activism books climate change

Book review: How to Blow up a Pipeline, by Andreas Malm

How to Blow up a Pipeline is a much discussed climate book of the moment, from the Swedish activist and academic Andreas Malm. It poses a provocative question: “At what point do we escalate? When do we conclude that the time has come to also try something different? When do we start physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy them with our own hands?”

It is, needless to say, an uncomfortable question – a dangerous question, but a legitimate one nonetheless. And it’s one we can’t really avoid, since some are already answering the call. The recent actions by the Tyre Extinguishers, for example, look like a fairly direct response to Malm’s book.

Malm begins How to Blow up a Pipeline with a brief account of protesting outside a UN climate conference. He then reveals that it was COP1 in Berlin, 1995. We’re now looking forward to COP27 this year, and global carbon emissions have not even begun to fall. Emissions passed 420ppm for the first time this month. Efforts to restrain emissions haven’t worked so far. Patterns of fossil fuel use are too entrenched, vested interests too powerful. If we are serious about the injustice and the urgency of climate change, where is the line where activists move from protest to resistance?

Being a scholar as well an activist, this question is not an idle incitement, but opens a robust intellectual discussion and a critique of current environmentalism. The first section looks at current activist strategies, most importantly the likes of Extinction Rebellion, and where they have mis-read history. Today’s activists cite past movements as inspiration, but take a selective view of what actually happened. Yes, Martin Luther King led an entirely non-violent movement, but the wider story of civil rights includes more radical elements. King was not afraid to warn people that if they didn’t respond meaningfully to peaceful protests, riots may ensue.

The Suffragettes are another inspiration behind XR, and they too were far more militant than environmentalists like to admit. The XR handbook mentions hunger strikes and non-violent protests, but ignores the hundreds of arson attacks carried out. The movement today tends to “look at history with one eye”, Malm argues, elevating peaceful civil disobedience to a creed, when its earlier proponents saw it more as a tactic – one that you would use when it worked, and discard if it didn’t.

The climate movement has lacked a radical flank, something that has played an important role across the history of social change. So what might that look like, if somebody were to start one?

It might look a bit like Malm’s own actions in Sweden in 2007, when he took part in a wave of actions against SUVs. Or like the series of sabotage acts carried out on the Dakota Access Pipeline while it was under construction, by the two-woman team of Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, both members of the Catholic Worker movement. Both examples, and many others from history, targeted property and did not harm people. Malm investigates the difference, along with distinguishing between carefully targeted acts of sabotage and terrorism, which is by nature indiscriminate.

It might also look like any number of sabotage campaigns carried out among frontline communities, from Nigeria to Egypt to Palestine. In some ways protest is the prerogative of those who aren’t directly affected. Blowing up a pipeline is a much more obvious thing to do if you are living with the impacts of fossil fuel extraction, and the book details multiple examples.

The task of a militant wing of the climate movement would not be to disable fossil fuel infrastructure at meaningful scale, but to dis-incentivise investment in or ownership of polluting technologies. While the mainstream movement would be expected to disown it as a matter of principle, it would give them a useful bargaining chip. If you ignore the youth strikers and their reasonable demands, you would only empower more radical elements and risk more disruptive actions. History suggests it could be effective, but Malm is well aware of the risks too. Pick the wrong target, like XR fringe actions on trains, and public support evaporates. One person injured or killed in an act of sabotage could undo years of patient advocacy.

Violence against property is still violence and “ought to be avoided for as long as possible”, says Malm. It should always be a last resort. But what if we rule it out entirely, moderate tactics don’t work, and irreversible tipping points come and go? Would we come to regret our pacifism? There are no simple answers here, and Malm’s book is a radical but thoughtful provocation.

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