Monday, June 13, 2011

When Guys Like This Go To Prison, Questions Must Be Asked

Tonight I heard one of the most inspiring, intelligent, hopeful and sensible discourses ever.  Unfortunately, the speaker, Tim DeChristopher, is going to jail.

Mr. DeChristopher ran afoul of the law at the end of the Bush Administration, when he entered a false bid in a Bureau of Land Management mineral auction, effectively stopping the despoliation of 22,000 sensitive acres near Arches National Park in Utah.  The results of the auction were thrown out anyway, after a finding that BLM was violating its own standards, effectively giving away public resources to the extraction industry (some of the land DeChristopher purchased cost as little as $2.25 an acre).  Nonetheless, Obama’s Justice Department is intent on prosecuting DeChristopher, who faces a probable sentence of 4 ½ years in federal prison, to be announced later this month.

Speaking at Santa Fe’s University of Art and Design, wearing a “Peaceful Uprising” T-shirt that revealed bulging biceps and a barrel chest, DeChristopher looks more like a wrestler than an activist.  Yet he talked fluidly, in complete paragraphs without notes, for over an hour on what drove him to his act of civil disobedience.

He recalled attending a conference in 2007 with Nobel Prize winning scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change.  The worst case scenarios they presented were catastrophes for the planet, while the best case scenarios were also disasters.  Essentially, the scientists agreed that their generation had failed and that the then 26-year-old DeChristopher and his peers would be facing a radically diminished future.

But it’s our economy that has failed, DeChristopher said, built on a premise of ever-increasing acquisition and consumption that has produced huge profits for corporations and a few wealthy winners at the top, but failed to generate happiness or even justice for the majority.

The fossil fuel industry is largely to blame, he suggested.  Look at states where that industry has achieved its greatest success … places like West Virginia and Kentucky for Big Coal, regions like Louisiana and Mississippi where off shore drilling is booming.  These are generally states marked by poverty, lower than average life expectancy, and dismal educational system.  Why?  In an economy based on extraction, whoever owns the resource controls the rules and the outcome of the economic game.

Solar and wind energy challenge that equation, ready to be harnessed by whoever has know-how and is willing to work.  In comparison to oil, coal and nuclear, they tend to democratize power, spread wealth around.  That’s why there is so much resistance to renewables.

In the question-and-answer session, someone asked if capitalism is compatible with a clean environment.  DeChristopher, an economist, responded that, regardless of whether the party in charge calls itself socialist or rock-hard Republican, what matters most is an informed, engaged citizenry not afraid of their own government.  America is not a capitalist country in any case, he continued, but one based on corporate nationalism, with a virtual merger of business and ruling class. 

Adam Smith, who is widely considered the father of capitalist economics, called for “competitive markets,” he pointed out, and to be truly competitive, those markets need to insure that the price of goods truly reflects the costs involved (and that costs are not simply “externalized” or sent downstream like so much pollution, for hapless folks down river to pay in out-of-pocket costs for health care).  Consumers need equal access to vital information.  And according to Smith, no company should be so big or powerful that it can control prices.  Every player should be a price “taker” rather than price “maker.”  America right now could use a little old-fashioned capitalism, DeChristopher proposed.  How’s that for radicalism?

By mid-summer, he’s likely to be behind bars, and he’s reconciled to that. Because when guys like him are so threatening they’re imprisoned, people begin to ask questions.  Who is our government really protecting?  And whose interests does the law really serve? 


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