« Return to this article

Know the West

A civil disobedient for the modern era?

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them?
Or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded?
Or shall we transgress them at once?

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau posed these questions in his essay, "Civil Disobedience." Yesterday, a civil insurgent from the climate-change generation, Tim DeChristopher, was sentenced to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine for actions stemming from his own answer to Thoreau. It was December 2008 when DeChristopher defied a government action he perceived as unjust: the sale of energy leases around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. He entered the federal auction and bid on the parcels to drive up their prices or win them, ultimately nabbing 14 leases for $1.8 million.

"I was there to try to disrupt this process," DeChrisopher has said. "This was an act of civil disobedience in response to this fraud against the American people and a threat (climate change) to my future."

Due to DeChristopher’s actions, the government halted the auction midway through, had him escorted out, and later arrested. He was eventually charged with the crimes of disrupting a federal auction and making false statements on forms to enter the auction. He was convicted March 3.

 In early 2009, just two months after DeChristopher's act and arrest, newly-minted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar validated the activist's opinion on the leases' illegitimacy. Salazar took the lease parcels, which had already been halted by a court order, off the table. And in June 2009 the Interior department released a report concluding the process leading to the lease sales had been rushed and flawed, had inadequately considered environmental impacts, and that the Bureau of Land Management had failed to consult the Park Service, whose land the energy development would impact.

Through this all, legal proceedings against DeChristopher marched on. At the same time, his story captured the imagination of environmental activists around the country. He is the subject of a documentary-in-progress that screened at this year's Telluride Film Festival, where he also spoke. Crowds gathered at the courthouse yesterday in anticipation of the sentencing (and in protest afterward), and supporters coordinated through his organization, Peaceful Uprising, convened around the country in solidarity.


It seems those who seek a modern environmental hero may have found theirs in DeChristopher. And particularly with his relatively harsh sentencing, which was pursued by attorneys in Obama's Justice Department, the activist seems poised to become a symbol for a range of activists frustrated with years of governmental inaction on climate change.

Adam Sowards, an environmental historian at the University of Idaho, noted that while DeChristopher's actions were based around an issue already familiar to those in the environmental movement his story jumped to prominence at a time when "the broader culture or political system (was) ready to hear the message."

DeChristopher's cause may have been helped by the unexpected nature of his actions, Sowards added. Unlike other prominent activists such as writer Bill McKibben and scientist James Hansen, he was a new and unknown player on the protest scene.

Other factors converged to vault DeChristopher to the forefront of media awareness, says Richard Seager, a Hamilton College professor who studies the environmental movement. He was protesting the despoiling of the iconic landscape of the Colorado Plateau, which is familiar to many Americans thanks in part to books like the Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.

"Because Arches was at the center of this, that gave him a leg up," says Seager.

And DeChristopher's continuous narrative -- first of triumph, winning leases he believed to be illegal and making the national news, then of defeat, with an arrest and the responsibility of coming up with $1.8 million -- then again of triumph, as his cause gained momentum and he raised money to make a payment -- and yet again of defeat, as he was convicted and, finally sentenced -- is a ready-made morality tale of the little guy against an illegitimate government action.

"This is pretty much a classic, epic little story here of one individual doing something kind of quixotic and then the institution figuring out they have to crush him," says Seager.

Just how crushed is DeChristopher? His story is all the more compelling now that he's officially serving time for his action. And the prosecution by the Justice Department makes the current federal government appear to be as much a slave to the drilling companies as the previous administration that slammed through the leases DeChristopher protested.

In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau wrote that the majority rules not because it is "most likely to be in the right…but because they are physically the strongest." He notes that men who always respect the law can be "daily made the agents of injustice."

On that life-changing Friday in December, DeChristopher stepped out of that respect for law and appealed to a higher authority -- a care for the Earth and for future generations. The government has declared him, as Thoreau predicted, to be an enemy. The American public may beg to differ.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.

Image courtesy 350.org