Why Civil Disobedience is Key to the Climate Movement


Photo: Ben Powless via Tar Sands Action at Flickr/CC BY
On Tim DeChristopher's Letter from Jail
Tim DeChristopher may be the most famous true blue environmental activist in the nation right now -- certainly the most famous for a single, powerful act of protest. As you're likely aware, DeChristopher disrupted a land auction in Utah by placing a huge bid on a parcel he had no intention of paying for. He was protesting an auction that was hastily held under dubious legal circumstances (it was the very end of George W. Bush's term, and he was doling out industry favors) as well as the significance of the would-be sale: Developing that land would despoil the environment and contribute to climate change.

By entering his bid, he prevented the oil and gas companies from winning the land. But more importantly, he sent a simple message that resonated with millions: When it comes to the environment, the workings of our government are no longer aligned with the best interests of its citizens. For pointing this out, Tim DeChristopher has now been in prison for almost a month. A couple days ago, he sent Grist a handwritten letter that illuminates the importance of civil disobedience to the modern climate movement.DeChristopher begins:

If I had ever doubted the power of words, Judge Benson made their importance all too clear at my sentencing last month. When he sentenced me to two years in prison plus three years probation, he admitted my offense "wasn't too bad." The problem, Judge Benson insisted, was my "continuing trail of statements" and my lack of regret. Apparently, all he really wanted was an apology, and for that, two years in prison could have been avoided. In fact, Judge Benson said that had it not been for the political statements I made in public, I would have avoided prosecution entirely.
This wasn't just the resentment of an ill-tempered judge, however -- it's an attempt by the power structure to strip the act of dissent of its import, and it has many precedents. If DeChristopher were to recant and apologize, his sole criminal deed would be some minor bureaucratic meddling. You know, the sort of white collar crime that gets downgraded or pardoned all the time. It's the persistant, vocal objecting to the state's policy that animates the crime, not the deed itself. But that persistant, vocal objecting to the status quo is also what's so important to the fabric of a robust democracy -- to cultivating a power structure that adequately responds to the needs and demands of its citizenry.


Photo: lihn.m.doh, Flickr/CC BY

That's the purpose of peaceful civil disobedience. DeChristopher writes:

With civil disobedience cases, however, the government puts an extra value on an apology. By its very nature, civil disobedience is an act whose message is that the government and its laws are not the sole voice of moral authority. It is a statement that we the citizens recognize a higher moral code to which the law is no longer aligned, and we invite our fellow citizens to recognize the difference. A government truly of the people, for the people, and by the people is not threatened by citizens issuing such a challenge. But government whose authority depends on an ignorant or apathetic citizenry is threatened by every act of open civil disobedience, no matter how small. To regain that tiny piece of authority, the government either has to respond to the activist's demands, or get the activist to back down with a public statement of regret. Otherwise, those little challenges to the moral authority of government start to add up.

With that in mind, one way we can explain the outsized response to DeChristopher's bid is that it so powerfully embodied the growing dissonance between the government's environmental policies and the public's concerns. Those worried about the environment, pollution, and climate change especially are increasingly feeling that their access to the policy machine has been cut off entirely -- fewer politicians are bothering to address such concerns, and the president has been all but mum on all-important issues like global warming.

And so we see protests, like the tar sands action at the White House, where the nation's top climate scientist was just arrested, begin to mobilize. But given the scope of the challenge presented by threats like climate change, we're going to need a lot more DeChristophers and plenty more protests at the White House -- and many other, entirely novel modes of action that capture the imagination of an apathetic, wired-in generation -- before the increasingly concentrated federal power structure will begin to respond.

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