Science in Film: Climate Change and Prison

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What do climate change and prison have in common?

It's hard to imagine at first. That is, until watching the true documentary movie Bidder 70. You might think that the industrialists who put the most carbon into the atmosphere creating the climate crisis would be held accountable. But no, not yet.

The film Bidder 70 shows the case of environmentalist Tim DeChristopher, a young man whose act of civil disobedience hoping to curb climate change landed him in a United States prison for two years.

Tim DeChristopher. Photo credit: Jonathan Mauer.

The movie Bidder 70 is named for the number given to Tim DeChristopher when he joined in an unusual goverment auction - as a bidder. The auction was held by the U.S. government to sell off Utah's public lands, parks, to the highest bidder for oil and gas drilling by energy companies. It seems strange, but is true that this happens. Environmentalists including DeChristopher wanted those lands preserved and so they protested the sales.

Later, the auction itself was declared illegal and the bids dropped. Even so, the charges the United States made against DeChristopher for disrupting the auction were pursued to the bitter end of a trial, conviction, and a harsh two year prison term.

The public lands and parks in the United States are set aside for citizens to enjoy and appreciate nature. Walking through my local public park today in Brooklyn, New York, I saw teenage girls playing handball, mothers picnicing with babies under the tall old trees, men playing volleyball, people walking their dogs, and some reading or sleeping on the grass in the bright summer sun.

What will we do when we have no natural public spaces left to us?

When U.S. public lands are given over to energy companies for drilling, environmentalists speak out and protest. Drilling, mining, and fracking for fossil fuels only make climate change worse, causing more pollution and putting more carbon into the atmosphere. Because climate change that was foretold by scientists years ago is now a reality, more and more people are looking for solutions. 

What was so unusal about Tim DeChristopher's way of protesting was that he didn't only stand outside and make speeches. He joined in the auction and started bidding himself, without having the money to buy the land, in order to block the sales of the land to energy companies.

The documentary from Beth Gage follows DeChristopher's daily life and his decisions about how to work toward preventing the environmental disaster of climate change. While waiting for his court trial, he travels back to his childhood home in West Virginia. He witnesses coal mining by mountain-top removal and sees the devastation of the rural areas there. He didn't want this same fate for the natural areas of Utah.

The poverty and pollution he found in West Virginia that was left in the wake of mining reminded me of what I saw in Pennsylvania. There, I visited the areas undergoing fracking for gas, and I wrote about it in Stream & Shale, a children's true story book. You might think that the energy business would leave some profits behind, but from what I saw, the poverty remains and only becomes burdened with industrial mining wastes.

DeChristopher faces a difficult moral conflict in his journey documented in Bidder 70. Interviews with actor Robert Redford, with scientists, and with DeChristopher's mom give background to this fascinating story. Don't miss it!

For a glimpse into what DeChristopher is doing now at Harvard Divinity School, after his release from prison, read this fascinating interview.

About the author


Author, scientist, editor, and health care educator Jennifer J. Brown lives in New York City. She writes novels, short stories and poems and she blogs on science in film at Film Annex. J.J.Brown worked in research before turning to fiction writing. She has a PhD in genetics from her work…

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