Bright Lights Film Journal

From Climate Hacker to Hero: An Interview With Tim DeChristopher

Originally published in

An environmental idealist stops an illegal oil and gas auction by bidding for parcels he can’t possibly afford. Savaged by an exponentially accelerating climate crisis, a once-proud nation rewards him…by throwing him into a hole.

Along the vertiginous fall, he tumbles through a dystopia that denies his rights, then creates a case against him out of thin air. He fumbles through a prison complex way too in love with mind-raping solitary confinement. Eventually, he emerges a free man, resolved to wreak electoral vengeance against those who sold him out. Good thing the cameras were rolling.

But the bizarre arc of Tim DeChristopher‘s life — documented in Bidder 70, opening Friday in New York and parts outward, often with him in attendance — is sadly far from singular. Pop-cultural analogues can be found from Carroll to Kafka to Hitchcock (especially North By Northwest‘s hacked auction) and beyond. But back here in our far more surreal Reality, there are too many compromised political prisoners to count.

“One of the things I found out while I was locked up was that the injustice involved in my case was not unusual,” DeChristopher told me by phone after wrapping up a two-year sentence last month. “By any means. In fact, it’s the status quo for how our legal system works.”

But the status quo must go, or we will. DeChristopher’s climate activism has only been energized by the tumultuous experiences chronicled by Bidder 70, because he knows the environmental verdict is in: With CO2’s preventable 400 ppm limit now fading in the rearview mirror, runaway climate change is more ready than ever to put the war in global warming.

We need each other now, to save us from each other tomorrow.

“Going down a path of extremely rapid change with an ignorant, apathetic citizenry afraid of its own government, which is under the thumb of corporate power, is terrifying to me,” DeChristopher said. “That is a very dark future. However, going down that path with an educated and engaged citizenry, unafraid to hold its government accountable and corporations subservient to the will of humanity? Well, that has a lot of opportunity. That is a much brighter future.”

To achieve this ideal citizenry — argues the environmental idealist, who has likely served more time than you for his faith — environmentalists need to starting taking down our own. Republicans are a dead brand, mostly stuffed with cowards and lunatics. That leaves what’s left of the sellout Democrats and Big Green groups that thought environmentalists would chill while Exxon scored another record-breaking quarter or President Barack Obama signed off on Keystone XL.

“If we want lasting change, we have to start taking people out of office,” DeChristopher explained. “And with the power we have right now, that means Democrats.”

I spoke at length with DeChristopher about hacking the Democratic party, arcane but vulnerable processes like elections and auctions, why Americans really should spend more time in prison, and other tragicomic matters of consequence. Read up, plug in, turn out.

Morphizm: Following your case over the years has been a sanity test. So how have you managed to stay sane?

Tim DeChristopher: [Laughs] Well, one of the things I found out while I was locked up was that the injustice involved in my case was not unusual. By any means. In fact, I found it’s the status quo for how our legal system works. Pretty much everyone I met had a case that, while different in detail, had similar levels of injustice.

Morphizm: Bidder 70 well documents that legal injustice, which as you say is standard operating procedure. How would you advise climate activists about what they’re up against if they take on the status quo?

Tim DeChristopher: The legal system is a tool of those in power, which is what I found in my case. They basically invented a charge to lock me up for something that had never been done before. The main charge used against me had never been used before. It was a brand new charge, with no case history. So they essentially defined the law around what I had done, because they couldn’t find a law that fit what I did. Even the judge was instructing the jury around the facts of my case, rather than what the law said. He had shaped and interpreted the law to fit what I had done.

Morphizm: Are you concerned that climate activists will be increasingly targeted by these precedent-free, precrime stratagems as the climate crisis worsens, before they even put their bodies on the line?

Tim DeChristopher: Yeah, I think more and more climate activists will face prison time like I did, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. One thing I learned was that prison wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I think more will go to prison, but I also think they can handle it. Also, it was effective: The fact that I went to prison exposed so many people paying attention to my case to the realities of our justice system, which helps to undermine the authority of our government, and its status quo. That’s why pretty much every social movement that has created major change in American history has included civil disobedience, because it undermines government authority. Ultimately, I think that — throughout my whole legal process and time in prison — I hurt the government worse than they hurt me.

Morphizm: Americans seem loathe to take to the streets the way they did last century, when socioeconomic and racial disparities were much more visible. Do you have a sense that is changing with the climate crisis?

Tim DeChristopher: We’re seeing that throughout my generation, and the climate movement. That’s been one of the big changes I’ve seen over the past few years, and one I’m encouraged by. When I first started talking about civil disobedience in 2008 and 2009, most professional activists and environmentalists looked at me like a turd in a punchbowl. [Laughs] You know? Like I was speaking out of turn or something. But now, civil disobedience is really accepted by most as an essential part of a diverse movement. It’s now a mainstream position, which is a tremendous shift.

Morphizm: Do you think that shift has become more established because mainstream activists and environmentalists finally have a clearer picture of what they’re up against, or whether they actually believed civil disobedience wouldn’t have any effect and have now suddenly changed their minds?

