Back on December 19, 2008, Tim DeChristopher, like the average college undergraduate that time of year, took a final exam.
But then DeChristopher headed to downtown Salt Lake City for a demonstration against the impending sale of oil and gas leases on federal land for $2 an acre. Instead of joining the crowd, the undergraduate walked into the actual auction of the land – where someone handed him a paddle, assuming he was there to bid.
So, to even his own surprise, he did.
By auction’s end, he had bought about 22,500 acres of leases, at a total price of $1.8 million.
There was, of course, one problem.
He didn’t have $1.8 million.
The result: He was convicted of disrupting a federal auction and sentenced to two years in a minimum-security prison. (In October he was released to a halfway house where he will compete the term.)
But that’s not the end of story. As detailed in Donald E. Skinner’s article in the Winter 2012 edition of Unitarian Universalist magazine UU World, his spontaneous yet sly more delayed the auctioning of the land, some of it close to national parks, until Barack Obama was in office – at which point a more environmentally friendly administration gave up on the idea altogether.
Reading Skinner’s article, I couldn’t help seeing DeChristopher’s prison term as a kind of community service. Many socially conscious students do a year or two of volunteer work through church, government or other non-profit agencies, and while they make a significant difference in more subtle ways, the experience just leaves them that much more frustrated about the big picture.
Meanwhile, DeChristopher knows the result of his individual sacrifice: More than 20,000 acres of preserved wilderness.
Yet DeChristopher argues that the key to his activism was not his individual daring, but his feeling of connectedness to others. In a companion essay to Skinner’s article, DeChristopher defines activism as “the actions of those who lack authority through the traditional power structure yet still believe they can shape the society around them. Because activists by definition are at a disadvantage to their opponents, the effectiveness of activism is based on activists’ interconnectedness.”
People who dismiss the efforts of activists, DeChristopher argues, are more invested in the myths of individualism than the values of community. “Those who believe in the notion of the isolated individual usually refer to activists as naïve. It’s ridiculous to think that one isolated individual could possibly change massive institutions like corporations and governments.”
Which is why for DeChristopher, even secular activism can be a spiritual statement. “By its very nature, activism is an act of faith in our fellow human beings. The greater the risk and sacrificed involved in the activism, the greater the faith required in each other.”
This seems ironic, given the act of individuality that stopped the auction in the first place. But it only worked because millions of others shared that concern, including a President. Whenever the many perfectly credible reasons for cynicism threaten to grind us down into inaction, stories such as DeChristopher’s can affirm the faith to keep making a difference – whether small or, now and then, enormous.