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.

LOCAL FOOD PRODUCTION – PART 4

In the final part of his four part post on food production and just transition Mike Downham puts forward some ideas for the demands we should fight for and how to organise. We’d welcome comments and responses to this important discussion. You can read or download the full text here.

Demands

Choosing and formulating demands has to be collective. If a large number of people, all of whom can see the benefits of winning the demands, haven’t been involved in the process, the demands will fail. This is so obvious that it might not seem worth pointing out, but a lot of GND proposals have fallen into the trap of making detailed proposals drawn up by a small number of well-intentioned activists. 

A further general point about demands is that addressing them to governments is only part of their purpose. Equally or more important is that they should reach the whole of society – workers, Unions, civil society organisations and the general public. It helps in formulating them to remember that. The purpose of demands, beyond whatever response governments make or don’t make to them, is to increase the size, diversity and solidarity of the mass movement, giving it something concrete and specific to come behind.   

With regard to local food production, it’s enough for now to suggest that we need two sets of demands, one about making land available and one about educational opportunities.

Land demands will need to take land reform much further than the pallid 2003 Right to Buy Act. It’s common knowledge that land ownership in Scotland is more archaic and more unjust than in any other industrialised country in the world. For lots of reasons on top of local food production, any GND needs to confront that fundamental class issue head-on. It would not be difficult to construct an immediate demand that landowners should be compelled to relinquish tenure on a quota of their land for allotments or community gardens or educational gardens or farms producing for the local market, as long as each proposal fulfilled centrally specified conditions.    

Educational demands will need to cover classroom and kitchen staffing levels in schools, teacher training, and higher education course choices and staffing, formulated in discussion with workers and their trade unions. Given the recent strong protests of unionised college and university workers, we are in a good position to discuss with these workers and their unions whether this is the moment to demand that higher education should be taken back into public ownership.

Both land and educational changes will have to be anchored by state intervention, and democratically controlled at a local level. Our demands must include these conditions. 

Organisation

In considering how we should organise to achieve these demands the overriding point is urgency. The urgency of climate change is widely accepted, and we can’t afford to take our eye off the climate emergency just because air quality and carbon emissions have improved dramatically through lockdowns – though this does show what can be achieved by states when their backs are against the wall. The point is also being made by a lot of people and organisations that if we’re determined not to go back to the same normal once the pandemic is under control, we should start now to get together and say whatever it is we want to say about the new normal. It could take years, with further catastrophic waves of infection, before the pandemic is under control. We absolutely shouldn’t wait to act until then. Even these few weeks before the possibility of a second wave of infection in Scotland mustn’t be wasted.

An additional point argument for urgency in relation to Scotland’s food strategy is the growing prospect of a no-deal Brexit, which could leave the shelves of supermarkets empty again, and not just transiently.  

But how do we get together? Building community knowledge, consciousness and solidarity in the context of neoliberalism can take years. In Jackson, Mississippi, they’ve been at it for 40 years. The poor neighbourhoods of North Edinburgh have been at it for at least 10. We don’t have time for that. But the pandemic has created a unique context, in which governments across the world are in a weaker position, and communities in a stronger one, than at any point in the history of industrial capitalism.  One immediate opportunity in Scotland is to build on the mutual solidarity networks which have mushroomed during lockdown. Some of these networks are new, while some developed from previous neighbourhood organisations. Other groups are likely to emerge as the full economic consequences of the pandemic bite. As the structure of the economy has changed over the last 50 years, with workplaces that are smaller and often distant from where the workers live, some people working from home, and the predominance of services over production, it’s become clear that we have to organise not only where we work, but also where we live. So we need to join and become active in any local formations which are concerned about the future for working class people, and for most of us there are or will soon be opportunities to do that. And we shouldn’t see existing legislation, including the legal obligations of Local Authorities, as things which can’t be swept away by a mass movement.

More will have to be done about Scotland’s food than the development of local food production. That was illustrated by the traffic chaos in Glasgow last week on the day 31 Macdonald’s drive-ins opened. But development of local food production, as an integral part of a Green New Deal focussed on both a Just Transition and a Just Recovery, bringing with it jobs and training and neighbourhood solidarity, is a good place to start. We can take on Macdonalds and intensive farming later.

You can read or download the full text here.

Image by Joe Brusky System Change Not Climate Change CC-BY-NC 2.0

What will a return to ‘normality’ mean to us?

Mike Downham responds to the recent post on Pandemic, Climate Crisis and the threat of a return to ‘normal’.

Pete Cannell (5th April) has helpfully spelled out what a return to normality after the pandemic will mean to the ruling elite. But what will it mean to the rest of us?

Even at this relatively early stage of a crisis likely to go on for many months, I hear people talking about the things they don’t want to go back to after it’s all over. Most commonly people talk about how society has suddenly become kinder, and how they don’t want to go back to a less kind way of life where they are less well-connected with their neighbours, work too hard, delegate so much of the care and education of their kids, and are dependent on long and insecure supply chains for their food.

Not all people feel the same of course – confusion and fear can readily overcome any other feelings.  We don’t know yet whether tendencies like these will grow and spread. But if they do, they could turn out to be important. The biggest crisis we face is not this pandemic, despite all the loss and suffering it has produced and will go on producing, perhaps to a scale we can’t yet imagine, particularly in the global south. The biggest crisis we face is climate change. We know we have to achieve radical and systemic change if we are to slow down global warming.  We will have the best chance of achieving that change if we keep track of the new aspirations which people develop in the face of this pandemic.

