Truth. Grief. Action! Essential Excerpt From a Tim DeChristopher Interview by Terry Tempest Williams
Betrayal will be a major theme for ecoSanity in 2012.
The brief excerpt below, from What love looks like: An interview with Tim DeChristopher by Terry Tempest Williams, Orion Magazine, spoke to our belief that the full, hard truth about the EMERGENCY of the climate crisis -- no matter how bad the news may be -- must be told, and most often isn't, even by many of the lead scientists and environmental organizations we trust to keep us informed.
While grief and despair may result in periods of paralysis, DeChristopher considers them to be essential phases in the enlightenment process because they can lead to the outrage and compassion necessary to move us beyond fears about what we could lose, or the supposed need for 'hope', and compel us to take action based on our moral beliefs about what's right, how we should behave and what we should stand for.
Many other points are made in the full version of the interview before and after the segment below, some of which we -- and you -- may agree with / relate to more than others, but several thoughtful insights, regardless.
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Terry Tempest Williams' Intro
FROM THE MOMENT I HEARD about Bidder #70 raising his paddle inside a BLM auction to outbid oil and gas companies in the leasing of Utah’s public lands, I recognized Tim DeChristopher as a brave, creative citizen-activist. That was on December 19, 2008, in Salt Lake City. Since that moment, Tim has become a thoughtful, dynamic leader of his generation in the climate change movement. While many of us talk about the importance of democracy, Tim has put his body on the line and is now paying the consequences.
On March 2, 2011, Tim DeChristopher was found guilty on two felony charges for violation of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and for making false statements. He refused to entertain any type of plea bargain. On July 26, 2011, he was sentenced to two years in a federal prison with a $10,000 fine, followed by three years of supervised probation. Minutes before receiving his sentence, Tim DeChristopher delivered an impassioned speech from the courtroom floor. At the end of the speech, he turned toward Judge Dee Benson, who presided over his trial, looked him in the eye, and said, “This is what love looks like.” Minutes later, he was placed in handcuffs and briskly taken away.
After several transfers from three states, he is now serving the remainder of his time in the Herlong Federal Correctional Institution in California. When I asked Tim about his thoughts concerning prison, he responded, “All these people are worrying about how to keep me out of prison, but I feel like the goal should be to get other people in prison. How do we get more people to join me?” In fact, thousands of citizens are following his lead and are choosing to commit acts of civil resistance in protest of mountaintop removal, the construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and as participants in the ever-expanding Occupy Wall Street movement. They recognize that we can no longer look for leadership outside ourselves. And that if public opinion changes, government changes.
On May 28, 2011, Tim DeChristopher and I had a three-hour conversation in Telluride, Colorado, during the Mountainfilm Festival. We talked openly and candidly with one another as friends. No one else was in the room. We are pleased to share this conversation with the Orion community.
Here's the excerpt (about a third of the way into the interview):
TERRY: Yesterday, weren’t you saying that rich people don’t make great activists?
TIM: Yeah. In front of a very wealthy audience.
TERRY: But people understood what you were saying. I mean, we’re all privileged, right? Especially as predominantly white Americans sitting in a film festival in Telluride, Colorado.
TIM: Yeah. I also think that’s why we’re bad activists. That’s why the climate movement is weaker in this country than in the rest of the world. Because we have more stuff. We have much higher levels of consumption, and that’s how people have been oppressed in this country, through comfort. We’ve been oppressed by consumerism. By believing that we have so much to lose.
TERRY: In John de Graaf’s film Affluenza, you see what a methodical, slow process that really was to turn American culture into a culture of debt through consumption. In the 1950s, as a country, we shunned credit cards. That was not part of the frugal mind of an American. And now, not only is our national debt skyrocketing, but our personal debt as well.
TIM: Yeah, it keeps people controlled.
TERRY: By our own appetites? By our insecurities? By whom?
TIM: By those who succeed in our current system. I think our economic model, in a big sense—our whole economic system—protects itself by making people dependent upon it. By making sure that any change, any departure from that system, is going to be hard. And it’s going to lead to hardship, both individually and on a large scale as well. We can’t change our economic system without it falling apart, without things crashing really hard. Just like as an individual you can’t let go of your job and all that stuff without crashing pretty hard.
TERRY: In personal terms, your life has been in limbo for the last two years. And that’s my word, not yours. But is it fair to say you haven’t known what your future is going to be? Because you didn’t know when you were going to go to trial, or whether you’d be convicted. How has that felt?
