Earth Day, oddly, has never been a huge deal for me. I’m just a little too young to really remember its remarkable debut in 1970, when one American in 10 went out in the streets to demand action on clean air and water. That unprecedented activism laid the groundwork for the swift passage of legislation, and the almost-as-swift rehabilitation of lakes and rivers. But in the years after, many Earth Day celebrations drifted in a slightly more corporate direction; there wasn’t anything wrong with them, but they didn’t seem to be helping arrest environmentalism’s slide into relative impotence.
This year, however, the holiday really resonates, because there are two heroes reminding us of the sacrifices they’ve made to move the fight forward, and the way the rest of us need to step up our game.
One is Tim DeChristopher, who will be out of federal custody today after serving 18 months for an inspired act of civil disobedience. He participated in an auction for federal leases to drill for gas and oil even though he … wasn’t a rich oilman. The federal government was unamused—instead of charging him as an activist who’d pulled off a creative stunt, they treated him as a financial criminal whose intent had been to defraud. (This was the same Department of Justice that didn’t manage to find anyone to prosecute for bringing down our financial system with their greed.) And so he’s given up a year and a half of his life.
I got to visit Tim when he was in federal prison in the California desert, and then again when he was in a halfway house in Salt Lake City. I know he’s going to be fine — I know he’s going to be more than fine, since he is already signed up to start at Harvard Divinity School come fall. I also know his story is going to inspire many to join in with Peaceful Uprising, the group he helped found. A documentary about his fight, Bidder 70, is showing all over the country on Monday night. Find a local screening (and watch a trailer for the movie below).
As Tim got out of custody, Sandra Steingraber went in. She’s been a great leader of the fight in New York state to keep the frackers at bay. A scientist by training but a great leader by force of will, she has spearheaded the so-far successful battle to keep Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) from letting the oil and gas companies do to the Empire State what they’re doing to the Keystone State just across the border to the south.
Steingraber sat down in a driveway to block access to a storage site for fracked gas, then refused to pay $375 in bail, so she’s spending 15 days in jail. She wrote to me just before she went in, with, characteristically, a list of the tasks she hoped to accomplish while behind bars, mostly writing projects that will spread her penetrating analysis yet further afield.
Hours before the jail door closed, she sat for an interview with Bill Moyers (watch a clip below). Her resolution and the great power of her love shine through every minute. They also shine through Facebook posts she’s been able to smuggle out of prison; read parts one and two of her Letter from Chemung County Jail.
It’s no accident that the emerging fossil fuel resistance has sent so many people to jail in the last few years. That’s because the overwhelming wealth of the fossil fuel industry means we can’t outspend them; we need other currencies with which to work. Passion, spirit, creativity. And sometimes we have to spend our bodies.
Others of us will have the chance soon to emulate the witness and courage of Tim DeChristopher and Sandra Steingraber. For us, today, it’s enough just to thank them for their gifts to the future.
Watch a clip of Moyers interviewing Steingraber:
Watch the trailer for Bidder 70: