The Courage to Stop Pretending: Tim DeChristopher Sentenced

Can going to jail be a happier choice than turning a blind eye to climate injustice?
Tim DeChristopher, photo by Daphne Hougard

Photo by Daphne Hougard

After being found guilty in March (of making a false statement and violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act), activist Tim DeChristopher was sentenced today in federal court to two years in prison and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine. He was taken into custody immediately. 

If you haven’t yet heard the details of the now-famous action that got him arrested, the short version is this: While protesting at an auction of oil and gas leases on Utah's public lands, he was asked if he was a bidder, and said “yes.” He proceeded to bid millions of dollars he didn’t have, upping the price of some parcels, winning others, and eventually shutting down the entire auction—which was later dismissed as illegal by the Obama administration.

And now he’ll be spending the next two years in federal prison.

I keep thinking about something that Tim told me when we met at a conference last month. Even with his prison term looming (he didn’t yet know how long it would be), he said: “I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”

In some ways, I wasn’t surprised. Though he’s facing serious consequences for a spur-of-the-moment decision, Tim has never, at least to my knowledge, expressed regret. In February, he told me, “I would do it again in a heartbeat. In a general way I'd actually been preparing for this for a long time, building up the general commitment to take this level of risk, to be ready when the time came. I knew I would probably go to jail for it, but my mindset was: ‘It’s worth it to keep this oil in the ground.’” The nonprofit he helped found, Peaceful Uprising, uses the phrase “joy and resolve” as its tagline.

But happy? Happier than ever?

I wasn’t taking notes, so I can’t quote the conversation directly, but the reason for Tim’s surprising statement boiled down to this: he’d given up on feeling trapped and powerless. He’d given up on pretending that nothing was wrong.

Understanding just how dangerous and how deeply unjust the climate crisis is—but not feeling able to do anything significant about it—is a horrible feeling. Sometimes it leads us to ignore what we know is happening, because it’s just too much to contemplate. Sometimes it leads to frustration, depression, shame, despair. And sometimes, as with Tim, it leads somewhere else.

Tim DeChristopher by barn, photo by Daphne HougardMore Powerful Than We Know
Tim DeChristopher on why "we have more than enough power" to stop the fossil fuel industry.

I am angry to see such a brave and principled person locked up for, in his words, valuing justice more highly than the law—particularly when so many that value their own profit more highly than the law face no repercussions.

But I am also inspired. Tim has been called a hero by many who praise his courageous action. But we shouldn’t discount the other kind of courage involved here: the courage to take a truly honest look at the very scary future we face, and at our own capacity to change it (which, Tim insists, is much greater than most of us believe).

The artist Chris Jordan once described our repressed grief and fear about environmental devastation this way: “It seems to me that that's a portal we have to step through. We have to let go of what's on the other side, and go through.”

Tim gives me hope that what we’ll find on the other side may not be more shame and despair, but resolve—and even, maybe, joy.


  • Speaking at Power Shift 2011, activist Tim DeChristopher says it's high time the environmental movement stop just making statements—and start taking a stand.

  • An interview with Wendell Berry midway through his four-day sit-in in the Kentucky governor's office in protest of mountaintop removal coal mining.

  • Solving the “It’s not my problem” problem. A psychologist on what keeps us from coming to terms with the climate crisis.