New-Age Environmentalist Finds Home in Rhode Island

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Tim DeChristopher helped usher in a new approach to environmental activism.

Tim DeChristopher helped usher in a new approach to environmental activism.

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — The Ocean State has a distinguished environmental activist in its midst. Tim DeChristopher achieved renown in 2008, when, as an act of civil disobedience, he disrupted a federal land auction. He bid up swaths of iconic Utah landscape to keep huge parcels of unspoiled public property from oil and gas drillers. The act eventually led to the cancellation of the auction, saving 150,000 acres from fossil-fuel development.

His nonviolent protest, however, led to a surprising two-year jail sentence, of which DeChristopher served 21 months in prison.

The action brought DeChristopher national attention: appearances on the “Late Show with David Letterman” and on the Bill Moyers show; and he was the subject of the documentary “Bidder 70.”

Building on a new brand of social protest, DeChristoper founded the activist consulting group Peaceful Uprising, and enrolled at Harvard Divinity School.

DeChristopher, 34, moved from Cambridge, Mass., to Pawtucket last summer to live with his partner while she attends graduate school in Providence. He recently co-founded the Climate Disobedience Center with Rhode Island native Ken Ward and Cape Cod native Jay O’Hara, both of whom orchestrated the lobster-boat blockade of a coal ship at the Brayton Point power plant in 2013.

DeChristopher’s three-year probation ends in April. As a condition of his sentence, he can’t leave the country or get arrested. He advises other activists engaging in nonviolent disobedience and attends protests, such as the Dec. 5 march and rally at the of the proposed natural-gas power plant in Burrillville that led to eight arrests.

ecoRI News recently spoke with DeChristopher about his observations and insights into the environmental movement.

New activism
Much of the new activist movement was born from the failure of federal cap-and-trade legislation in 2009 and the Copenhagen climate summit that same year. Those unsuccessful events drew a line between the traditional environmental insiders such as the World Wildlife Fund and Sierra Club and a younger anti-establishment movement.

The conventional course of action preferred by mainstream environmental groups “was all based on that strategy of appeasement and working with corporations and not against them,” DeChristopher said. “They tried to be very non-threatening to our power structure.”

Once DeChristopher gained a national voice, he and other emerging advocacy groups that were frustrated by the arrival of corporate personhood and the status quo of the old environmental movement pushed a confrontational model.

“Rather than try to appease the current power structure,” he said, “try to make that power structure more uncomfortable.”

This approach favors direct-action protests and the politically divisive carbon tax. The movement was built around new environmental groups such as 350.org, as a wave of activists united over opposition to the Keystone pipeline project. Local protest organizations formed in opposition to fracking and natural-gas infrastructure expansion, and launched a push for fossil-fuel divestment by universities and municipalities.

Instead of orchestrated arrests outside the White House, environmental activists got more creative and disruptive through nonviolent actions such as the lobster-boat blockade and rappelers hanging a banner during an NFL game. Here and across the country activists chained themselves to construction equipment at natural-gas pipeline projects.

Across southern New England, local activist groups emerged, such as Fight Against Natural Gas (FANG), No Fracked Gas in Mass and Stop the West Roxbury Lateral. Crashing meetings, occupying corporate offices and mass arrests commenced in quick succession. Rather than getting arrested and accepting a modest fine, these groups are pushing their cases into the courts, where they gain more attention and present challenges to politicians and fossil-fuel companies.

“We can’t just do the exact same things in the exact same way that other movements in the past have done,” DeChristopher said. “Because just as we learn from past movements, our opponents learn from past movements. We need to keep innovating and being creative and trying new legal tactics.”

Social justice
This new activism created a big opening for the climate justice piece of the movement. It has emerged and developed since then, gaining grassroots power along the way, DeChristoper said.

“We’re not advocating for a cleaner, greener version of the world we have now with all of its oppressive dynamics,” he said. “We actually want a just world that brings equity for oppressed and marginalized people.”

This outlook has created alliances with other social-justice movements. But it has come with growing pains. “Coming from a traditionally white upper-class movement, now trying to work with communities of color and more diverse social movements, there have been a lot of missteps,” DeChristopher said.

But environmentalists are learning from the mistakes and making progress, he said. “If we don’t stand up and put ourselves on the line in that struggle, we’re still not going to have really solid relationships even if we say all the right things and don’t day all the wrong things,” DeChristopher said. “It comes to putting our privilege on the line in joining in those struggles.”

