JANUARY 5, 2021
IN THE SUMMER OF 2013, while on assignment for The Nation, I found myself in deep East Texas sitting face to face with one of the young organizers of Tar Sands Blockade, the radical climate justice group that had been engaged for more than a year in a nonviolent grassroots direct-action campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline’s notorious southern leg from Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf Coast. Operating from a clandestine camp outside of Nacogdoches — and, it was later revealed, under surveillance by the FBI — the campaign demonstrated a willingness to take serious risks, both legal and physical, and helped galvanize the growing climate movement in North America and Europe. The question was how the campaign could escalate its tactics beyond the spectacular lockdowns and aerial tree blockades that had made national headlines. “The industry has shown every intention of escalating the climate crisis beyond certain tipping points,” the organizer told me. “We need to ask ourselves, what does escalation look like? What could possibly be too escalated?”
Now, more than seven years on, with the climate crisis raging, that question still haunts. With billions of lives — indeed, humanity itself — at stake, how far should the “movement of movements” for climate justice be willing to go? What should activists — not all of us, of course, but enough to make a difference — be willing to risk?
Andreas Malm, an economic historian at Lund University in Sweden, has written a compact new book, a manifesto of sorts, that takes up this very question from the standpoint of the European climate movement in which he has been deeply involved. The title, How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire, is calculated to provoke — but the book is no mere stunt. Malm is the author of such weighty volumes as Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (2016) and The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (2018), and though he certainly wants to stir things up, his approach is always erudite and, above all, morally serious. Arguing that capitalism’s sanctification of private property “will cost us the earth,” How to Blow Up a Pipeline methodically dismantles the social movement doctrine of “strategic nonviolence” — which has long prohibited vandalism or sabotage of property — while Malm remains resolutely opposed to any kind of violence directed against people.
Malm is the furthest thing from a terrorist. But his frustration with movement orthodoxy is palpable as he inveighs against what he calls “the demise of revolutionary politics”:
It barely exists any longer as a living praxis. […] From the years 1789 to those around 1989, revolutionary politics maintained actuality and dynamic potentiality, but since the 1980s it has been defamed, antiquated, unlearned and turned unreal. […] This is the impasse in which the climate movement finds itself: the historical victory of capital and the ruination of the planet are one and the same thing. To break out of it, we have to learn how to fight all over again.
Malm’s new book will no doubt be dismissed by a lot of very serious people, including climate activists and policy advocates, as fringe and even dangerous. That would be a very serious mistake. Nothing could be more dangerous at this moment in human history than a blind faith in politics — or activism — as usual.
I spoke with Malm via Zoom on December 10 from his home in Malmö, where he is on parental leave.
WEN STEPHENSON: I have to say I was skeptical at first, but now, having read your book, I think it’s one of the most important things written about the climate crisis. I do have some reservations, though, or fears.
ANDREAS MALM: Thank you. And, I mean, I’ve had apprehensions about this book, because I don’t want to write anything that damages the movement. And I’ve had my doubts about the wisdom of putting out a book like this because obviously, perhaps particularly with the title, it will give an opportunity for our enemies to brand us, or some of us, as terrorists. So, there is a risk and a danger in writing a book like this, and I am aware of it.
So, then, let me cut to the chase: Are you personally willing to blow up a pipeline?
Yes, in principle, I would be prepared to do more or less anything that I advocate in the book.
So, in other words, it has come to this. Maybe you could explain the premise of the book and what led you to write it.
In the spring of 2018, I was immersing myself in a big project of historical inquiry — very nerdy stuff, reading up on ancient Egypt, stuff like that. Then our extreme summer happened. I don’t know if you remember from your horizon, the summer of 2018 in Europe, where we had unprecedented droughts and wildfires and heatwaves, not the least in Sweden. I told my publisher that I can’t really do this historical stuff any longer, because I felt I really had to do something more relevant to this moment of extreme emergency. And, at that point, I felt I really wanted to write a book about the total absence of anything like a climate movement commensurate in size to the magnitude of the danger. Then what happened was, toward the end of that very summer, Greta Thunberg sat down outside the Parliament in Stockholm, and her whole movement began — not in Sweden, by any means, Sweden was a very late and very insignificant country in the movement of Fridays for Future and climate strikes.
A prophet is never welcome in her own country?
