Search and Destroy

How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire BY Andreas Malm. Brooklyn, NY: Verso. 208 pages. $20.

The cover of How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire

I REGRET TO INFORM THE READER that Andreas Malm’s new book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, does not in fact contain instructions on how to blow up a pipeline. The title is aspirational: how to get enough people to realize that (a) drastic measures are now required to prevent or ameliorate the worst effects of global warming, (b) the usual protests and appeals to institutional authority are getting nowhere, and therefore (c) direct action against the instruments and agents of climate disaster is justified.

I’m not going to pretend to be impartial. News items pile up in my brain: three-thousand-year-old giant sequoias destroyed by wildfire; coral reefs bleaching too fast to recover; insects rapidly disappearing; the fucking koalas. I read the phrase “biological annihilation” in an article about the catastrophic decline of animal and plant populations. I wonder if it would help if we started saying that instead of “climate change” or “global warming.” Because we are not doing anything about it. In fact, we are making it worse.

Global heating is produced primarily by what Malm calls “fossil capital” (deforestation—what we could call forest capital—plays the next largest role). In his splendid 2016 book of that title, he traced the origins of our climate crisis to the advent of steam power during the Industrial Revolution. Capital switched from water to coal, Malm demonstrated, not because the latter is cheaper or more efficient (it’s not) but because it allowed for superior control of labor. The graph of global CO2 levels shows only slight variations throughout human history until the late eighteenth century, when James Watt invented his steam engine. After that it’s a skyrocket.

A couple hundred years later, there’s more carbon in the atmosphere than there’s been since the East Coast was underwater. Scientists believe it is still technically possible to keep warming under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s target of 1.5°C, but this would require “a global prohibition of all new CO2-emitting devices.” Instead, as Malm notes, Shell Oil plans to increase production of fossil fuels by 38 percent until 2030; ExxonMobil by 35 percent; BP by 20 percent; Total by 12.

Over a decade ago, the novelist John Lanchester found it “strange and striking that climate-change activists have not committed any acts of terrorism.” He gamely suggested the mass keying of SUVs. Malm echoes Lanchester’s bewilderment: “When do we start physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy them with our own hands?” Neither Malm nor Lanchester is calling for violence against persons. But they see no justification for the continued security of pipelines, coal-fired power plants, petrol stations, SUVs, and the like.

Since Stephen Miller will call for open borders before the capital-state nexus agrees to prohibit the further construction of machines that emit carbon dioxide, Malm suggests that the climate movement announce and enforce such a prohibition itself. “Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices,” he writes. “Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.” To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, what is the crime of blowing up a pipeline compared with the crime of operating one? The stakes are nothing less than the survival of life on the planet.

Kyunghwan Kwon, Occidental Explosion (Yellow), 2014, acrylic on canvas, 63 7/8 x 44 1/8".
Kyunghwan Kwon, Occidental Explosion (Yellow), 2014, acrylic on canvas, 63 7/8 x 44 1/8". Courtesy the artist and ONE AND J. Gallery

Malm recounts some of his own adventures in monkey-wrenching, including his participation in the German anti-coal movement Ende Gelände’s action against the Schwarze Pumpe power plant in 2016. (“Ende gelände” means “Here and no further”—or “This far, no further!” as Captain Picard put it in First Contact.) Activists tore down fences surrounding the property and occupied the site, temporarily shutting down electricity production. The local mayor was aghast: “You cannot imagine any worse damage than what these people did.” Oh, Herr Mayor, I think I can. For instance, I can imagine the damage that fossil capital has done to the Great Barrier Reef, which has lost over half its corals due to warming waters since 1995.

Malm’s account of his time in climate camps and occupations occasionally succumbs to romanticism. “I was high for weeks afterward,” he writes. But much of the book is given over to dismantling ahistorical arguments for the climate movement’s commitment to nonviolence, principally those of Bill McKibben and Extinction Rebellion (XR), a courageous but confused activist group that positions itself, absurdly, “beyond politics.” XR’s handbook is blunt: violence doesn’t work. “In fact, it almost always leads to authoritarianism and fascism. The alternative, then, is nonviolence.”

Is this true? XR adduces social movements that it suggests succeeded because of their rejection of violent tactics: abolitionism, the suffrage movement, the Indian independence movement, the American civil-rights movement, and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. But none was completely nonviolent, as Malm shows. Gandhi had to reprove his followers for sabotaging transport systems and telegraph wires; Nelson Mandela, in his own words, “called for non-violent protest for as long as it was effective,” as “a tactic that should be abandoned when it no longer worked.” The suffragettes “set fire to or blew up villas, tea pavilions, boathouses, hotels, haystacks, churches, post offices, aqueducts, theatres and a liberal range of other targets” around the UK. And John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave.

