"Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them? Or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded? Or shall we transgress them at once?"
In 1849, Henry David Thoreau posed these questions in his essay "Civil Disobedience." On July 26, Tim DeChristopher, a civil insurgent from the climate-change generation, was sentenced to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine for actions stemming from his answer to Thoreau's questions.
It was December 2008 when DeChristopher, 27, then a University of Utah student, became involved in the sale of energy leases around Arches and Canyonlands national parks. He entered the federal auction, bid on some parcels to win them or at least drive up their prices, and ultimately claimed 14 leases for $1.8 million.
"I was there to try to disrupt this process," DeChrisopher has said. "This was an act of civil disobedience in response to this fraud against the American people and a threat (climate change) to my future."
Due to DeChristopher's actions, the government halted the auction midway through and had him escorted out and later arrested. He was eventually charged with disrupting a federal auction and making false statements on the forms he had filled out to enter the auction. He was convicted March 3.
But just two months after DeChristopher's arrest, newly minted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar took the sale of those same lease parcels—already halted by a court order—off the table. Then, in June 2009, after its own investigation, the Interior Department concluded that the lease sales had been rushed and flawed and had inadequately considered environmental impacts. The Bureau of Land Management had also failed to consult the Park Service, whose land the energy development would affect.
Legal proceedings against DeChristopher, meanwhile, marched on, and his story captured the imagination of environmental activists around the country. He is the subject of a documentary-in-progress that screened at this year's Telluride Film Festival, where he also spoke. Crowds gathered at the courthouse in anticipation of his sentencing, and in protest afterward, and supporters coordinated through his organization, Peaceful Uprising, convened around the country in solidarity.
Those who seek a modern environmental hero may have found theirs in Tim DeChristopher. And given his relatively harsh sentencing—pursued by attorneys in President Obama's Justice Department—he seems poised to become a symbol for a range of activists frustrated with years of governmental inaction on climate change.
Adam Sowards, an environmental historian at the University of Idaho, noted that while DeChristopher's actions were inspired by an issue already familiar to those in the environmental movement, his story jumped to national prominence at a time when "the broader culture or political system (was) ready to hear the message."
DeChristopher's cause may have been helped by the unexpected nature of his actions, Sowards added. And unlike activists such as the writer Bill McKibben and scientist James Hansen, he is a brand-new face on the protest scene.
Other factors converged to vault DeChristopher to the forefront of media awareness, says Richard Seager, a Hamilton College professor who studies the environmental movement. He was protesting the despoiling of an iconic landscape, the Colorado Plateau, that's familiar to many Americans who have read Edward Abbey's books The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire and seen photographs and films inspired by the region's red-rock beauty. "Because Arches was at the center of this, that gave him a leg up," says Seager.
It also helps that DeChristopher's roller-coaster narrative—first of triumph, winning leases he believed to be illegal and making the national news; then of defeat, with an arrest and the punishing requirement to come up with $1.8 million; then again of triumph, as his cause gained momentum and he raised enough money to make a payment; and yet again of defeat, as he was convicted and finally sentenced—is a morality tale of the undaunted little guy fighting an illegitimate government action.
"This is pretty much a classic, epic little story here of one individual doing something kind of quixotic and then the institution figuring out they have to crush him," says Seager.
But just how crushed is DeChristopher? You could say that his prosecution by the Justice Department makes the Obama administration appear to be as much a slave to the drilling companies as the previous administration, which slammed through the leases DeChristopher protested.
In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau wrote that the majority rules not because it is "most likely to be in the right...but because they are physically the strongest." On that life-changing Friday in December, DeChristopher justified his radical actions by appealing to a higher authority—a care for the Earth and for future generations. As Thoreau might have predicted, the government then declared him an enemy.
The American public may beg to differ.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn, online editor for High Country News (hcn.org), is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of HCN in Paonia, Colo.