Dig Deeper

Ever since Tim DeChristopher raised a bidder’s paddle in 2008, Bill McKibben has been by his side, helping the climate movement understand why Tim’s act of civil disobedience was so bold and so necessary. “We were moved by Tim’s sacrifice,” writes McKibben in this special reflection on Orion’s blog. Another long-time friend and confidante of Tim’s is Terry Tempest Williams, who interviewed him (“What Love Looks Like”) in the January/February 2012 issue of Orion.

It’s odd the amount a leader can accomplish without even being on the scene.

We’ve been missing Tim DeChristopher for better than six months now, ever since he was swept out of the courtroom and into the federal prison system. But he’s as big a part as ever of the fight for a working planet.

And the reason, I think, is not just that he can send inspiring e-mails and speeches out of prison (as he did before the Keystone XL oil pipeline demonstrations in the fall). It’s that he left such simple marching orders: do more. Dig deeper. Don’t be afraid. They’ve inspired his excellent organization, Peaceful Uprising, and by extension all the rest of us engaged in this work, not because he’s charismatic (though he is) or because we’re moved by his sacrifice (though we are). But because he’s right.

The environmental movement had gone about as far as it could go with the tactics it was used to using. They’d worked for a long time—worked because the early glory years, right from Earth Day 1970, had built up such momentum around the environmental cause that nothing could stand in its way. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act—I remember the great Gus Speth, a founder of the NRDC, telling me once that they didn’t lose a court case for ten years.

Eventually, though, that battery began to wear down. And at just the wrong moment, when we were suddenly up against the biggest challenge ever, climate change. Global warming comes from carbon dioxide—which is not a trace gas, like carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide causes smog; you can fight it with a scrubber on a smokestack and a catalytic converter on an exhaust pipe. The environmental movement was strong enough to win those things, and thank God. But carbon dioxide you can only fight by closing down the richest industry on earth, the coal and gas and oil industry.

If we’re going to do that, we’re going to need a whole new recharge for our battery. We’re going to need a movement at least as strong as the one that sprang up in 1970, when twenty million Americans (one in ten of the then-population) took to the streets on Earth Day. Tim recognized that, and knew actions like his might help catalyze the reaction. Certainly it helped; I think it was one reason so many people were willing to come get arrested in August in Washington to fight the Keystone pipeline, which turned into the biggest civil disobedience action in the U.S. in thirty years.

And absolutely everyone played along—Peaceful Uprising with NRDC, the Sierra Club with the Occupy movement. It was big, broad, beautiful. But it needs to be bigger and broader and more beautiful yet. There’s lots of work to do, and I can’t wait for Tim to get on the outside so he can do some more of it.

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and editor of The Global Warming Reader. His column “Small Change” appears in every other issue of Orion.


  1. We need to also try to end the consumption of energy and all products produced in ways that directly or indirectly poison the planet/harm nature’s balance.
    People and groups who can, need to be angrier, more passionate, more radical, smarter, more hard working, more self sacrificing, more uncompromising, think and act locally AND globally… tirelessly and endlessly…

  2. Bill – Thank you for YOUR leadership and work! The path has darkened since Step It Up when we got on the fossil fuel industry’s radar. And it’s time to go deeper.

    It is past time to be talking about solutions (like CFLs, recycling, and low flow shower heads) and time to start talking about Communities (i.e.us). As communities we can reject the demands of the fossil fuel industries and the consumerism they thrive on, we can support heroic actions by individuals.

    There is an encouraging undercurrent of Transition Towns, community supported growers, and “reskilling” initiatives rumbling beneath society’s veneer. Will they burst into the open and make a difference soon enough? Only time will tell. But one thing for sure, power never gives up power voluntarily. And a rising and non-violent militancy must become part of everything we do.

  3. There have always been courageous persons who become willing to risk there lives and comfort for a just cause. Their selfless sacrifices only become meaningful if we take the inspiration we feel from their actions and use it do something ourselves to further the aims these heroes are serving. We should all be deeply grateful for these souls who show us the Way.

  4. Congratulations to Bill McKibben, Tim DeChristopher, and everyone who helped stop the Keystone XL pipeline. Today is one of those days when it feels good to be an American citizen.

  5. This is a mess! Does you want to close down the coal, gas and oil industries or do you want to continue harping on about symbolic protests which are simply diverting a pipeline to another state (or somewhere else in the same state!)?

    If the former, then you will have to abandon the latter, because the former is a whole different ball game; a whole different way of thinking and acting. I don’t think you have any idea what closing down an entire industry means to the activists’ game plan – if you did, then you would have stopped appealing to “our leaders” (a favourite phrase of yours) and started undermining the entire civilized mindset.

    So, Bill, which is it to be?

  6. I was one of those arrested in August. Tim DeChristopher absolutely influenced me to become more of an activist. I could not sit at home just writing letters and sending in contributions after I heard what he did. And Bill McKibben and 350.org struck just the right dignified & determined tone in developing and carrying out the Tar Sands protest. It was an action I could join and be proud of. Finally, Sandra Steingraber personally inspired me to get to work on behalf of the kids. For some of us, it takes more than one hero, but we are getting going!

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