The Activist's Dilemma

It's time to start matching our sentiments to our actions.

Lone protseter at the 2007 G8 Summit in Germany.
Photo by Michael Probst/AP

It’s late, maybe 2, or 3 a.m. I’m scanning my email inbox for anything important I might have missed. I notice a message that lists the names of two famous activists – Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein – in its subject header. It’s a call to action, soliciting support for Tim DeChristopher, a climate change activist who faces ten years in jail after disrupting an auction of oil and gas leases in Utah. DeChristopher prevented the Bush administration from selling off 14 parcels of land for fossil fuel extraction by placing fake bids on them, and he is being prosecuted for this crime, despite the new US administration ruling that the land had been inappropriate for sale.

I’m interested in getting involved, because of the kind of activism practiced and the punishment of jail time, but also because I now want to know more about Tim DeChristopher.

On his website ( there is a video of DeChristopher speaking at a climate rally in Salt Lake City last October. An athletic-looking 26-year-old with a shaved head and intense eyes, he speaks loudly and succinctly, like a charismatic churchman in full swing. At times he even breaks into gospel song. And there is more than a hint of spirituality in his speech, too. He tells the small crowd of his own personal awakening – how every day since his action, despite knowing he may soon be behind bars, he has walked a little taller and felt a little freer. He also offers them a kind of salvation, declaring that it will be social struggle and activism that will make us the truly noble beings we were meant to be.

In an interview with Democracy Now, DeChristopher quotes the late US environmentalist Edward Abbey, who said that “sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” For much of his time as an activist on climate change, he explains, he felt a nagging disconnect between the scale of the issue and his response to it. But when he began to bid at the auction and risk imprisonment, he became profoundly calm.

I understand this. As a climate activist I have felt this disconnect … and also the feeling that comes from taking a stand. As I signed on to a never-ending parade of online petitions, wrote letters to politicians and chose ‘eco-friendly’ options at the local supermarket, I felt that such token actions betrayed my true feelings about the importance of the issue. But there have also been times when my actions honestly represented my convictions.

Last September I was arrested for trespassing during a mass civil disobedience action against one of the world’s dirtiest coal power stations. On another occasion I fasted on water and salt outside Australia’s Parliament House from early November till mid-December, calling for action on climate change with Climate Justice Fast! – an international hunger strike I cofounded. On those occasions I experienced the feeling DeChristopher describes. Riding in the back of a police car after my arrest, I felt a warm contentment, and strangely enough, an enormous sense of freedom. Weak and hungry from my fast, I often puzzled the journalists who asked how I felt: I told them I felt very good indeed.

What I found, and what I believe Tim DeChristopher and Edward Abbey found, was that we cannot be at peace if our actions do not reflect what we truly believe. But when they do, our spirits soar. Then we’re alive and free.

This is no groundbreaking revelation. Mahatma Gandhi expressed the same feeling when he said that “happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony.” Yet while it is nothing new, there may be few ideas more urgently needed in our time.

In his 2008 book, The Freedom Paradox, Clive Hamilton argues that within free-market capitalism, corporate interests actively discourage us from acting in accord with the values, preferences and desires we would endorse after careful consideration. Very few of us, he writes, would, upon deep reflection, say that it is our innermost desire in life to work incredibly hard at a job we dislike in order to possess the latest consumer products. Yet this is precisely the life our society encourages. From early childhood onward, advertisers expertly instill within us a set of values, preferences and desires that are not our own, but those that corporations wish us to have. As a result, our true ideals become increasingly neglected and stigmatized. This denial of our moral selves, Hamilton believes, can largely explain the discontent increasingly prevalent in affluent societies.

Empirical support for these ideas can be found in the work of Martin Seligman, the world-renowned psychologist and expert in the study of happiness. After years of research, Seligman has proposed that a major component of happiness is having meaning in our lives, which is achieved by being devoted to something larger than ourselves. This complements Hamilton’s arguments well. The things we devote ourselves to and derive meaning from will doubtlessly be linked with our inner values. And if devoting ourselves to things we deeply value is an important part of happiness, it seems only obvious that failing to do so – and living in societies that actively discourage us from doing so – would lead to unhappiness.

In essence, the research suggests if you feel that you should be taking certain actions or that you are not living up to your true ideals, you will probably be a happier person if you take those actions and live up to those ideals. It’s simple, really. But also quite important.

We, the humans alive today, are very likely the last generation that will be able to mitigate climate change and stave off global ecosystem collapse. Our responsibility is enormous. Yet while our politicians procrastinate and our polluting industries and lifestyles continue to expand heedless of the risks, many of us remain dormant. A small section of our society is alive to the issue and politically active, but climate change activists are still far too few to bring about the changes we desperately need.

Our greatest hope, then, may be that Hamilton and Seligman are right, that our societies harbor an enormous number of people who are failing to live up to their inner ideals and are unhappy as a result. If that is truly the case, the salvation offered by Tim DeChristopher in Salt Lake City is real. Standing up and acting upon our deepest ideals – and fighting back against the forces systematically destroying our environment – would not only allow our species to continue to survive and flourish on planet Earth, it would also make us happier and more free. Matching our sentiments with actions, as Edward Abbey may have said if he had been more optimistically inclined, will give us the feeling of real life pulsing through our veins and make our souls sing.

Paul Connor is an activist, musician and postgraduate Philosophy student from Melbourne, who in 2009 cofounded and participated in Climate Justice Fast! He blogs at