Tim DeChristopher: I think the main reason is the big D.C.-centric green groups completely failed. Through 2009, that part of the movement kept everyone in check by saying, “Listen, we know how to create change. We know how things work in Washington. This is what is politically feasible. You have to do it our way.” And they failed, largely because they didn’t have a movement behind them. They completely fell on their face without even accomplishing the false solution they were putting forward. That created a lot of space for the grassroots to step up and ay, “OK, we tried it your way. Now we’re going to do it our way. We’re going to start with what actually needs to be done, rather than what is politically feasible.” That empowered the grassroots part of the movement that had long been repressed, because it’s much less connected to the status quo and much more willing to make sacrifices. And that’s why we see an increasing willingness to engage in civil disobedience, takes risks and push boundaries. The driving force behind the environmental movement now is no longer those big green groups with multimillion dollar budgets

Morphizm: The increasing disillusionment with the Big Green is concurrent with increasing disillusionment with Democrats, and their promises to get serious about climate change. In a sense, you’re a bipartisan victim, given the roles that both the Bush and Obama administrations played in your Kafkaesque trial.

Tim DeChristopher: Well, it actually all happened under the Obama administration. The illegal auction happened under the Bush administration, but I wasn’t indicted until several months into Obama’s first term.

Morphizm: Right, so throw those compromised political and corporate operators together with sellout greens and it’s no wonder that grassroots environmentalists are taking matters into their own hands.

Tim DeChristopher: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a growing awareness that our biggest obstacle for awhile has been comfortable liberals, especially those in power in the Democratic party. If we’re serious about shifting our power dynamics and regaining democracy in this country, then the first thing we have to do is get rid of those obstacles in the Democratic party standing in the way of genuine progressive action.

Morphizm: You touched upon this in your statement from jail, that progressives need to play dirty with sellout Democrats who feel unanswerable to the base that got them into power.

Tim DeChristopher: I don’t think a lot of the climate movement, if not most social movements on the left, is very good at analysis of political power. When it comes to the political power of social movements, one of the core truths is that party allegiance is a contradiction. You can’t be loyal to both a political party and the political power of your movement. You have to be willing to challenge your party, or even turn against it, if you’re ever going to make progress. I think the climate movement has made a tremendous amount of progress with building real power in frontline communities, but we haven’t really tried political power. We haven’t gone down that road. But if we want lasting change, we have to start taking people out of office. And with the power we have right now, that means Democrats.

Morphizm: Yes, we take out right-leaning Democrats, embrace left-leaning Republicans and work on strengthening third parties. Right?

Tim DeChristopher: Well, I think that we need to get a lot more creative when it comes to our electoral politics. You know, when I was locked up, I got about a dozen magazines, from leftists like Mother Jones and The Nation to radicals like In These Times to mainstream publications like The Economist. But I never found a good article about electoral politics, even from magazines that I think have really good reporting and critical commentary on so many issues. But when it comes to electoral politics, they present the conventional wisdom without challenging it. So there’s a very narrow range of thinking on electoral politics, when it comes to the left, so they’ve embraced two strategies. One is voting for the lesser of two evils, the other is not voting, and both have turned out to be catastrophic. They’ve been huge failures because they represent too narrow a range of possibility. There are more approaches available, whether that’s primary challenges or third-party candidates, and we have to get creative about finding even more.

Morphizm: Like hacking arcane processes that few understand — say, illegal oil and gas auctions — for the better of the people and their body politic. Both electoral politics and illegal auctions are purposefully obscure, but also remarkably vulnerable.

Tim DeChristopher: There’s a lot of potential for us to take power in different ways, especially through the electoral process, which has to be connected to what we’re doing on the front lines with grassroots communities. There’s been a disconnect between the movement’s grassroots and political sides, but we need to connect them if we want lasting change, and leverage one against the other.

Morphizm: Where would you advise those looking to hack the electoral process to start?

Tim DeChristopher: Well, we had an experimental campaign in 2010 against blue dog Democrat Jim Matheson, a champion of the fossil fuel industry who has pretty much sold out every progressive cause. He co-sponsored the bill to fast-track the Keystone pipeline and take it out of the president’s hands, a constitutional end-around that puts him out well ahead of most Republicans. We tried pressuring and lobbying him for awhile, but he was entirely unresponsive. So I put out a help-wanted ad on Craiglist for a challenger to run against him, because we couldn’t find any established politicians willing to do so. I gathered respected activists from progressive causes and we rolled out a process of public interviews for courageous candidates. It was an upstart campaign that engaged a lot of people who had abandoned the political process. And it got people to think about politics in a different way, about how we hire our representatives and make them work for us, about how we are their bosses. It wasn’t ultimately successful, but it did split the party vote at the convention and force a runoff primary in which Matheson had to dump about $1.2 million to drive us out of the water. It certainly wasn’t the perfect solution, but it was an important experiment. Craigslist is probably not the answer to our political problems, but we need more of these kinds of experiments to reengage people.

