Days of Revolt: Coping with Reality
In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges interviews climate change activist Tim DeChristopher about the social tension and injustice triggered by the deadly failure of the industrial world to confront climate change
CHRIS HEDGES, TRNN: Hi, I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt.
Today we’re going to discuss the failure in particular on the part of the industrialized world to confront the deadly effects of climate change and what our ethical response should be. As the ecosystem careens towards ecocide.
With me to discuss this in New York City is Tim DeChristopher who was bidder 70 in 2008 in Salt Lake City. When he bid on parcels of mineral rights on public lands without actually having the money to extract those minerals for which he was arrested and served 21 months in federal prison. He is the founder of Climate Disobedient Center. Thank you Tim.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Thanks for having me.
HEDGES: So, give me your vision of where we’re headed and what the world’s going to look like given the inability to respond on part of the global elites. I think Hanson called the last climate conference in Paris a fraud.
DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, I’ve been calling the Paris conference, an exercise in make believe. We’re certainly not stopping climate change at 1.5C. We’ve already committed to that and we’re not stopping it at 2C.
HEDGES: Well don’t we have like 4-5 degrees already in the oceans and the pipeline, even if we stopped all carbon emissions?
DECHRISTOPHER: We have at least 2C which a lot of scientists are saying would push us past the tipping points where then we’re on the road to 4 or 5C. Which means that basically we’re not limiting climate change to a level where we’re still going to save our ice sheets. We’re not limiting it to a level where we’re still going to be able to protect our coastal cities. We’re committed to massive disruptions in weather patterns and ecosystems, and agricultural practices. Massive dislocation of people.
So I kind of look at it in terms of what the human impacts of that are, that we can imagine. I think often we talk about the scientific impacts of this many meters of sea level rise. This degree of precipitation changes. I think we are sort of downplaying it by looking at climate change by looking at scientific impact. Because really climate change is a trigger on the social tensions and injustices that we already have. So I look at the southwest of the U.S. which is a region that I’ve spent a lot of time in and I’ve done a lot of work around the Colorado River system which is already drying and is predicted to continue drying up much more rapidly than expected. In the past year, the Department of Reclamation tripled their expected likelihood of Lake Mead going dry or going below the levels of where it produces power by 2020.
HEDGES: Isn’t this something we’re seeing in every new climate change report is that things are accelerating at a rate that climate scientists did not expect?
DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah. Basically every climate science report is more bad news. Saying that things are worst and happening faster.
HEDGES: And getting worst far faster [that way].
DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, and some of that is new understandings that are continuing developing. And some of that is climate scientists just being more blunt about what they have known for a while and sort of having stronger evidence to say with confidence what they’ve really known for 5 or 10 years. They’ve known since the mid 2000’s that we’re not stopping climate change. It’s clear when Copenhagen failed that we weren’t going to limit it to a level that was less than catastrophic.
When we look at what that does to the human dynamics like they’re in the southwest, we’re facing real water shortages. That’s not happening in the vacuum. That’s not happening in any sort of ideal society. That’s happening in a society and a region of the country that already has social dynamics like the minute men and the sovereign citizens and all those groups that are in the habit of blaming their problems on people of color, on immigrants, and are on such levels of desperation that they’re arming themselves as vigilantes and shooting immigrants coming across the border.
That’s happening without any real insecurity that they’re facing. It’s just sort of the perceived insecurity of white men.
HEDGES: Well maybe economic insecurity.
DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, but a very slight level of economic insecurity, compared to when Lake Mead stops producing power. When the mandatory restrictions kick in for the Colorado River Compact.
HEDGES: Which means what? Explain what that is.
DECHRISTOPHER: So the Colorado River Compact is the federal and international agreement with Mexico of who gets water rights out of the Colorado River. As the reservoir levels drop, it triggers mandatory restrictions. So places like Arizona are the first to suffer restrictions on whether people can water their lawns. Actually the agriculture industry is first before golf courses.
HEDGES: Oh you see that in California.
Yeah, first we’re going to shut off to the farms, then we’re going to shut off to the golf courses. But by that level where it stops producing power it shuts off that. Which means that the tourism industry there, the agricultural industry are going to be suffering real serious impacts. Plus, the sort of deep human insecurity of turning on the tap and not having water come out. There’s something unsettling about that on a deep level.
So if just the little bits of threats of patriarchy white supremacy that are triggering these guys to go arm themselves and shoot immigrants. If that’s what that little insecurity’s causing what is this actual major insecurity going to trigger in our society and in other societies around the world. As we’re seeing in places like Syria right now.
HEDGES: Which I think we should throw in is of course there’s a horrendous Civil War and saturation bombing on the part of primarily the United States and Russia. But there are also issues over water and resources in Syria.
DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, and even the CIA say that that was the main trigger that sets the Syrian Civil War off. That several years of drought that forced farmers off of their land and caused a huge migration of several million people into the cities which caused all kinds of social tension. Likewise, in Darfur was a big factor in causing the genocide there. So I think our role is to sort of step into that extremely tense and potentially hostile situation and try to bring humanity into that situation. Because I don’t think it’s inevitable that hardship pits people against one another and brings out the worst in us.
