone to see the Stanley Nelson film Freedom Riders, about an intrepid group of white and black college students who set out in 1961 to test Jim Crow laws. Attacked by mobs, arrested and jailed, they nevertheless kept going. "The Kennedy administration didn’t want to take up civil rights legislation," DeChristopher said. "They were forced to … by the Freedom Riders. How can we expect Obama to take on the most powerful corporations in the world if we aren’t willing to fill the jails?"
What about joy? It was a question from the audience. Surely there is joy in civil disobedience -- along with the risk and the fear -- in knowing your cause is just. Foreman allowed that he had never been afraid, not "since I got run over by a truck" early in his activist career.
DeChristopher said he’d felt calm at the auction where he kept outbidding representatives of the natural gas industry. "Oh, and by the way," he said in wrapping things up, "you know those solar panels on the gas rigs you see everywhere? Those could probably be easily disconnected. I’m just saying."
Peter Shelton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndication service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in western Colorado.