I’ve spent this week following the trial of Tim DeChristopher.

In December 2008, Tim DeChristopher attended a federal auction of oil and gas leases on nearly 150,000 acres of land near national parks in Utah. The leases were offered by the Bush administration in a last-ditch rush to open as much public land as possible to energy development before they left office. At the auction, DeChristopher bid on and won over $1.8 million in contracts that he had neither the money nor intent to actually fulfill.

His goal was to disrupt the auction and to bring attention to the illegal selling of leases of federal land. He was successful on both parts, and in January 2009, a federal judge halted the lease sale on 77 parcels citing federal law requiring thorough environmental analysis. A month later, Ken Salazar, President Barack Obama’s Interior secretary, cancelled the contested leases.

When the trial opened this week, leading environmentalists , writers, and scientists stepped up to the plate to back DeChristopher (popularly referred to as Bidder 70) and crowds of supporters amassed at the courthouse in Salt Lake City.

Yesterday Tim was found guilty. Nobody was surprised, least of all Tim. He knew he had broken the law, but, as he reminded crowds earlier in the week, what was going on outside the courthouse was more important than what was happening inside. He was prepared to go to jail if it served to rally a nation.

“Making that decision — that keeping the oil in the ground was worth going to prison — that was the decision I made.”

The whole event has left me both terrified and hopeful.  Terrified because the support for Tim DeChristopher has been so passionate and so fierce and has come from so many well-spoken, educated people, that the importance of what Tim did is startlingly clear. This is not your mama’s “come on people now, smile on your brother” peace protest. No, this is NASA scientists, heads of international organizations, and other fully-informed writers and journalists who are laying it on the line for one guy’s act of civil disobedience on behalf of our planet.

Why does that scare me? Because it drives home (again!) how serious this climate problem is. The devastating effects of carbon on the climate are not the products of some flaky treehugger’s imagination or a communist plot (you think I’m joking). They are real and measurable. This planet is going under and it terrifies me that we can’t (won’t?) do a damn thing about it.

But, I truly am an eternal optimist, and as such, I can’t help but see a glimmer of light in this dark tunnel. Thomas Friedman, in his March 1, 2011 NY Times column posited that:

Future historians will long puzzle over how the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in protest over the confiscation of his fruit stand, managed to trigger popular uprisings across the Arab/Muslim world.

Is it possible that we’ll be saying the same thing about Tim DeChristopher? Could he be the climate movement’s Mohamed Bouazizi – one guy whose spontaneous heart-felt act of civil disobedience galvanizes a soporific nation?

Let’s hope so.


Some Resources:

Bidder70.org ; Twitter: #bidder70

Peaceful Uprising ; Twitter: Peaceful Uprising

Tim’s fabulous speech, from the courthouse steps after the verdict.