Exactly. I mean, she has become the most famous Swede, possibly ever, but her movement was infinitely larger in Germany and in Denmark, and so on, than here. But for people like you and me who’ve been around in the movement for a long time, the strength of popular mobilization that we saw in 2018–’19 — I don’t know if you had the same feeling in the US with Fridays for Future, but here in Europe it really was a qualitative leap to a mass scale that we’ve never seen before in the climate movement, and that was incredibly inspiring. And, of course, we also had Extinction Rebellion (XR) in the UK and the direct action climate camps proliferating in Europe. This year really has been entirely different because of the pandemic, and the movement essentially suspended activities, abolished itself, lost all the momentum that it had built up in 2019. But that’s another story perhaps.
This book is an outcome of two contradictory feelings: an immense feeling of empowerment and hope coming out of the mobilizations of 2019 and, at the same time, a degree of frustration that we should have reached this strength a long time ago. Now we’re finally starting to become an important social movement, but we’re still using the same tactics that we’ve been trying for a long time. And with XR in particular, the commitment to a very stringent version of absolutely peaceful civil disobedience has hardened. The XR philosophy about how to accomplish social change is a very severe form, I would say, of strategic pacifism. And I find that paradoxical, because the urgency of the situation should rather prompt us to experiment with different sorts of tactics.
Can you draw a line from Fossil Capital to How to Blow Up a Pipeline? One thing I took away from Fossil Capital is that the climate catastrophe is literally built into the whole economic structure of modern capitalist civilization. And that makes it a political challenge of a completely different order than past struggles.
I think there is something of a mismatch between my analysis in Fossil Capital and the strategic orientation of the climate movement today. To put it simply, Fossil Capital is very focused on the demand side, as far as explaining the transition from water to steam as what the cotton manufacturers demanded. And that’s because the supply side, coal producers, didn’t have much of a role in that transition, as far as I could tell when I did my empirical research. But the climate movement, in the past decade or so, has come to focus mainly on the supply side — namely, on the corporations that produce fossil fuels. And I think that has been a completely correct strategic choice, one that has given the climate movement a life after the failure of the strategy to demonstrate at every COP summit, year after year. What gave our movement real substance and vitality was a shift toward the pipelines, the investments, the whole circuit of making profit out of fossil fuels. I think that’s where the climate movement needs to step up most radically. That is clearly, if we speak in terms of antagonism, where our enemy is located in all its enormous strength. The most aggressive promoters of continued fossil fuel combustion are of course those who produce the fossil fuels.
And that turn of the US climate movement was absolutely fundamental for inspiring the most recent years of climate activism in Europe as well. The struggles around Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline, and of course the fossil fuel divestment movement, all of these things were absolutely essential. I don’t think there can be any dispute about the wisdom of that move.
I want to make sure readers understand that you are not an armchair, ivory-tower theorist, but that you are very much a participant in these movements. In fact, it’s refreshing to talk with a “climate intellectual” who speaks the language of direct action, and who actually knows the history of the climate movement, and of the more radical wing of the movement in particular, both here and in Europe. That’s a rare thing in the US these days, where the climate community is almost entirely focused on policy arguments and electoral campaigns. But one of the things I appreciate about this new book is that, despite your experience, you’re very careful not to present your case as the One True Way Forward. You’re not offering up a new dogma.
I’m relieved that you read it this way.
Totally. You cite reasonable counterarguments and acknowledge the potential dangers and pitfalls of your approach. For example, you’re not suggesting that we abandon mass nonviolent mobilizations but rather that more escalated tactics should be part of the strategic mix. But here’s the thing: the US climate movement seems to be moving away from even the softest forms of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience.
This is because of the Green New Deal?
Well, yes and no. I think it has a lot to do with race and racial dynamics on the American left. Because, in the past five to 10 years, the movement has finally begun to address whiteness and white privilege, and there’s no denying the fact that risking arrest and going to jail is seen as privileged and exclusionary — at the very time when the movement is trying to become more inclusive and broaden its base. Do you see a similar dynamic in Europe? And what are your thoughts on this situation in the US, where it’s hard enough to convince organizers to embrace civil disobedience, much less sabotage?
This is a very fraught and complicated dynamic. It’s quite interesting to hear, and I can totally see the logic of it, that the salience of race in US politics deters from nonviolent civil disobedience. It makes sense, completely.