I think it’s also possible that that hardship can be an awaking to get us to say oh maybe greed and competition weren’t the best values to be basing our society off of and get us to turn towards one another and start cooperating more. It could be, the genuine hardship of climate change could be a natural selection for those most willing to cooperate with one another. Rather than a natural selection for those who are most willing to do the most horrific things towards one another.
HEDGES: As the environment deteriorates, you could argue that it’s only those who cooperate with one another, who have a chance of building systems to survive. And Kropotkin writes about this. That the whole idea of survival of the fittest is wrong within the animal kingdom. That it’s herds, that it’s groups that look after each other that have the highest survival rates.
DECHRISTOPHER: Well I don’t think it’s inevitable either way. I think it is actually a social choice and one that we need to be prepared for. That if we sort of stumble into that crisis with the sort of default scapegoating and violence that is rampant throughout our society. If we stumble into that, then we’re looking at a very dark path. If we go in with a greater degree of confidence and intention and courage we can steer that path.
HEDGES: How do we build that consciousness whereas even you had said earlier, we live in a hall of mirrors, an illusion. We fail to confront the reality of not only where we’re headed but even what’s happening around us.
DECHRISTOPHER: Well I think it comes from those who do see that reality. Being willing to address it honestly. To talk about it honestly. Like a lot of people in the climate movement know that it’s too late to stop climate change but say oh well we can’t really talk about that publicly. We’ll scare people under paralysis or whatever. They so oh we can’t talk about adaptation because that’ll distract away from the efforts of mitigation.
HEDGES: You mean adaptation to climate change?
DECHRISTOPHER: Right, so like after the Copenhagen failure of 2009, it became clear that we were going to see a degree of climate change that means places like Bangladesh are going to go under water. That was obvious after 2009.
HEDGES: Well I think isn’t it pretty certain that most of our large coastal cities are going to go underwater.
DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, but I think once that became clear that the place was going to go underwater then the question became what’s going to become of the people? Of the 160 million Bangladeshis about half of whom live at less than 10 meters above sea level and we didn’t have that conversation openly. We were told, we weren’t supposed to talk about that because people couldn’t handle that conversation. But someone was having that conversation because in the couple of years after the Copenhagen failure of 2009 India began building a border fence all the way around Bangladesh. A 1,790 mile partially electrified fence. So somebody made the decision that what we’re going to do with those people is we’re going to keep them right where they’re at so they don’t inconvenience the rest of us.
HEDGES: Well we know that the NSA and they have run scenarios on climate change. The military and the Pentagon are certainly preparing for this world. Yet of course they’re preparing for it in secret.
DECHRISTOPHER: Right. Right in the absence of a public conversation about how we navigate this difficult path in a way that honors our shared values and holds on to our humanity. In the absence of that the default path is genocidal. That’s what certainly has been happening with decisions about Bangladesh.
HEDGES: How do you cope with the kind of mania for hope that is particularly or is particular to American culture. If you can’t give a hopeful message they don’t want to hear it?
DECHRISTOPHER: I wish I had a good answer. I struggle with that a lot.
HEDGES: I mean if you, as you’ve just done, lay out what is a factual reality and it doesn’t lift us up to broad sunlit futures, people will dismiss it in the culture.
DECHRISTOPHER: I think some people will. I mean, like after Paris I had several weeks of depression, seeing the dishonest response by the climate movement. Even parts of the climate movement that I generally respect and work with a lot.
HEDGES: You mean in terms of calling it a breakthrough?
DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, and calling it an unprecedented agreement when it’s not anymore ambitions or binding than the Rio Agreement in 1992. The original UN framework convention on climate change.
HEDGES: And why do you think they did that? You have any idea? Because they must know. On a certain level they must understand.
DECHRISTOPHER: I think it’s a variety of factors. I mean I think part of it is the NGO structure and the funding requirements of that and what they have to do to protect their organizations and promote their organizations. I think part of it is a secular movement that doesn’t really have any of the tools to grapple with hard truths.
HEDGES: Okay well that’s an important point I want to come back to but go ahead.
DECHRISTOPHER: Without the tools to grapple with that grief and despair that do come when you admit that truth and I don’t want to impose to many negative motivations on others.
HEDGES: But isn’t it kind of infantilism, really?
DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, it is a very strong belief. Like a big part of the belief is people can’t handle that truth. That we need to spoon feed people what we think they can handle and just try to manipulate people to take the kind of actions that we want them to take.
HEDGES: Let’s talk about grief. I feel it. I read the climate change reports, I have children. It fills me with despair. How do we cope with it?
DECHRISTOPHER: I think part of the way that we cope with it is admitting that we were always headed towards that path. That we were always going to die.
HEDGES: As a species?
DECHRISTOPHER: Well and as individuals as well. You know we like to have this progressive notion that we do these good things to make a better world at some point in the future and even if consciously it sort of falls short of a utopia or a sort of promised land in the future. It’s still sort of this outcome based value system, that’s based on things being okay in the end.