Malm suggests that these movements’ militant flanks provided cover for their nonviolent cores, whose members could position themselves as reasonable negotiating partners. The state could look at Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr. and think, “Well, at least they’re not burning shit down. Maybe we can work something out.” The pivot to nonviolent resistance can be a tactical maneuver rather than a principled stance. What matters is finding a strategy that will effect change. And as King wrote, “there comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over.” XR’s handbook makes no mention of Algeria, Angola, Haiti, Vietnam, or Kenya.

In the American context, we think of Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience,” an inspiration to Gandhi and King. As it happens, “Resistance to Civil Government” (its original title) does not touch on the question of whether a just resistance may not under some circumstances turn violent. But ten years later, Thoreau wrote about John Brown in his journal:

It galls me to listen to the remarks of craven-hearted neighbors who speak disparagingly of Brown because he resorted to violence, resisted the government, threw his life away!—what way have they thrown their lives, pray?—neighbors who would praise a man for attacking singly an ordinary band of thieves or murderers. Such minds are not equal to the occasion. They preserve the so-called peace of their community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows!

No one is suggesting that the climate movement should attack or kill people, as Brown did. Malm urges only the destruction of property (which he argues convincingly is a form of violence, just a far lesser one). There is an irony in the hand-wringing over property destruction, whether in the climate struggle or in uprisings like those that broke out after the murder of George Floyd, in that such scruples implicitly cede a monopoly on violence to capital and the state. And make no mistake: ExxonMobil and Shell are violent actors. They are murderers, driving species to extinction and threatening the survival of, most immediately, impoverished denizens of the Global South, whose individual contributions to global heating are next to nil. (This is one reason Malm rejects the concept of the “Anthropocene,” as if it were humans as such rather than the rich minority who are burning down the world.)

The sabotage of oil properties has an illustrious history. In 1972, Palestinian militants blew up an Esso (now ExxonMobil) pipeline near Hamburg. The “anti-imperialist front” attacked pipelines and pumping stations across Europe in the 1980s. Anti-apartheid activists in the ’80s firebombed petrol stations belonging to companies, especially Shell, that continued to trade with South Africa. Shell stations were burned in Sweden in the ’90s in retaliation for the corporation’s treatment of the people of the Niger Delta. The oil industry is well aware that this tactic produces results: “Pipelines are very easily sabotaged,” the Pipeline & Gas Journal wrote in 2005. “A simple explosive can put a critical section of pipeline out of operation for weeks.”

The climate movement has only begun to emulate such strategies. In 2016 and 2017, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, members of the Des Moines Catholic Worker movement, repeatedly raided the Dakota Access Pipeline in Iowa, burning holes in it with welding torches and setting fire to equipment on-site. They then confessed to their actions at a press conference. “We are speaking publicly to empower others to act boldly, with purity of heart, to dismantle the infrastructure which deny us our rights to water, land, and liberty,” they declared. Reznicek and Montoya now face 110 years in prison. They are perhaps our first climate martyrs.

Malm wastes too much time on the self-indulgent fatalism of Roy Scranton and Jonathan Franzen (William T. Vollmann, whose extremely pessimistic Carbon Ideologies runs to like a million pages, would’ve made a worthier opponent). But I confess that when I consider how much needs to be done, I can’t bring myself to believe we’ll get our shit together to overthrow the mode of production, which is what we have to be talking about: “the historical victory of capital and the ruination of the planet are one and the same thing.” The forces arrayed against us are too massive, too powerful, too unyielding, too indifferent to human and nonhuman life. They will collapse on their own eventually, of course—when it’s too late. If Malm’s argument has a flaw, it rests in its reliance on the state: “At the end of the day, it will be states that ram through the transition [from fossil capital to a sustainable economy] or no one will.” But as he observes elsewhere, “private capitalists and capitalist states are often impossible to tell apart.” “‘The right to property’ . . . is what must be broken,” but the state is nothing if not the guarantor of property rights. Malm is right that the main obstacle to the climate movement’s success is “the demise of revolutionary politics.”

But that’s not an argument for doing nothing. First of all, even if the effort is doomed, it is worth making, which is to say it is the right thing to do. More important, I could be wrong. If history teaches us anything, it is that large-scale social change often appears impossible right up to the point that it becomes probable and then unstoppable. And of course neither I nor Jonathan Franzen are the ones who will pay the highest price for our inaction. We own air conditioners.

Eventually, we will all have to answer the question of what way we have thrown our lives.

Michael Robbins is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Walkman (forthcoming, Penguin Books). He is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University.