Radical change won’t happen, we have to make it happen. But, for the first time in our lifetimes, history is on our side. Pete quoted Arundhati Roy in his piece. Here is something else she said, lifted from Annie Morgan’s post on 18th March: 

A new world is not only possible, she is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing’.

Joe Brusky – System Change not Climate Change CC BY-NC 2.0

Climate Crisis and Pandemic – Building for a Different Future

The first of our series of online meetings on the politics of climate crisis at a time of pandemic took place on the evening of April 5th; climate jobs campaigner Jonathan Neale introduced the discussion.  You can watch Jonathan’s introduction on the YouTube video.  There were 25 people linked in to the Zoom meeting and Jonathan’s introduction led to a wide-ranging discussion that looked at the importance of social solidarity and collective action, immediate priorities in the midst of the pandemic, how we can understand the links between the current crisis and the simultaneous crisis of climate, democracy and state surveillance and the importance of developing politics, practice and networks of resistance in the here and now.  If you would like to share your response to Jonathan’s talk do get in touch by emailing triple.e.scot@gmail.com – we are very keen to encourage a debate on these issues on this website and elsewhere.

This changes everything

Mike Downham reflects on discussion at a recent Scot.E3 organising meeting.

This piece began as a report on a ScotE3 discussion about its forward strategy at an organising meeting on 19th March. The meeting had been planned before COVID-19 had become the over-riding priority. By the time we met, it had. For most of us it was our first Zoom meeting.

Over the week since we met, events have moved more quickly and more significantly than in any of the 4,213 weeks I’ve been alive and aware (too young to be aware of the outbreak of World War 2, and too distracted as a medical student  to be fully aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis.). So this report has become an attempt to develop the main points which emerged from our discussion in the light of the subsequent escalation of COVID-19 – an escalation in terms of the spread of the disease, the number of deaths, Government intervention, and the response of communities and activists.

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The key points which emerged from our discussion that night were that the COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare the contradictions in the capitalist system;  and that increased consciousness of these contradictions among working-class people, already noticeable, has the potential to build to a point where those people will collectively insist on fundamental change.

What are the contradictions in the capitalist system which the pandemic is particularly exposing? Above all, the vulnerability of our health and social care infrastructure as a result of market-led policies over recent years has become blatantly obvious. The NHS has about 5,000 ventilators, and we are predicted to need around 100,000 within the next few weeks – this despite a flu pandemic exercise run by Government three years ago which pointed to the need to increase ventilator capacity. The Government took no action. On top of that it’s now widely known that the Government, as recently as a month ago, was prepared to sacrifice older people to save the shareholders. Though it became politically impossible for them to hold tightly to that strategy, it still informs their inadequate and confused public health interventions.

The economic impacts of the epidemic are likely to be as big for working-class people as the health impacts. Yet the Government’s income-support interventions have been slow to emerge, inadequate and confused. What for example is an ‘essential job’? Essential for who?

Food will inevitably become scarce soon, particularly but not only for those with least money.  The official figure for the percentage of food the UK imports is 50%. But this is a figure massaged by the inclusion of foods processed in the UK. If ingredients for the processing are included, the real figure is around 80%. A lot of that comes from Europe. Wholesale prices of the fruit and vegetables we import from Europe are rocketing in the context of the pandemic, some of them have already risen by 100%. Wherever food comes from it has to be distributed and many of the waggon drivers come from central Europe. Homegrown fruit and vegetables are threatened by the shortage of harvesters, most of whom also come from Europe.

What are the signs of increased consciousness of these contradictions? Already many people are expressing lack of confidence in the Government. That, to date, 600,000 people have responded to the call for volunteers to help the NHS is a sign that people recognise just how under-resourced the service is. At this point the Government is arguing that the scale and severity of COVID-19 was unpredictable, but as the facts emerge about their inaction in the face of what became known to them from the experience of China and other far-eastern countries, this argument will be seen through, especially by the new volunteers as they experience working at the front line. The vigorous responses of local mutual aid associations will lead to increased confidence and a growing collective consciousness about the way working class people have been failed, particularly as people lose loved ones and as their economic conditions deteriorate. Workers are standing up for their rights for protection from Coronavirus infection in their workplaces – at Moy Park poultry processing plant, Northern Ireland’s biggest employer, 1,000 workers have walked out.

ScotE3’s primary aim is to contribute to the building of a mass movement to achieve a Just Transition from North Sea oil and gas to renewable sources of energy within a timeframe which prevents catastrophic climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic, despite its devastating outcomes, which have now become inevitable, offers an opportunity for ScotE3 to support the growing consciousness of the way the capitalist system is threatening the very survival of working-class people. We can support the generalisation of that consciousness, so that it extends to an understanding of the urgency of Just Transition. As one of our members put it recently:

Oil & gas need to go the way coal went, but this time without victimising the workers and their communities…The people, if they get the facts, will not allow either the industry or the Government to lead us into a future that condemns our grandchildren.

We are well placed to continue to contribute strongly to a Just Transition movement, despite the restrictions of the pandemic, given our emphasis on providing high-quality information widely available online, and the diversity and depth of the experience of our membership. The pandemic will make it more possible for us to promote radical solutions, above all the need to replace the capitalist system. The COVID-19 pandemic should inform all our activities, the resources we work on, and the politics of the material we publish. The pandemic is the new prism through which we should view everything.