Ever since Tim DeChristopher raised a bidder’s paddle in 2008, Bill McKibben has been by his side, helping the climate movement understand why Tim’s act of civil disobedience was so bold and so necessary. “We were moved by Tim’s sacrifice,” writes McKibben in this special reflection on Orion’s blog. Another long-time friend and confidante of Tim’s is Terry Tempest Williams, who interviewed him (“What Love Looks Like”) in the January/February 2012 issue of Orion.
It’s odd the amount a leader can accomplish without even being on the scene.
We’ve been missing Tim DeChristopher for better than six months now, ever since he was swept out of the courtroom and into the federal prison system. But he’s as big a part as ever of the fight for a working planet.
And the reason, I think, is not just that he can send inspiring e-mails and speeches out of prison (as he did before the Keystone XL oil pipeline demonstrations in the fall). It’s that he left such simple marching orders: do more. Dig deeper. Don’t be afraid. They’ve inspired his excellent organization, Peaceful Uprising, and by extension all the rest of us engaged in this work, not because he’s charismatic (though he is) or because we’re moved by his sacrifice (though we are). But because he’s right.
The environmental movement had gone about as far as it could go with the tactics it was used to using. They’d worked for a long time—worked because the early glory years, right from Earth Day 1970, had built up such momentum around the environmental cause that nothing could stand in its way. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act—I remember the great Gus Speth, a founder of the NRDC, telling me once that they didn’t lose a court case for ten years.
Eventually, though, that battery began to wear down. And at just the wrong moment, when we were suddenly up against the biggest challenge ever, climate change. Global warming comes from carbon dioxide—which is not a trace gas, like carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide causes smog; you can fight it with a scrubber on a smokestack and a catalytic converter on an exhaust pipe. The environmental movement was strong enough to win those things, and thank God. But carbon dioxide you can only fight by closing down the richest industry on earth, the coal and gas and oil industry.
If we’re going to do that, we’re going to need a whole new recharge for our battery. We’re going to need a movement at least as strong as the one that sprang up in 1970, when twenty million Americans (one in ten of the then-population) took to the streets on Earth Day. Tim recognized that, and knew actions like his might help catalyze the reaction. Certainly it helped; I think it was one reason so many people were willing to come get arrested in August in Washington to fight the Keystone pipeline, which turned into the biggest civil disobedience action in the U.S. in thirty years.
And absolutely everyone played along—Peaceful Uprising with NRDC, the Sierra Club with the Occupy movement. It was big, broad, beautiful. But it needs to be bigger and broader and more beautiful yet. There’s lots of work to do, and I can’t wait for Tim to get on the outside so he can do some more of it.
Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and editor of The Global Warming Reader. His column “Small Change” appears in every other issue of Orion.