Lighting a spark: How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Ende Gelände activists targeting a coal mine in 2019. Photo: Tim Wagner/Flickr

Harry Holmes reviews Andreas Malm’s ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’. Harry argues that the book gives a balanced assessment of the conditions which make sabotage, vandalism, and other forms of strategic direct action necessary in a warming world. This review was first published by Bright Green and has also been reposted on the rs21 website. Malm’s book is designed to provoke debate on strategy and tactics and we would welcome further contributions on these issues.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline starts with what will be a familiar image for many. It’s the yearly climate negotiations, activists have streamed towards the conference space, pleading with representatives to ratchet up their ambition to tackle the climate crisis. People block city traffic with banners, with activists dancing and playing music in the reclaimed streets. The next day brings a giant public theatre performance, with environmentalists pretending to be animals run over by cars whilst ‘negotiators’ walk around with signs saying ‘blah blah blah’.

Was this a collection of Extinction Rebellion activists performing and blocking traffic? Was it even earlier, in 2015 at the Paris negotiations? Maybe it’s 2009, during the economic crisis and the Copenhagen conference? No, this image comes all the way from COP1, the climate conference that started it all – in the lost world that was 1995.

Speaking straight from his experiences of this first COP, Andreas Malm’s recollection of these early climate protests indicates a wider malaise – a certain sluggishness of environmental strategy. Despite the growth in awareness around the climate crisis and the rapid increase in the number of people organising for environmental justice, there has been limited change in the actions climate groups are willing to take to defend life.

In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Malm has written a short and gripping manifesto which aims to wrench the climate movement out of its complacency. By convincingly arguing against movements’ dogmatic attachment to milquetoast non-violence, Malm makes clear that as the climate crisis escalates so too must the tactics of those seeking to defend life. Not content with simply dispelling the misguided understandings of pacifism environmentalists hold, How to Blow Up a Pipeline gives a balanced assessment of the conditions which make sabotage, vandalism, and other forms of strategic direct action necessary in a warming world. Coming out of the pandemic, with movements regrouping and attempting to navigate the mess that is the 2020s, this book is the shock to the system the world needs.

Beginning with the pacifism many climate movements advocate, a significant portion of this book is dedicated to dispelling the often ahistorical, whitewashed, and faulty justifications given for non-violence. To do this, Malm separates these arguments for non-violence into two forms; a moral pacifism focused on the wrongness of violence from an ethical perspective and a strategic pacifism centred on the advantages to environmental movements from committing to non-violence.

Learning to defend ourselves

It becomes clear that Malm has little time for the first form of pacifism. He turns to the case of Mohammad Rafiq, a 65 year old who stopped a right-wing terrorist attack on an Oslo mosque in 2019. As the gunman entered the building, the pensioner ran at him, tackling the would-be shooter to the ground where, with the help from other nearby men, they disarmed and beat the attacker. Malm points out that such self-defensive actions and any similar attempts to defend from far-right violence are unacceptable from the perspective of moral pacifism. With the struggle against the climate crisis being understood as a similarly defensive movement, focused on protecting life, Malm argues moral pacifism should hold little sway as a dogma. It risks being too rigid in the face of the escalating need to act in life’s defence.

Environmentalists’ deluded reading of the history of social change is not confined to past lifetimes either. Malm points out how groups like XR continue to invoke recent events, like the Poll Tax Rebellion of the early 1990s, as inspiration for non-violent ‘civil disobedience’, despite the Poll Tax famously being scrapped as riots rolled through London. Such a reading of history is not only one sided, but an act of positive erasure – an erasure which works to the detriment of the environmental movement’s strategic horizon.

Finding the radical flank

Looking at each of these past movements, Malm doesn’t reject the importance of the non-violent element. In fact, he suggests the opposite, the existence of a radical flank willing to commit acts of violence combined with a growing mass of non-violent organisers made change possible. Non-violence allows movements to grow larger quickly, it can secure sympathetic coverage in the public eye, and it can prevent government escalation. Because of this, non-violence always has a role.