So, in Europe, there are people on the left, certainly, who jump on any opportunity to trash-talk XR. And the most powerful argument that’s been made against XR is the total blindness to factors of race when it comes to relations with the police. And I’m convinced that events of this year, after the murder of George Floyd, have made XR’s attitudes toward the police impossible. They will never again be able to love the police as passionately as they did in 2019. I mean, critics of that attitude were entirely correct in pointing out that this does come from a certain kind of affluent, privileged position of whiteness in the UK. But in XR’s defense, you have to say, unfortunately, that’s the case with other branches of the climate movement too, that it’s an overwhelmingly, disproportionately white movement in Europe. The movement has failed abysmally in involving immigrant youth and nonwhite people in our cities. That’s a major drawback.
I have a book coming out in May, together with the Zetkin Collective, called White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism, based on a lot of collective research on relations between the far right and energy and climate policies in Europe and also the US and Brazil. And toward the end we argue that the failure of the climate movement to articulate a consistent antiracist and antifascist position, as well as the whiteness of the movement, need urgently to be dealt with. Because to an increasing extent in Europe, and perhaps most obviously in Germany — and I guess this is more or less the same situation with Trump, though he’s out, but the Republican far right obviously hasn’t vanished overnight — it’s very clear that the climate movement is more and more coming up against a far right that is aggressively defending fossil fuels and what the far right conceives as the white nation. So, we won’t make any serious headway unless we learn to fuse the antiracist and the climate struggles.
I mean, I would never try to convince people with an immigrant background, or Black people in France or the UK or Sweden, to do that kind of civil disobedience action, giving oneself up to arrest. It would be the height of insensitivity. And I understand the logic of saying that kind of action in itself is an exercise of privilege. But we don’t have to think of direct action as necessarily having to expose ourselves to the police. It’s possible to evade arrest.
I should say that I have no disagreement with your moral argument for sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure — even though, personally, I’m nonviolent. Not an absolute moral pacifist, but strategically nonviolent. As you discuss in the book, there’s a categorical distinction between destroying property and committing violence against people. So, what it really comes down to, in addition to the moral argument, is the question of efficacy: Does a particular strategy or tactic work? And you spend a fair amount of time dismantling the argument that “strategic nonviolence” is the only effective approach for social movements. Of course, one could argue that the dramatic political shift we’re seeing in the US on climate change, with the Green New Deal, Sunrise Movement, and all the rest, is the result of sustained nonviolent resistance during the past decade: Keystone XL and all the other pipeline fights, Standing Rock, all the anti-fracking and other actions against infrastructure, all of that was critical to building and galvanizing the movement.
Everything we’ve achieved so far, every regional victory, every temporary defeat we’ve inflicted on our enemies, everything so far is thanks to strategic nonviolence, nonviolent civil disobedience, because we haven’t employed any other method. I’m certainly not saying that that is by definition an ineffective strategy, that we should ditch it. My argument is around the need for supplementing, for complementing the strategy with other kinds of strategies that are more militant.
The case I make in the book is in response to the vision put forth by XR, which is very historical. They claim to have learned from all of the relevant historical episodes of social movements, and social change, that the only thing that works is absolutely exclusive nonviolence, and they rely very heavily on Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works. I mean, this triggers me quite a lot as a historian. I can put my historian and activist hats on and off, but I mean, the key examples that are advanced here, the key parallels — the struggle against slavery, the suffragettes, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the recent mobilizations and victories against dictatorships such as the Arab Spring, and also the Iranian Revolution (which I have a personal connection to, because my partner is Iranian), and of course the Civil Rights movement in the US — the idea that these episodes teach us that the only thing that works is nonviolence strikes me as very deeply dishonest and inaccurate. Because all of these struggles included very significant components of physical confrontation with the prevailing order — and property destruction has been integral to all of these movements in one form or another. And, of course, some of the movements were extremely bloody, most notably the struggle against slavery.
