Andreas Späth

Arnie the eco-warrior

2011-03-23 07:52

Andreas Späth

Arnold “I’ll be back” Schwarzenegger has been inciting Americans to rise up in revolt to overthrow the dirty industry that is holding back a clean, renewable energy future. And no, I’m not talking about his latest Hollywood blockbuster.

After expressing his admiration for the popular rebellions against dictators in North Africa and the Middle East at a recent US Department of Energy summit, the former Governator of California encouraged similar actions against American oil and gas barons: “we want to overturn the old energy order”.

Given the very broad definition of what qualifies as eco-terrorism under legislation like the US Patriot Act and given that the FBI has identified greens as the “number one domestic terror threat”, you’d think that Arnie would, at the very least, have been subjected to some form of official knuckle-rapping. He got away scot-free.

If ordinary citizens act on Schwarzenegger’s advice, they’re unlikely to be so lucky. The case of Tim DeChristopher proves my point.

In 2008, DeChristopher attended a demonstration outside an oil and gas lease auction organised by the US Bureau of Land Management. A last minute fire-sale by the outgoing administration of George W Bush, the auction was to distribute oil and gas drilling rights on remote patches of public land at bargain-basement prices.

By happy coincidence DeChristopher found himself inside the auction rather than demonstrating against it from the outside. On the spur of the moment, he decided to monkey-wrench proceedings by “participating” in the auction. He entered outlandishly large offers, drove up prices, out-bid oil and gas companies and ended up “buying” drilling rights to 22 500 acres of land in 13 parcels for some $1.7 million before he was stopped by a federal agent. By then he’d effectively scuttled the entire auction.

I consider DeChristopher’s action a brilliantly creative example of peaceful civil disobedience. The US legal system considers it a crime, even though the entire auction was subsequently declared illegitimate by the Obama administration. On the 3rd of March 2011, DeChristopher was convicted of two felony counts in a Salt Lake City court and now faces up to 10 years in prison and fines of as much as $750 000. I agree with noted climate activist and author Bill McKibben, who tweeted “The government should give him a medal, not a sentence”.

DeChristopher’s criminalisation is neither unusual nor unexpected, of course. So-called democratic governments around the world have been conducting a low-level war against people prepared to act non-violently in defence of the environment for years. Militant groups of animal rights activists bore the initial brunt, but in recent times even your average garden variety eco-organisation is being targeted.

Like the FBI, the UK’s National Public Order Intelligence Unit, a private company largely funded by government, but accountable to no one in particular, has recently been revealed to maintain lists of “extremists” and employ undercover surveillance officers to infiltrate green organisations. Major companies are getting in on the act, too. Scottish Resources, E.ON and Scottish Power, three of the UK’s biggest energy companies, as well as Monsanto, one the world’s largest peddlers of genetically modified seeds, have employed private security outfits to conduct covert intelligence-gathering and monitoring operations against eco-activists.

Closer to home, the local nuclear industry is said to cultivate a watch-list of prominent anti nuke-activists and last December 14 Earthlife Africa members were arrested and charged with “illegal gathering” and “public indecency” for picketing outside a public hearing of the government’s flawed IRP2 electricity master plan.

Is it just me or are these symptoms of a world in which what’s right and what’s wrong has been turned upside down? Bradley Manning, the suspected WikiLeaks whistleblower, is potentially facing the death penalty for exposing government wrongdoings ranging from misdemeanours to war crimes. Bankers involved in precipitating a devastating global financial disaster get bailed-out instead of jailed. Not a single BP bigwig gets charged with negligent ecocide in the Gulf of Mexico.

I’m with Arnie on this one. We need to support people like Tim DeChristopher and stand up to those who threaten life on our planet for the sake of short-term material gains and financial profits. Call me an eco-terrorist if you like.

Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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