HEDGES: It’s the myth of progress.
DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, but I think that’s also tied to a myth of immortality. That when we talk about some of the most honorable things that we can do. We use language like we saved someone’s life. But that person’s still going to die. Every person that we do something nice for is still going to die. So if it’s really outcome oriented then we’ve always been kind of deceiving ourselves with that value system.
HEDGES: Well you know, that’s why Herman Melville when he wrote Moby Dick conceived of the deity as malevolent and he sided with Ahab. For precisely that reason and Ahab goes in search of the white whale to slay a malevolent deity. Or as Mark Edelman, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising wrote, he saying he became a doctor. He said we shield the flame until it’s blown out. How do we cope with that mortality? both as individuals and as a society and of course the ancient Greeks saw both individuals and societies operating in cycles of birth, maturation, decay, and death and that none of us were immune from that. But we have a very different, courtesy of the Hebraic and Christian notions of linear time. A very different kind of mindset that I think as you correctly point out makes it difficult for us to cope with mortality. How do we penetrate it and what are the spiritual resources that allow us to confront what’s real?
DECHRISTOPHER: Well I think it’s a process of grounding our values in the here and now. In recognizing that our values and the justice that we fight for and all those sort of things make sense in the here and now. Not necessarily some far off outcome. That we do these caring things for one another and we care for the world around us and we struggle for justice because that is the way to express our gratitude for the world that we love and for the people that we love and for a God that loves the world. That it’s really the only way to be in integrity with the gifts of the world that we receive.
HEDGES: And not because things are going to get better.
DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah. I don’t think it has to be absolute on one way or another. Between sort of duty bound or outcome bound senses of morality. I don’t think that we sort of act arbitrarily without any expectation of being effective. That certainly doesn’t lead to good activism.
HEDGES: I spoke with father Daniel Berrigan once and he said for him, faith was the belief that the good or at least the good in so far as we can determine in it, draws to it the good. And that it may bet that all the empirical evidence around you says otherwise but it doesn’t invalidate what you’ve done. The Buddhist call it karma. But I think that’s kind of what you’re getting at. That and I think that it’s the greatest existential crisis of our time to see clearly what’s before us.
And yet carry out the good if we can call it that, anyway. And that defines the spiritual life. I think that what makes it so potent is that it doesn’t believe in an illusion. It accepts the darkness and yet responds to that darkness in just the ways that you pointed out which is reaching out and caring for life.
DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, and I think that’s the fundamental difference between like a faith based activist.
HEDGES: Which you are.
DECHRISTOPHER: And a technocratic kind of activist.
HEDGES: I don’t want to tar you with Harvard Divinity School but you are. I’ve also studied for [mastervinity] as you are. But I think that as the world unravels, I think we do have to reach and it doesn’t have to be obviously through the Christian religion or even from any religion but there has to be a grounding spiritually to confront what’s before us. And [Kamu] had it and all sorts of people who don’t come out of religious traditions had it. They found another vocabulary by which to express it.
DECHRISTOPHER: And I’m seeing a much greater hunger for that among activists and particularly among young activists. You know with the other founders of the Climate Disobedience Center we met with Rain Forest Action Network a month or so ago in their offices. We kind of were presenting why we think our strategy can be effective for social change. Very much a logical presentation. In our introduction we just sort of mentioned that we all approached this with sort of a spiritual perspective and when it was opened up to questions all they wanted to talk about was the spiritual grounding for our work. And our religious perspectives.
HEDGES: What did you tell them?
DECHRISTOPHER: Well we all come from slightly different places so we all sort of expressed what that meant for us and where it came from. When we started trusting that that faith perspective had a real role to play in our work. For me it was couple years ago when I was advising a group of Green Peace activists that had just done a banner drop and been hit with major felony charges and were now facing 9 and a half years in prison. So I was basically sort of pastoring to them. Not only how to prepare for the trial and organize around it but also how to prepare for prison. Then a few days later I found out that one of those 8 activists the day after I talked to them had killed himself. It made me rethink what it meant to sort of help someone find the tools to do this work. That it made me recognize that in this work of climate justice, we are fighting some big evils.
HEDGES: We’re fighting forces of death, literally.
DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah. In a lot of different ways. This guy who had killed himself, he was also a veteran that had been Iraq and Afghanistan so you know so the evil of fighting the fossil fuel industry is intertwined with the other social justice and the other sort of evils in our militarized society. So it gave me a new degree of seriousness about what kind of rock we stand on when we stand up against that kind of evil and how we’re developing in the movement. I realized we haven’t put nearly enough effort into that. Into those spiritual struggles.
HEDGES: I think you’re right. I think that’s the glue that will hold us together and allow us to go forward. That understanding that there are moral imperatives that override even effectiveness itself. And if we hold fast to this moral imperatives or the moral life, even if we fail it doesn’t invalidate what we’ve done because that kind of fight for justice and resistance is not about what it achieves but what it allows us to become as human beings. Thank you Tim.
DECHRISTOPHER: Thank you.
HEDGES: And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.
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