My point is obviously not that, okay, there was a civil war in the US and therefore we need to have a civil war about climate, or that we have to kill tens of thousands of privileged people as the slaves in Haiti did when they rose up. That’s not my takeaway from those episodes. And any kind of analogy here is extremely tenuous, because the climate crisis is constituted so differently from any of those other examples. But my point, in my critique of strategic pacifism, is that if every meaningful analogy, from slavery to the fall of the Berlin Wall to the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in 2011, if every meaningful analogy so far adduced by the climate movement has historically included a component of violence, and not the least property destruction, then what reason is there for us in the climate movement to say that we are the first movement in modern history that will achieve our goals without ever deviating from absolute nonviolence? Is it because our enemy is weaker? What is the convincing reason? And the crucial point here is that this strategic nonviolence excludes property destruction.
I’ve written about the Valve Turners, the nonviolent climate activists who manually shut down all four of the pipelines carrying tar sands oil from Canada to the US, in October 2016, without damaging anything other than the locks they broke with bolt cutters. And you write about the Catholic Worker activists who sabotaged the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2017, while conscientiously avoiding any physical harm to people. These are isolated examples, perhaps because damaging property in any way violates a taboo. Our society fetishizes private property. And yet, you write that “property will cost us the earth.”
I have to tell you, that sentence was actually formulated by my editor, who correctly saw this as the thrust of the argument. The essence of that statement, “property will cost us the earth,” is that if you think that the sanctity of private property stands above everything else, then you need to protect the sanctity of private property in fossil fuels, which means you’re all fine with ExxonMobil and all the rest of them going on exploring, producing, and selling fossil fuels — and then we’re finished! So, it really is a very stark choice that I don’t see how you can get away from. An end to fossil fuels by definition means an end to private property in fossil fuels.
But here is also the point from an activist standpoint. Because almost no governments in the world have shown themselves willing to put any limit to this kind of private property, then it is the task of the people who are not part of the state apparatus, ordinary citizens if you like, to demonstrate that private property is not sacred. It doesn’t stand above everything else, because a habitable biosphere is the container for all moral values, and this is what we have to choose between — a biosphere that we can inhabit, or continued free private property in fossil fuels. It’s not very hard to make the moral case.
But attacking the physical property, the machines, the infrastructure, the installations, that destroy our planet, is something very different, qualitatively different, from attacking the body of a human being. So, I hope there’s no doubt about me totally rejecting methods of assassination and murder.
Right, and you also distinguish morally between destroying property that’s necessary for subsistence versus luxury or corporate property. So, I want to go back to the question of efficacy within the context of political and social movements. In the various historical examples you cite, you discuss the idea of a “flank effect” that a radical or militant wing of a social movement can have, by creating space for a political shift that would otherwise be impossible. But you also acknowledge that there can be a “negative flank effect,” that it can cut both ways. If property destruction became a widespread tactic, for example, there could be state repression on a level we haven’t seen yet. There could also be a loss of popular support, and especially right now in the US context, where we have a groundswell around the Green New Deal, we could lose that momentum if there were a popular backlash. And there could be a violent backlash, vigilantism, right-wing armed groups taking things into their own hands.
We have that already.
Right. So, what I’m raising here is the issue of risk. Given these risks, this doesn’t seem like the best time to be launching a campaign of fossil fuel sabotage. On the other hand, when will there ever be a better time, given the vanishingly small window that we have?
And you do raise this question of timing in the book, that perhaps we need to give the Green New Deal a chance before escalating in this way. But if a few years from now we see that nothing has changed, then what? There are immense risks involved here, political, social. How do you navigate this?
You’re asking exactly the most pertinent and difficult questions. And there are so many different components to an answer. Let me try.
First of all, you’re absolutely right that any kind of escalation of tactics comes with risks. Even something like the mass civil disobedience of XR entailed risks. I mean, now the government is trying to criminalize XR in the UK. I’m the first to admit that there are many ways that things can go wrong. But one of the fundamental convictions that I have about our present moment is that there is no way forward that doesn’t come with risks. Because the emergency has gone on for so long, we’re in such deep trouble, that every path forward comes with enormous risks. We are not in that situation of luxury where we can say we’re only going to try out the safe options. Because I don’t think there are any safe options. I mean, the kind of state-directed radical emissions cuts that we need, something like five or 10 percent per year, clearly would have the risk of state authoritarianism evolving out of that. Any kind of geoengineering measure — and that’s a whole different story, I have edited a volume on that issue, and I think the climate movement needs to take it much more seriously — but solar geoengineering, everyone knows, comes with tremendous, astronomic risks, as do things like negative emissions technologies.