TIM: I think part of what empowered me to take that leap and have that insecurity was that I already felt that insecurity. I didn’t know what my future was going to be. My future was already lost.
TERRY: Coming out of college?
TIM: No. Realizing how fucked we are in our future.
TERRY: In terms of climate change.
TIM: Yeah. I met Terry Root, one of the lead authors of the IPCC report, at the Stegner Symposium at the University of Utah. She presented all the IPCC data, and I went up to her afterwards and said, “That graph that you showed, with the possible emission scenarios in the twenty-first century? It looked like the best case was that carbon peaked around 2030 and started coming back down.” She said, “Yeah, that’s right.” And I said, “But didn’t the report that you guys just put out say that if we didn’t peak by 2015 and then start coming back down that we were pretty much all screwed, and we wouldn’t even recognize the planet?” And she said, “Yeah, that’s right.” And I said: “So, what am I missing? It seems like you guys are saying there’s no way we can make it.” And she said, “You’re not missing anything. There are things we could have done in the ’80s, there are some things we could have done in the ’90s—but it’s probably too late to avoid any of the worst-case scenarios that we’re talking about.” And she literally put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry my generation failed yours.” That was shattering to me.
TERRY: When was this?
TIM: This was in March of 2008. And I said, “You just gave a speech to four hundred people and you didn’t say anything like that. Why aren’t you telling people this?” And she said, “Oh, I don’t want to scare people into paralysis. I feel like if I told people the truth, people would just give up.” And I talked to her a couple years later, and she’s still not telling people the truth. But with me, it did the exact opposite. Once I realized that there was no hope in any sort of normal future, there’s no hope for me to have anything my parents or grandparents would have considered a normal future—of a career and a retirement and all that stuff—I realized that I have absolutely nothing to lose by fighting back. Because it was all going to be lost anyway.
TERRY: So, in other words, at that moment, it was like, “I have no expectations.”
TIM: Yeah. And it did push me into this deep period of despair.
TERRY: And what did you do with it?
TIM: Nothing. I was rather paralyzed, and it really felt like a period of mourning. I really felt like I was grieving my own future, and grieving the futures of everyone I care about.
TERRY: Did you talk to your friends about this?
TIM: Yeah, I had friends who were coming to similar conclusions. And I was able to kind of work through it, and get to a point of action. But I think it’s that period of grieving that’s missing from the climate movement.
TERRY: I would say the environmental movement.
TIM: Yeah. That denies the severity of the situation, because that grieving process is really hard. I struggle with pushing people into that period of grieving. I mean, I find myself pulling back. I see people who still have that kind of buoyancy and hopefulness. And I don’t want to shatter that, you know?
TERRY: But I think that what no one tells you is, if you go into that dark place, you do come out the other side, you know? If you can go into that darkest place, you can emerge with a sense of empathy and empowerment. But it’s not easy, and there is the real sense of danger that we may not move through our despair to a place of illumination, which for me is the taproot of action. When I was studying the Bosch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, I was really interested in finding the brightest point in the triptych. I remember squinting at the painting and searching for the most intense point of light. To my surprise, the brightest, the most numinous point was in the right corner of Hell. That’s where the fire burned brightest. And that was something I recognized as true. My mother had just died, my grandmother had just died, my other grandmother had just died. You know, there’s a Syrian myth of going into the Underworld, and when you emerge, you come out with what they call “death eyes”—eyes turned inward. I had been given “death eyes.” I had been changed. I had a deeper sense of suffering but I also felt a deeper sense of joy. Hard to explain, but I remember someone saying to me, “Terry, you’re married to sorrow.” And I said, “No, I’m not married to sorrow, I just refuse to look away.” You stay with it—we are stronger than we know. But it isn’t easy. And you don’t have any assurance that you’re going to find your way out. And there’ve certainly been days where I’ve wondered . . .
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See the full version of the interview here for more lead up and a lot more that follows what we posted above.
- Full interview - What love looks like, Terry Tempest Williams, Orion Magazine
- ecoSanity - Compilation: Tim DeChristopher: Rare, hard truth, well stated
- ecoSanity - Compilation: COP17 Durban UN Climate Summit 2011: Betrayal of life
- ecoSanity - Compilation: FEAR is a good thing and HOPE is not an action verb