Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Earlier this week, Tim DeChristopher was found guilty by a Utah jury for unlawfully interfering with a public auction for oil and gas leases on federal lands near national parks in southern Utah. In many ways, the result was not surprising because there is little dispute that DeChristopher posed as an oil man and made and won bids on leases with no intention of paying for them.
Despite the clear cut nature of his case, this trial attracted national and even international media attention, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian, to name a few. The reason for all the attention boils down to DeChristopher’s purpose in participating in the auction—for him it was a form of environmental protest mainly relating to climate change. Particularly from environmental quarters, DeChristopher’s trial is a story of an environmentalist so committed to combating climate change that he was willing to serve federal prison time if that is what it took to make a difference, see Time's Eco Centric Blog, Bill McKibben on Grist, and Robert Redford on the Huffingtonpost as examples. This line of thinking paints DeChristopher's actions as heroic—transforming him into something of a Gandhi for the planet.
To me the narrative of DeChristopher as noble activist misses the point. While certainly there is little dispute that DeChristopher’s actions will land him in prison and that he is willing to go there due to his beliefs, his actions are something to bemoan rather than celebrate.
First, while I respect his ideals, it is hard to see his actions as anything other than misguided. Even in the most generous light, how does posing to be an oil man and making fake bids on gas leases amount to anything but an empty symbolic gesture? There is little doubt that these oil and gas reserves are very modest and perhaps worthless. Why did he pick that fight? When it comes to climate change, aren’t there a bazillion more pressing problems than these gas leases?
Second and more importantly, even if these oil and gas leases should warrant our attention, there are plenty of ways to oppose them that are not only legal but also much more likely to prove successful than the route DeChristopher took. The leases were vulnerable to a number of significant political and legal challenges. Interestingly, these alternative tools—not DeChristopher’s actions—have at least stalled and in many cases stopped most of the leases at issue (and many others as well). DeChistopher threw himself on the road when he could have just helped to build a much more effective road block. Sure he wouldn’t have gotten all the press, but he would have been more likely to make a difference and done this without risking prison time. DeChirstopher’s methods do not amount to heroism. Instead, they are silliness.
Third, he did not need to break the law to make his point. Why did he have to pose to be someone he wasn’t and lie to the federal government during the auction? Even if all he wanted to do was protest, aren’t there many other ways to protest that would not have left him legally vulnerable?
DeChistopher made some mistakes. His empty gesture, his backwards strategy, his lies, and entanglement with the law were all mistakes. Yet, instead of trying to find a quiet way out, he held press conferences. Instead of owning up, he embraced the celebrity of the moment.
Certainly, DeChristopher’s actions have lessons for activists. Unfortunately, in the rush to praise his good intentions, the real lesson has been lost. As admirable as we might find his ideals, we need to understand his actions are not admirable. They are far from it. After his trial, DeChristopher invited others who were true to the cause to join him in prison. I hope activists see this invitation to join him for what it is: an invitation to join the ranks of the misguided who have squandered their potential.
- Brigham Daniels