For the social movement, likewise, time is so short, and we need to accomplish so much, that any failure, any step in the wrong direction, might be disastrous. The scenario where the energy of the climate movement gets sucked up into a parliamentary project — I mean, we don’t know if that’s likely to succeed or if it’s going to be another Obama kind of disappointment. Who knows if in five or 10 years people will look back at the Green New Deal as a waste of activist energy because it wasn’t radical enough? I’m just saying there’s a risk there too.
So, yes, you’re absolutely right, of course, there are lots of risks. And if the case in the US today is that the Green New Deal has a real chance of succeeding and is becoming a kind of dominant paradigm for the left, some kind of umbrella concept for social movement mobilizing in the US and radical democratic politics, then I would be the first to caution impatient, militant climate activists not to do anything that can damage this campaign and the momentum behind it. But in other contexts, it might work in a different way. It’s hard to say when is the best moment to engage in militant escalation of the kind that I advocate in the book. Is it when there’s no other action around? When there is a complete paralysis and absence of movement? Or is it at the crest of a wave or a surge of mobilizing like we had in 2019? I can see both. But it also depends on national context and the receptivity to militancy in different countries.
Let me just give one counterfactual example. If, during the Australian wildfire inferno, an activist group had gone into a coal mine and somehow dismantled part of the mine infrastructure, some equipment, blown it up or picked it apart or whatever, and sent out a smart communique saying, “Look, Australia, you’re the largest coal exporter in the world. If you go on like this, you are condemning yourself to this kind of unbearable inferno” — that would be a moment for the movement to say, “Yes, an action like that has risks. But are we taking the climate crisis seriously?”
Do we realize that no major social changes on this scale have come without movements paying a price, including the price of their physical health and safety? All the movements that we’ve mentioned so far, and all the movements that we see parallels in, have included a component of sacrifice. Now, I’m not telling people to go out and sacrifice your bodies and die for the cause. I mean, that’s not something that I should tell anyone else to do. I should do it, if I believe that’s the right thing to do. But the idea that we can accomplish this without facing backlash, without facing state repression, without facing polarization in society, and without facing aggressive defense of vested interests and privileges — to me, that’s a sanitized, or a very superficial, idea of how fundamental social change happens.
You make very clear that you think it would be a catastrophic blunder for the climate movement to engage in, or even be associated in any way with, terrorism of any kind. And you started off this interview saying you don’t want to harm the movement. Because, at some point, the risk is that we do more harm than good, in the tactics that we choose. And the danger I can’t get past is that there might well be a security crackdown that could totally crush our movement, especially under right-wing governments. The fossil fuel forces we’re up against are not just fascistic, but in some ways totalitarian and genocidal, willing and able to eradicate entire populations. Why wouldn’t they ruthlessly stamp out a movement like this? But then, I say to myself, maybe we’ve reached the point where we have no choice but to go for broke.
And yet how do we know when we’ve reached that point, where it’s all or nothing? Because, on the other hand, you and I also agree, and you write in this book, that it will never be too late to resist, never be too late to fight the forces of fossil capital, whatever the temperature may be. So, isn’t there a duty to live to fight another day?
I mean, if this kind of escalated tactic were to reach a level where it induced political change, that’s clearly when you will have that massive kind of repression that you suggest, and the state will crack down on everything that smells like a climate movement engaging in this kind of sabotage. There’s an abundance of examples in history of movements being crushed in that fashion, so it could happen.
But I think, at the end of the day — and I could be completely naïve here, but this is one of the hopeful lessons I took away from 2019 — what we have to count on, if we believe in some kind of reason and survival instinct in humanity, is that the influx of people into the climate movement will not stop but rather rise with the obvious increasing severity of the crisis. And so, you would imagine that more people would be ready to go into the climate movement, and step into the shoes of those who’ve been arrested or taken off by the police. I might be incredibly naïve here, but I find it hard — I mean, any other kind of prediction would almost be tantamount to giving up. But you are, of course, completely correct that it’s very hard to say, when do we have too much to lose for the movement to venture into this dangerous terrain, and when do we have nothing to lose.
Wen Stephenson is an independent journalist, essayist, and activist. A frequent contributor to The Nation, he has written for many publications, including Slate, The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, and The Baffler. He is the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice (2015).