As one of the more counter-intuitive economics departments in the United States, the University of Utah has not only been the long-time host of the Marxmail server but also where Tim DeChristopher was a graduate student. When you first take a look at Tim’s face in the documentary “Bidder 70” that opened yesterday at the Quad in New York without knowing anything about him in advance, you might assume that he was just another conservative Mormon student especially with his military-style haircut.
It turns out that he was one of the most courageous and principled civil disobedience activists in recent American history, standing in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr. The title of the film refers to Tim’s taking part in an oil and gas lease auction on December 19, 2008 in which he bid $1.8 million for 14 parcels of land without any intention of paying for them. Although there was a well-organized environmental movement in Utah to protect the pristine land that was at stake, he decided to put his body on the line and face the consequences. And some consequences they were. He faced up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.
Since Tim was from West Virginia, he knew first-hand what energy corporation despoliation of the wilderness amounted to. Mountaintop removal in that state has generated enormous profits for the coal companies while leaving the water and forest ruined forever. Not only is there an injury to the natural world, there are few benefits economically to the working class. In one scene, where Tim returns to survey the latest damage, a long-time environmentalist tells him that in the richest parts of the state from a corporate standpoint, the local businesses remain hanging on a thread. And once the coal is gone, the small businesses and population become totally superfluous.
While I paid close attention to the incident that led to Tim’s arrest, I realized that I had heard little about the case in the intervening months. This led me to sit at the edge of my seat in suspense wondering whether he would have to spend a decade in prison. Usually I don’t mind including a “spoiler” in my film reviews, but in this case will not include one since it would rob the documentary of its powerful dramatic tension.
The film is not only valuable for telling Tim’s story but that of the movement in Utah as well. You hear from dedicated activists and see how they organize their creative and compelling protests. While Utah might seem like the sleepy boondocks to people living in blue state America, the truth is that it is in the vanguard. This might be expected since the stakes are so high. As one of the most beautiful and environmentally endowed states in the country, its citizens would have to be sick with shortsighted greed not to take a stand against energy company rape.
Of course, there are those who don’t mind seeing Utah suffer the same fate as West Virginia, starting with a Democratic Party Congressman who is in the back pocket of the energy companies. Tim and his comrades support a more progressive candidate against him in the primaries but the immense wealth of the corporate polluters make electoral bids almost futile.
“Bidder 70” is a character-driven documentary that is a success on its own terms but one might have hoped for more expert testimony on the environmental issues that provide the backdrop for Tim’s heroic intervention. It probably would have to be the subject of another film unless a decision had been made to double the length of the film.
There is little doubt that if the public was aware of the disaster that it awaits it because of global warming, it would be driven to offer vocal support for Tim DeChristopher as well as other leading figures such as Bill McKibben and James Hansen who are seen in the film.
At one point Tim expresses his worries over the mounting presence of greenhouse gases. At the time of the filming, he said that we were rapidly approaching the tipping point of 380 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Just a week or so before the film opened at the Quad in New York, the news came out that we were now at 400 ppm.
On Democracy Now, climate change expert Michael Mann spoke about what this meant:
So, this number, 400 parts per million, what does it mean? It’s the number of molecules of CO2 for every million molecules of air; 400 of them are now CO2. Just two centuries ago, that number was only 280 parts per million. So if we continue to add carbon to the atmosphere at current rates, we’ll reach a doubling of the pre-industrial levels of CO2 within the next few decades.
Now, 400, what does that round number, 400, mean? Well, what it means is that, as you alluded to, we have to go several million years back in time to find a point in earth’s history where CO2 was as high as it is now. And, of course, we’re just blowing through this 400 ppm limit. If we continue to burn fossil fuels at accelerating rates, if we continue with business as usual, we will cross the 450 parts per million limit in a matter of maybe a couple decades. We believe that with that amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, we commit to what can truly be described as dangerous and irreversible changes in our climate.
So, what we are already witnessing, in fact, the effects of climate change. If we look at the past year here in the U.S., last summer, the record heat, the record drought, the record wildfire that destroyed large forest areas in Colorado, New Mexico. We saw, you know, tremendous damage to our crops in the breadbasket of the country. We saw Arctic sea ice diminish to the lowest level we’ve ever seen, and it’s on a trajectory where there will be no ice in the Arctic at the end of the summer in perhaps a matter of 10 years or so. We also saw the devastation of Superstorm Sandy. Now, we can’t say that Hurricane Sandy was caused by climate change, but many of its characteristics are precisely the kinds of characteristics that we predict tropical storms and hurricanes will have if we continue to warm the planet. We will see more destructive tropical storms. We’ll see more flooding. We’ll see more drought. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because, remember, we’ve only just crossed 400 now. We will reach 450 ppm in a matter of a couple decades if we continue with business as usual.
Who knows how many will die because of the consequences of global warming? One expert predicts as many as 100 million. Ironically, “Bidder 70” connected to “Hannah Arendt”, the film I saw the day before. Based on actual footage of the Eichmann trial, it takes up the question of the “banality of evil”. If six million Jews died because of a combination of anti-Semitism and bureaucratic indifference, who could deny that the ethical path practically forced on Germans in the 1930s was resistance to Hitler, including the young people who posted anti-Nazi posters in the name of the White Rose. While we by no means face the same kind of killing machine as the Nazi state, there are huge risks involved in standing up to the bureaucratic petro-military machine. Tim DeChristopher is the living embodiment of White Rose values.