Of course, no history of environmental movements would be complete without an assessment of the violent direct action of groups like Earth First! and similar Liberation Fronts in the 1980s to 2000s, who were responsible for the destruction of many a logging site. Malm suggests that their ultimate collapse was, at least in part, due to the lack of a wider mass movement where they could position as the radical flank. Malm’s polemical insight is that mass non-violence is the necessary condition for the impactful escalation to violent tactics and today, with climate strikes and Extinction Rebellions aplenty, we are not short of mass non-violent movements.

In short, it is not either/or but both, together in an escalating cycle. Malm argues the current environmental movement’s failure to accept the potential co-existence of both violence and non-violence reflects the wider collapse in revolutionary politics since the 1980s. In response to this collapse:

We have to learn how to fight all over again, in what might be the most unpropitious moment so far in the history of human habitation on this planet.

To begin these wide-ranging strategic conversations about fighting the climate crisis, Malm suggests focusing on two general goals – there is a need to announce and enforce a growing prohibition on new emitting devices, as well as rapidly reducing the lifetime of the polluting infrastructure and devices which already operate. The question, when bringing these general ideas down to Earth, is how precisely the environmental movement may go about this?

Building on Henry Shue’s distinction between luxury and subsistence emissions, Malm points to the increasingly violent role of luxury emissions, and the urgent need to focus efforts on these devices, whether SUVs or planes. There are several clear arguments given for focusing action on luxury devices, these are worth listing in full, albeit paraphrased:

  • As the effects of climate change are here, the harm from these luxury devices should be understood as immediate.
  • Luxury emitting devices like planes and cars allow the super-rich to also be hypermobile and escape the effects of climate change.
  • The ideological role of these devices is the championing of destructive lifestyles.
  • There is an ethical cost of how the money could have been better spent mitigating and adapting society to climate change.
  • In any reduction of emissions, it is better to reduce luxury emissions first rather than those necessary to secure subsistence.
  • Finally, and perhaps most crucially for Malm’s argument, there is the supremely demoralising role that these devices play. After all, if we cannot even get rid of SUV’s how are we meant to move towards a sustainable society?

Recognising this, Malm points to the need for violence to not just include the strategies of sabotage preventing new fossil fuel infrastructure from being built. It should also encompass the ways in which sabotage ‘can be done softly, even gingerly.’ Pointing to the mass movement in Sweden which deflated the wheels of SUVs during the night, Malm argues environmentalists should be comfortable engaging in extensive acts of vandalism targeting the luxury devices common in the Global North. Such violence would show how the ‘rich cannot have the right to combust others to death’, as well as preventing new emissions.

Unleashing new tactics

In opening up the horizon beyond non-violence, Malm invokes a further difficulty – precisely under what conditions does violence become necessary? What form might violence take? How to Blow Up a Pipeline makes clear that violence constitutes attacks on property, coming under the messy monikers like sabotage, vandalism, and demolition. This book is unequivocal that this does not extend to people or animals, nor property which is necessary for their subsistence. This still leaves much on the table, but Malm’s book should be read as a defence of destruction to property in a similar school as that of Osterweil’s In Defence of Looting.

Malm invokes scholars of direct action like William Smith, whose research points to important conditions which should be met for the successful escalation from non-violence. For Smith, escalation succeeds only if action would stop something which would likely cause harm, where mellower non-violent tactics have been exhausted, and where action is based on some wider ideal or charter, such as the Paris Agreement. Malm makes clear his view that these conditions are largely met for most fossil fuel infrastructure.

There are still several objections to escalation which could be posed. One is that governments have supremacy when it comes to repression and violence. As a result, escalation from the environmental movement could result in extreme crackdowns from states across the world. Malm accepts this asymmetry in power, in fact he suggests that it extends far beyond the ability of the state to commit violence. However, Malm points out that there is no law that this asymmetry ‘can never be overturned from below.’ Fighting climate change is a David vs Goliath fight in every sphere, whether economic, social, or militaristic. If we accept asymmetry as an argument against moving beyond non-violence, it would also mean abandoning nearly every climate struggle.

