activism books climate change

Book review: Property will cost us the Earth

Last year Verso published one of the more controversial climate books of the year, Andreas Malm’s How to Blow up a Pipeline – reviewed here recently. While it’s not as incendiary as the title suggests, the Swedish academic does call for an escalation in tactics. He suggests that it is time to move from protest to resistance, and that the climate movement should intervene to sabotage the technologies that are destroying the planet. Groups like Extinction Rebellion have misunderstood non-violence, he argues, and missed how historical movements often had a militant wing that added urgency to the debate.

If you’re going to publish a book with a controversial message, it’s wise to handle the ensuing discussion responsibly. And so Verso have published this collection of essays in response to Malm’s book, edited into a collection – some pro, some anti. There are no contributions from obvious opponents of Malm’s, such as Fox News and the Republican party. It’s aimed at more constructive dialogue than that, and it’s available as a free e-book.

It’s also wise to test your arguments among those most affected by climate change, and so there are contributions from Uganda, Ecuador, India and Mozambique. The latter may be the first time I’ve heard from climate justice activists in Mozambique. They describe how the country saw a boom in first coal and now gas, neither of which have benefitted local people. Profits have been extracted, a handful of local elites have benefited, and Mozambique as a whole is left with the consequences of a disrupted climate. Any discussion of resistance to this kind of extraction needs to recognise that Western academics and protestors are not the front line.

With that in mind, some of the contributors take Malm to task for overlooking indigenous resistance. An Earth First! activist writes to say their movement is misrepresented in the book. Another suggests that Malm’s first hand experiences of deflating SUV tyres or blocking coal plants are tame compared to the violence faced by some activists, who are fighting for their land and their way of life. Is it ultimately a middle class fantasy, that somehow after all this denial and prevarication, a campaign of sabotage will finally get the powers that be to sit up and pay attention to the climate crisis? Towards the end of the book, Malm writes in response to these criticisms.

Like most essay collections, some contributions add more than others. There is some Marxist theory that you might skip, some discussion more related to Malm’s thought experiment book on ‘war communism’ as a response to climate change. There are also some useful insights for those who want to engage critically with Malm’s thinking. The need to connect acts of protest closer to events, for example. The opportunity to learn from front line communities and build meaningful solidarity.

This isn’t an abstract academic discussion. A couple of weeks ago activists directly targeted The Sun newspaper for its climate sceptic reporting of record temperatures in the UK. Or take the protest group Tyre Extinguishers, profiled by Rolling Stone today. Whether they are directly inspired by Malm or not, some are escalating their climate action to include property destruction, at least at a small scale. This will inevitably reflect on the broader climate movement, and it is worth thinking through what we say about it.

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