If there's nothing more dangerous than a person who has nothing to lose, then the coal and oil companies of America have much to fear from Tim DeChristopher.
DeChristopher's much-anticipated federal trial for disrupting an oil and gas lease auction in 2008 begins on Feb. 28. His story, already the stuff of activist folklore, is all the more compelling when he is the one telling it.
Over dinner at the Pricing Carbon Conference at Wesleyan University last fall (check out his presentation here), DeChristopher shared his journey from awakening to despondency to civil disobedience to leader of a movement.
He recalled how he sat outside following a presentation on climate change, tears streaming down his face at the prospect of a world made uninhabitable by humankind's ignorance and avarice. Environmental stalwart Bill McKibben sat with him that evening and tried to console him. DeChristopher, however, was inconsolable and hopeless, unable to see a pathway to redemption for the planet he called home. It was at that moment, perhaps, when he became a man with nothing to lose, because in his mind he had already lost everything. He vowed that with all his strength - but through peaceful means -- he would resist.
His resolve was put to the test in December of 2008 when, in the last hours of the Bush administration, the Bureau of Land Management held an auction to sell the rights to drill for oil and gas on federally-protected land in Utah, pristine wilderness that DeChristopher cherished as an avid hiker. Several media outlets decried the auction, including the Los Angeles Times:
The last-minute land grab in Utah's spectacular desert must be seen for what it is: not a boon for business but a bankruptcy of the imagination. What is actually being sold is the soul of a nation, one public parcel at a time.
DeChristopher was with a group protesting outside the auction site when some of them decided to venture inside to see if they could disrupt the proceedings. Upon entering the room where the auction was being held, however, a woman greeted him and cheerily inquired, "Will you be bidding today."
In a split-second decision that would alter the course of his life, DeChristopher simply replied, "Yes, I will."
He became Bidder 70.
In the time before the auction started, DeChristopher thought long and hard about what he might do, knowing the action he contemplated could land him in prison.
The auction started, and developers began snapping up parcels in places like the Desolation Canyon area. DeChristopher turned and saw Christa Bowers, a friend he knew from church and community gardening, crying as pieces of their beloved wilderness were sold to the highest bidder.
"Enough," he thought, and that's when Bidder 70 sprang into action. Before anyone caught on, he'd purchased the rights to 22,400 acres for $1.8 million.
He was a little short.
The auction was shut down. The authorities were not amused. Charges carrying a sentence of up to 10 years in prison were filed.
In an interview with SolveClimate.com, DeChristopher said he's ready to serve the time:
When I made the choice to stand in the way of that auction, I think that was the first time that I chose NOT to sacrifice my freedom... and I fully expect I'll be able to hold on to that when I do have to go to prison.
It's taken more than two years to bring DeChristopher to trial. Prosecutors, hoping the whole thing would quietly go away, have offered plea bargains that DeChristopher has turned down. Now the government - not to mention the fossil fuel industry - finds itself in a no-win situation: If DeChristopher goes to prison, he becomes the Nelson Mandela of the movement to stop climate change; if he's exonerated, the precedent is set for the legal justification of similar acts of civil disobedience.
Listening to DeChristopher tell his story last fall, I sat mesmerized by his audacity and courage. It is that audacity and courage that compels me to travel to Salt Lake City this weekend to stand with Bidder 70. Beginning Friday evening, Peaceful Uprising - the organization founded by DeChristopher - will host "Countdown to Uprising Empowerment Summit," featuring speakers, music and workshops leading up to the protests on Monday.
The pivotal moments in history -- as we're witnessing in Cairo and Madison, Wisconsin -- require more than a posting on Facebook or YouTube. They require human beings coming together in the same physical space to draw strength and inspiration from one another. Such a moment is happening this weekend and next week in Salt Lake City. If you can be there, come, if for nothing else than to shake the hand of the man who's willing to go to prison for your children's future.