Morphizm: It’s also another brilliant hack. What would you tell activists looking for similarly unorthodox approaches to solving global warming?

Tim DeChristopher: That no one has ever solved a climate crisis before, and that no one has ever thrown off as much corporate power as we need to. No one has all the answers about what the right action is right now, but we need people taking risks and trying new things. But the important thing to remember about my story is that we have a movement behind us for when we do step out and experiment. That we have a movement supporting even just one person taking action, so that person isn’t taking action as an isolated individual, but as part of a movement that will support and carry them through the process.

Morphizm: Speaking of, what do you think about how Bidder 70 represents that process, the movement and your experience?

Tim DeChristopher: I think the Gages did a great job telling the story, and I definitely appreciate that.

Morphizm: Does it feel strange to see your story externalized, given how intensely you must have experienced it?

Tim DeChristopher: Yeah, absolutely. There was a lot that happened in the several years that the film covers, so it’s a whirlwind for me. I had to make a lot of choices about what to include, and what not to include as well, so it’s still strange for me to watch it.

Morphizm: I’ve read that you feel your strength is in articulating what you see coming. So what do you see coming when you look at the climate crisis, given that we’re now around 400 ppm and rising?

Tim DeChristopher: Well, I think it’s too late to prevent drastic climate change with any amount of emissions reductions. What that means is that we are essentially locked on a path of very rapid change, although I do think it’s still up in the air what that will look like. Going down a path of extremely rapid change with an ignorant, apathetic citizenry afraid of its own government, which is under the thumb of corporate power, is terrifying to me. That is a very dark future. However, going down that path with an educated and engaged citizenry unafraid to hold its government accountable and corporations subservient to the will of humanity…well, that has a lot of opportunity. That is a much brighter future. Activism now is more important than ever, because we are at that turning point. We can either go down the ugly path, or recreate the world according to our vision. But we know that things are not going to stay the same, which is why we need as much engagement as possible.

Morphizm: You’ve studied economics. Do you see any economic solutions to the climate crisis, or is our deregulated economy anchored to debt and consumption the primary reason we can’t stop the climate crisis?

Tim DeChristopher: I think the level of citizen engagement is more important than the kind of economic system that we have. Certainly, our current economy is unsustainable. Growth within a finite system is not possible for long; that’s the barrier we’re running up against right now. The economy cannot keep growing on a finite planet, so that has to change. But I think whether or not citizens are engaged in the economic process and holding government and industry accountable is more important than what kind of economic system they have.

Morphizm: Both will have to speed up, if they want to catch up with runaway global warming. As you said, we’ve never faced a climate crisis like this before.

Tim DeChristopher: Yeah, absolutely. That’s why I can’t really tell anyone else exactly what actions to take, but neither really can anyone else. None of the so-called experts know what’s coming next. We’re living in singular times.

Morphizm: I’m worried Americans are becoming way too comfortable with these dystopian singularities. For example, I’m greatly concerned by the increasing abuse of solitary confinement in general, but especially in your case, where it did nothing but scratch some perverse itch for your captors. Are you concerned that Americans have gotten too comfortable with it as a punitive measure?

Tim DeChristopher: We absolutely have. In my case, they found that I did nothing wrong. They had 90 days to investigate and decide whether I did anything wrong, and the only reason I wasn’t there the full 90 days is because of all the pressure that came from Peaceful Uprising and others barraging the Bureau of Prisons with phone calls. And yet, what is accepted by most people who have spent time in solitary is that around 50 days is when most lose their mind. That’s when people really start to go crazy. And I could hear that all the time in solitary, throughout the building. I could constantly hear someone going crazy. That has a very serious impact on people, especially those who don’t need to be in that situatio, or have done nothing to get themselves into that situation.

Morphizm: How did you keep your mind strong enough to move forward?

Tim DeChristopher: In large part, I did that by blocking other people out. The second day I was in there, the guy on the other side of the wall in the cell next to me was losing his mind. For several hours, he screamed, banged on the door, banged his head on the wall. He was losing it. And I basically couldn’t have any empathy for him; I had to block him out, and not empathize. I needed to protect my own psychological well-being. And that worked for me for the few weeks I was in there, but it’s also what really scared me. I’m scared of what that purposeful distance and separation from other people, that shutting off of empathy, would have done to me over the long term, if I had to continue doing it over and over.

Morphizm: It’s unconscionable, especially for someone like you whose goal is to make connections and empathize. I think of all these kids thrown into the hole for stupid shit and despair over our country’s answer to that, which is to take their minds from them. How is the transition back to connection and empathy going for you?

Tim DeChristopher: Its been fantastic to come back and reconnect. Parts of it have been a bit overwhelming, but most of it has been a pretty great experience.

Morphizm: So what’s your plan going forward?

Tim DeChristopher: I’ll travel around a bit during the summer, both for the film and for speaking opportunities. But I can’t wait to get back to the wilderness, after being locked up for such a long while.