From Climate Hacker to Hero: An Interview With Tim DeChristopher

Morphizm: Where would you advise those looking to hack the electoral process to start?

Tim DeChristopher: Well, we had an experimental campaign in 2010 against blue dog Democrat Jim Matheson, a champion of the fossil fuel industry who has pretty much sold out every progressive cause. He co-sponsored the bill to fast-track the Keystone pipeline and take it out of the president’s hands, a constitutional end-around that puts him out well ahead of most Republicans. We tried pressuring and lobbying him for awhile, but he was entirely unresponsive. So I put out a help-wanted ad on Craiglist for a challenger to run against him, because we couldn’t find any established politicians willing to do so. I gathered respected activists from progressive causes and we rolled out a process of public interviews for courageous candidates. It was an upstart campaign that engaged a lot of people who had abandoned the political process. And it got people to think about politics in a different way, about how we hire our representatives and make them work for us, about how we are their bosses. It wasn’t ultimately successful, but it did split the party vote at the convention and force a runoff primary in which Matheson had to dump about $1.2 million to drive us out of the water. It certainly wasn’t the perfect solution, but it was an important experiment. Craigslist is probably not the answer to our political problems, but we need more of these kinds of experiments to reengage people.

Morphizm: It’s also another brilliant hack. What would you tell activists looking for similarly unorthodox approaches to solving global warming?

Tim DeChristopher: That no one has ever solved a climate crisis before, and that no one has ever thrown off as much corporate power as we need to. No one has all the answers about what the right action is right now, but we need people taking risks and trying new things. But the important thing to remember about my story is that we have a movement behind us for when we do step out and experiment. That we have a movement supporting even just one person taking action, so that person isn’t taking action as an isolated individual, but as part of a movement that will support and carry them through the process.

Morphizm: Speaking of, what do you think about how Bidder 70 represents that process, the movement and your experience?

Tim DeChristopher: I think the Gages did a great job telling the story, and I definitely appreciate that.

Morphizm: Does it feel strange to see your story externalized, given how intensely you must have experienced it?

Tim DeChristopher: Yeah, absolutely. There was a lot that happened in the several years that the film covers, so it’s a whirlwind for me. I had to make a lot of choices about what to include, and what not to include as well, so it’s still strange for me to watch it.

Morphizm: I’ve read that you feel your strength is in articulating what you see coming. So what do you see coming when you look at the climate crisis, given that we’re now around 400 ppm and rising?

Tim DeChristopher: Well, I think it’s too late to prevent drastic climate change with any amount of emissions reductions. What that means is that we are essentially locked on a path of very rapid change, although I do think it’s still up in the air what that will look like. Going down a path of extremely rapid change with an ignorant, apathetic citizenry afraid of its own government, which is under the thumb of corporate power, is terrifying to me. That is a very dark future. However, going down that path with an educated and engaged citizenry unafraid to hold its government accountable and corporations subservient to the will of humanity…well, that has a lot of opportunity. That is a much brighter future. Activism now is more important than ever, because we are at that turning point. We can either go down the ugly path, or recreate the world according to our vision. But we know that things are not going to stay the same, which is why we need as much engagement as possible.

Morphizm: You’ve studied economics. Do you see any economic solutions to the climate crisis, or is our deregulated economy anchored to debt and consumption the primary reason we can’t stop the climate crisis?

Tim DeChristopher: I think the level of citizen engagement is more important than the kind of economic system that we have. Certainly, our current economy is unsustainable. Growth within a finite system is not possible for long; that’s the barrier we’re running up against right now. The economy cannot keep growing on a finite planet, so that has to change. But I think whether or not citizens are engaged in the economic process and holding government and industry accountable is more important than what kind of economic system they have.

Morphizm: Both will have to speed up, if they want to catch up with runaway global warming. As you said, we’ve never faced a climate crisis like this before.

Tim DeChristopher: Yeah, absolutely. That’s why I can’t really tell anyone else exactly what actions to take, but neither really can anyone else. None of the so-called experts know what’s coming next. We’re living in singular times.

“What is accepted by most people who have spent time in solitary is that around 50 days is when most lose their mind. That’s when people really start to go crazy. And I could hear that all the time.”

Morphizm: I’m worried Americans are becoming way too comfortable with these dystopian singularities. For example, I’m greatly concerned by the increasing abuse of solitary confinement in general, but especially in your case, where it did nothing but scratch some perverse itch for your captors. Are you concerned that Americans have gotten too comfortable with it as a punitive measure?

Tim DeChristopher: We absolutely have. In my case, they found that I did nothing wrong. They had 90 days to investigate and decide whether I did anything wrong, and the only reason I wasn’t there the full 90 days is because of all the pressure that came from Peaceful Uprising and others barraging the Bureau of Prisons with phone calls. And yet, what is accepted by most people who have spent time in solitary is that around 50 days is when most lose their mind. That’s when people really start to go crazy. And I could hear that all the time in solitary, throughout the building. I could constantly hear someone going crazy. That has a very serious impact on people, especially those who don’t need to be in that situatio, or have done nothing to get themselves into that situation.

Morphizm: How did you keep your mind strong enough to move forward?

Tim DeChristopher: In large part, I did that by blocking other people out. The second day I was in there, the guy on the other side of the wall in the cell next to me was losing his mind. For several hours, he screamed, banged on the door, banged his head on the wall. He was losing it. And I basically couldn’t have any empathy for him; I had to block him out, and not empathize. I needed to protect my own psychological well-being. And that worked for me for the few weeks I was in there, but it’s also what really scared me. I’m scared of what that purposeful distance and separation from other people, that shutting off of empathy, would have done to me over the long term, if I had to continue doing it over and over.

Morphizm: It’s unconscionable, especially for someone like you whose goal is to make connections and empathize. I think of all these kids thrown into the hole for stupid shit and despair over our country’s answer to that, which is to take their minds from them. How is the transition back to connection and empathy going for you?

Tim DeChristopher: Its been fantastic to come back and reconnect. Parts of it have been a bit overwhelming, but most of it has been a pretty great experience.

Morphizm: So what’s your plan going forward?

Tim DeChristopher: I’ll travel around a bit during the summer, both for the film and for speaking opportunities. But I can’t wait to get back to the wilderness, after being locked up for such a long while.