So Malm turns to the crucial argument many make for non-violence, that of popular support. The old story goes that abandoning non-violence leads to declining public opinion and a collapsing movement replete with infighting. Violent acts would be a ‘negative radical flank’, cutting into the wider non-violent movement. On the first issue of public opinion, Malm argues the role of social movements is not to take ‘an existing level of consciousness as a given, but rather to stretch it.’ Violence needs to stretch and drag society forward. This means that violent actions should be clearly explainable and acceptable in their wider context, with Malm suggesting perhaps the best strategy is to lie in wait for the next extreme weather event to strike at luxury emissions. With regards to the collapsing movement, Malm argues that the radical flank must simultaneously be prepared to be disowned by the wider movement, whilst also being receptive enough that in the case of either escalating repression or public backlash it can call off its actions.

The New Climate Laboratories

With regards to this last point, how are these contradictory characteristics to be satisfied? Being able to balance the tightrope of competing arguments for and against escalation is not something that Malm can answer in around 150 pages. In such a short work, one is left desiring the detail, the roadmap, where in practice the neat lines Malm draws can be observed. These will never appear, as only practice and thought together can bring this flourishing. What How to Blow Up a Pipeline does is effectively indicate strategic considerations and reflections which must be borne out in the practices of climate movements. There is no perfect tactic, no silver bullet, only a magazine of possible actions which environmentalists need to constantly assess as the crisis gets worse.

Malm puts his faith most of all in the climate camp movements like Ende Gelände and Reclaim the Power, where activists come together in mass numbers to shut down fossil fuel infrastructure. These camps can be built easily, allowing the movement to spread horizontally whilst also being planned well in advance. As the number of attendees rises, so too does the capacity to outmanoeuvre police and disrupt fossil fuel infrastructure. Malm invokes these spaces as the ‘unrivalled laboratory for learning this fight.’ If environmentalists are to develop the strategic acumen to pull the breaks on emissions, then what is need is a proliferation of these camps and any other equivalent ‘laboratories’ – we need spaces where climate activists can come together to learn and act with a sense of militancy. In the 2020s, Malm’s book points to the need to let a thousand laboratories bloom.

The final pages of How to Blow Up a Pipeline reflect on the opposite tendency to such escalating militancy – a climate fatalism which presents breakdown as inevitable. Many writers are encouraging society to ‘learn how to die’ and bring a deep pessimism about our capacity to change course. Whether in the work of Franzen, Scranton, or others, Malm rejects their pessimistic understandings of society’s future as that of a particular class interest. It is comforting for the rich of the Global North, unable to accept their need to change production and consumption, to ‘project this weakness of the flesh onto society’ and doom it to climate collapse. What is harder is internalizing the continued need for resistance.

With every part per million counting, with every stopped pipeline saving lives, and with every minute counting, the truth is the opposite of what the climate fatalists suggest. Looking to those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or who resisted within the extermination camps, Malm invokes the continued gesture of struggle against all odds. As Malm puts it:

Precisely the hopelessness of the situation constituted the nobility of this resistance. The rebels affirmed life so extraordinarily robustly because death was certain and still they fought on. It can never, ever be too late for that gesture. If it is too late for resistance to be waged within a calculus of immediate utility, the time has come for it to vindicate the fundamental values of life, even if it only means crying out to the heavens.

One hopes, like Malm, that it does not come to this, that we come to tackle the climate crisis with the ambition it needs before such hopeless struggle is necessary. What How to Blow Up a Pipeline does is act as a rallying cry for a climate movement far too comfortable in its ways, at a time where bold action is more than overdue.

How to blow up a pipeline is published by Verso at the beginning of January 2021 – we will have a small number of copies available for £10 (including UK postage). To enquire or order use the contact form.