A Conversation with Real-Life Monkey Wrencher, Tim DeChristopher
He would go to prison to stop climate change
Environmentalists sit in redwoods and chain themselves to bulldozers, but maybe no act of civil disobedience has ever been as effective as the one University of Utah economics student Tim DeChristopher pulled on Dec. 19, 2008. He walked calmly into the federal government’s oil and gas lease auction in Salt Lake, picked up bidder paddle No. 70 and proceeded to jack up the prices on oil and gas drilling rights near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Then he bought up $1.8 million in leases with no intention of paying, effectively barring their development. He got busted, but his action probably helped convince the Obama administration to throw out 77 leases, including the ones DeChristopher “won.” Now he’s a hero to liberals and a scourge to drillers, and a movie’s being made about him. At Mountainfilm, where he won the 2009 Director’s Award, Reilly Capps sat him down in the vault at La Cocina de Luz for an interrogation over chips and salsa, just as he was in the middle of a legal battle that threatened to land him in jail for 10 years.
Reilly Capps: Why do you think, at this point in the environmental movement, more extreme measures are necessary?
Tim DeChristopher: It’s not realistic that the environmental movement is ever going to have more money than the fossil fuel industry. So if we can’t be bigger, it means that the environmental movement is going to have to fight harder. People should be willing to fight harder for our lives than the fossil fuel industry is fighting for their profits.
RC: The lawyer for the government says that there were other ways to protest. You could have written letters to your congressman, you could have protested the lease.
DeChristopher: All those things had been done for a long time and weren’t effective. They were, at best, getting us minor concessions, and we were only taking half a step backward toward the cliff. With the tipping points that we’re getting close to, our heels are right at the edge.
RC: Should people stop paying their taxes? Should people burn down SUV lots or set fire to subdivisions?
DeChristopher: No, because I think that’s not productive and not effective and isn’t going to get people on our side. Earth First and the Earth Liberation Front people—I always found that to be pretty counterproductive. …I don’t think that “pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable” or “fighting a lot harder”—or any of the other phrases that I’ve used—I don’t think those necessarily mean breaking the law. You know, something like a hunger strike—it’s not illegal, but it’s certainly a controversial, confrontational tactic. I think the thing that gets people on our side the most is to show that we are willing to sacrifice personally.
RC: You’re studying economics. Are you saying that the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action?
DeChristopher: Exponentially so. When they measure things like the cost of climate change, it’s based on these cost-benefit analyses that put a price on a human life. That’s something that has no basis in the rest of our culture. Nowhere else do we put a price on a human life.
RC: The Gages, who live in Telluride, are making a movie about you, called Bidder 70. What’s your hope for this movie?
DeChristopher: I hope it shows people that this is something that they can do as well, and that I’m not some kind of hero who has some abilities that other people don’t, but that this is a path available to everyone.
RC: You’ve got a lot of people behind you, including Patrick Shea, the head of the Bureau of Land Management under Clinton, who’s now your defense lawyer, and writer Terry Tempest Williams. Do you feel like you’ve become a big rallying cry? A cause célèbre?
DeChristopher: I’ve gotten all sorts of support, and it certainly feels good to have people shower me with praise, but I’d trade all the swag in Telluride for a few hundred people willing to fight, to see this machine that just continues to blindly go forward and be willing to throw themselves into it. And people see it every day. There’s probably not the opportunity to do exactly what I did, but what’s going on in Congress right now with our climate legislation—that’s the exact same process as the BLM auction magnified by a million times, with a million times greater effect.
RC: So chain yourself to your congressman’s office?
DeChristopher: Chain yourself to your congressman.
RC: Are you prepared for prison?
DeChristopher: I think that I am prepared for prison. I mean, I’d been looking at where we were headed as a society for a while and preparing myself for that, for that kind of ugly chaotic desperate world that climate change is putting us on track for. And so, while I understand that prison is a pretty hard and ugly place, I think I’ve been preparing for a lot worse.
RC: …all these people supporting you. But at the trial, in a lot of ways, it’s just you.
DeChristopher: It could be. I think that if this doesn’t inspire other people to really take to the streets or do whatever they can do on the scope of the Montgomery bus boycott—or much bigger, ’cause it’s a much bigger problem—then it could just end up being me on my own.
RC: Alone in a cell, forgotten.
DeChristopher: Yeah. But hopefully it doesn’t turn out that way.