Natural gas and politics
Democrat leaders, for the most part, are standing with the old guard of environmentalists, DeChristoper said. “A big part of it is the Washington environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) — the groups that have a lot of access in Washington, a lot of access in the Democratic party — have never really been willing to challenge natural gas,” he said. “And for a long time celebrated natural gas.”

DeChristoper regards Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., as the best climate politician in Washington. “But he’s still not willing to stand up to natural gas,” he said.

“You can call yourself an environmental champion in Washington and still support the natural-gas industry. And that’s where some of those groups like EDF, NRDC, World Wildlife Fund, League of Conservation Voters, are actually standing in the way of the climate movement and do far more harm than good in those areas, because they provide cover for a less-then-adequate response to climate change. So the fight against natural gas shows that even the best of that mainstream politically palatable approach, as represented by Sheldon Whitehouse, the best of that falls short of what we all know needs to be done on climate change.

“The fight against natural gas shows that our climate movement has a lot of work to do to build actual political power, because we still don’t have any actual climate champions within our political structure.”

Winning over far-right conservative politicians may not succeed, DeChristopher said. But “pressuring people like (R.I. Gov.) Gina Raimondo is actually a workable (strategy). This is where protests can work. It always needs to be bigger, better and bolder, but we’re working towards that. I’m certainly encouraged by what I see here.”

It’s not just limiting emissions by defeating these projects, he said, “but how we actually put ourselves on a path toward climate justice in a holistic way.”

Developed nations need to end fossil-fuel use before mid-century, DeChristopher said. “That’s clear under the most hopeful scenarios. So there is no justification whatsoever for building new fossil-fuel infrastructure. All the new infrastructure that we should be building should be renewable energy and energy efficiency and de-energizing our economy.”

Beyond a tipping point
In 2009, the climate movement branded cap-and-trade legislation and the Copenhagen climate summit as the “last, best chance” to curtail the threats of climate change. “And we totally failed,” DeChristopher said. “It’s becoming extremely clear that it’s too late ... beyond the tipping point of preventing the catastrophic levels of impacts. That doesn’t mean the end of everything. It doesn’t mean there’s not a lot that still needs to be done in terms of minimizing and mitigating those impacts. But we are committed to a path that involves a lot of suffering. We are committed to a path that probably involves the collapse of a lot of the institutions and structures that provide that sense of security in our lives, that make us feel normal and feel OK.”

The goals are no longer simply about cutting emissions, DeChristopher said. “The job of our movement is also about figuring out how we can navigate this path of chaotic change and disruption in a way that holds on to our humanity, how we can hold on to a sense of meaning, hold on to our values. And what I saw in a lot of the climate movement was that we didn’t have any of the tools and the skills to even begin having that conversation.”

The goal now, DeChristoper said, is to limit damaging impacts of climate change by ending fossil fuel as quickly as possible and shifting agricultural and land use “to minimize how quickly we go off that cliff.”

“Equally important,” he added, “is also trying to shift how we navigate that decent. And a big part of that is whose steering the ship. There is a radical difference about the huge impacts that might lead to the collapse of some of our institutions with an educated and engaged community who feels like they can chart the course of their society and can change society to their own values and feel empowered to do that. Versus the collapse of the institutions with an apathetic and ignorant and scared citizenry that’s afraid of their own government and assumes the corporations have all the power and get to call all of the shots.”

Gotta have faith
Spirituality also re-emerged in 2009 as part of the new environmental movement. DeChristopher often speaks at conferences — many of them new — that explore faith and the environment. He is active within the Universalist Unitarian Church, and recently led a talk about prison reform at the First Unitarian Church of Providence.

He sees religious traditions as having the tools and skills that address some of the climate change’s hopelessness and “how to hold onto our humanity and make meaning in desperate times.”

Religions succeed at helping people cope with loss and death, DeChristopher said. They are now being looked to help with the loss of a civilization, an empire, or a way of life, he added.

“So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done for adapting the old tools to a very new situation,” he said. “People are exploring in a lot of different ways and I think that is really healthy.”

Paris summit
DeChristoper couldn’t attend the United Nations climate conference in December, but called the event “an exercise in make believe.”

The global agreement, he said, failed to address the inevitable mass displacement and relocation required of hundreds of million of marginalized people because of sea-level rise.

“What I saw in Paris was a complete denial of that reality,” he said.

Without a face-to-face public acknowledgement about global displacement, “we relegate that response into something that happens behind closed doors,” DeChristoper said. “And that’s much scarier than having this open dialogue about what the losses and the suffering will be and how we can respond to them in a just way. In an absence to that, we end up with desperate responses by those in charge.”