Guilty (of Protecting the Planet)

Utah Now

Last Thursday, March 3, environmental activist Tim DeChristopher was declared guilty on two felony accounts. His crime was disrupting a 2008 auction by bidding on federal land in Utah slated for oil and gas drilling without having the funds to pay for it.

In his trial, DeChristopher was barred from using the “necessity defense,” that is, from explaining the political motivations behind his action. Kirk Johnson, covering the trial for The New York Times wondered “Do Motives Matter?” In the case of hate crimes, for example, establishing motive is key; In the DeChristopher case, the judge ruled that the jury could not consider his motives—i.e., that the drilling would contribute to planet-destroying climate change.

The prosecutor, U.S. attorney Carlie Christensen, is preparing a pre-sentence report. DeChristopher is being charged with making a false statement to the federal government and with violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act, which establishes a competitive bidding process for oil and gas leases.

All week, supporters organized by Peaceful Uprising rallied outside the courthouse, singing songs as the trial began.

A slew of articles, blog posts and statements have been published in support of DeChristopher’s nonviolent intervention by environmental journalists, celebrities and activists. When he was originally arrested, climate scientist James Hansen, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Robert Redford and Terry T. Williams published a widely circulated letter in support of Tim DeChristopher’s action with such flowery language as: “In a landscape of little water, where redrock canyons rise upward like praying hands, we can offer our solidarity to the wild: wild lands and wild hearts.”

Jeff Biggers, author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (Nation Books), argues that DeChristopher “deserves the Medal of Freedom, not a prison sentence.” Bill McKibbens, cofounder of 350.org, wonders why it is that DeChristopher should face imprisonment while those who are committing “climate crimes’ remain free.

To be sure, DeChristopher’s action and trial raises vital questions about the personal risks involved with taking action on moral and political principles. He will be sentenced on June 23, 2011 and faces up to 10 years in prison.

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