submitted by Debbie Mytels, Transition Palo Alto Steering Committee
Profiled in the award winning documentary, “Bidder 70,” shown last spring by Transition Palo Alto, climate activist Tim DeChristopher spoke to an audience of about 130 people at Transition’s Fourth Friday event Jan. 22 at the Palo Alto Unitarian Universalist Church. Since non-violently disrupting a 2008 auction set up to lease Federal lands in Utah for fossil fuel mining, DeChristopher has emerged as a leader in the climate action movement. He’s learned a lot from his studies of history and ethics at Harvard Divinity School — AND during the two years he spent in Federal prison.
Those who heard him share his philosophy of social change last week can see that his life is following a path like other great non-violent leaders such as Gandhi and King. Citing the success of movements that have utilized civil disobedience, DeChristopher explained why such strategies are more powerful and effective than writing letters or petitions. “Civil disobedience uses the power of one’s own vulnerability to arouse the conscience of others and break through the apathy” that blocks change, he said.
Being vulnerable to a prison sentence – or being beaten with the billy clubs and fire hoses that hit Civil Rights protestors in the ‘60’s – arouses empathy when people see what’s happening. This is how we can manifest our power and break the hold of oil companies over our country, he said.
When asked about the value of other tactics to curtail climate change, DeChristopher said we still need to try them all. “Cesar Chavez said when we’re well organized, it doesn’t mean we’re all doing the same things. It means that we’re all pushing in different places against the wall of power. When we find a weak spot, we all come together and push there.”
“The challenge of the climate movement now, however, is to shift from talking about reducing emissions to facing the question of how to retain our humanity in light of the tremendous changes we are facing,” he said. “Anger is an appropriate response. Anger is a sign that something is in wrong in one of our relationships — a sign that we care about something — and that we care enough to make the relationship right. We need to strengthen our connections and make the relationship right with Earth — and with each other.”
Noting that America’s consumer culture is a comfortable place for many, he compared it to people who deny the fact of death. “It’s easy to pretend we’re not going to die, but any system that acts differently is false.” Our dependence on fossil fuels is killing Earth’s ecosystems, and our civilization – even the survival of the human species – is at stake. This is why he advocates that protesters use non-violent disobedience and use the “necessity defense” to argue they are not guilty. Such a legal defense is like saying it’s not a crime for someone to break into a burning house to rescue a child, because the “breaking and entering” is necessary for a higher good. Stopping a pipeline or blockading an oil train is necessary for the higher good of protecting Earth’s climate.
When an audience member said, “You’ve been a martyr, without having to die,” DeChristopher demurred. “I didn’t ‘lose’ those two years in I spent in jail,” he said. “I spent them differently. I met different people there that I might not otherwise have learned from. And I wouldn’t be here tonight, talking with you, if I hadn’t done that time in jail.”
Asked how he envisions a future without fossil fuels, DeChristopher said, “I envision a more connected age. The fossil fuel era has given us the illusion that we don’t need one another.” Without having false optimism or believing in a “techno-fix,” he said, “we can still stand together in the face of this crisis and support each other in finding ways to get through it. “
[For more information about Tim DeChristopher, visit his website: www.timdechristopher.org ]
— By Debbie Mytels, Transition Palo Alto Steering Committee