Sabotage Can Be Done Softly: On Andreas Malm’s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline”

January 5, 2021   •   By Scott W. Stern

How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Andreas Malm

ONE MORNING IN the summer of 2007, five dozen SUV owners in an affluent part of Stockholm awoke to find their cars “reclining on the asphalt.” On their windshields, they found a leaflet. “We have deflated one or more of the tyres on your SUV,” it read. “Don’t take it personally. It’s your SUV we dislike.” The leaflets continued by pointing out how much gasoline the SUVs burned, this burning was directly connected to the rapid warming of the planet, and the drivers would be fine — they might be mildly inconvenienced, but clearly they had money and lived in a city with good public transit. At roughly the same time, the small band of SUV saboteurs published a statement taking credit for the action, exhorting others to copy their work, and making available a “simple manual” for how to release the air from a tire.


One of these saboteurs was a young Swedish activist, socialist, and writer named Andreas Malm. In the 13 years between that action and today, Malm has been busy, earning a doctorate with a dissertation on the history of the fossil fuel industry, studying sea level rise in the Nile Delta and solar power in Morocco, investigating upheaval in Iran and Palestine, taking up a teaching position at Lund University, and publishing a seemingly endless stream of articles, chapters, and books. These include Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, a weighty, well-regarded history of coal-fired steam power in Britain that argues, fiercely and with clarity, that capitalism is responsible for the modern climate crisis.


In all that time, Malm has continued participating in actions and protests — “but the days when he went blocking airport runways seems to be over,” wrote one profiler in 2018. Malm was in fact ashamed to admit that, since becoming an academic, he had “turned into a kind of ‘Armchair Activist.’” He said he still tried to “participate in as many demonstrations and manifestations as I can; and why not a riot every now and then? I guess you shouldn’t write that last bit though.”


In his latest book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Malm draws on both his academic and activist experience to make the case that the climate movement should escalate its tactics. It’s a passionate, powerful, deeply flawed, and profoundly necessary book, by turns exclaim-aloud satisfying and hurl-it-across-the-room frustrating. It’s a book that may excite some readers, anger others, convince still others, and alienate many, but it is unlikely to be forgotten by a single one.


Malm opens the book with his participation in 1995 in a protest in Berlin against the grossly inadequate climate measures that were being considered at COP1 (short for Conference of the Parties 1), the first in the ongoing series of annual UN climate summits. (COP26 was recently pushed from 2020 to 2021.) Looking back, it’s hard not to conclude that the protesters had a point — since COP1, annual CO2 emissions have grown by some 60 percent; more carbon has been released in the 25 years since COP1 than in the 75 before. “At what point do we escalate?” Malm asks readers. “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? Is there a good reason we have waited this long?”


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Early on, Malm discusses an essay that serves as the theoretical foundation for his book. It was written by the British novelist John Lanchester at roughly the same time Malm was deflating tires in Stockholm. “It is strange and striking that climate change activists have not committed any acts of terrorism,” Lanchester mused.


Exploring what he calls “Lanchester’s paradox,” Malm maps out three distinct phases of climate activism. The first, which occurred in northern Europe between 2006 and 2009, saw activists organizing “climate camps” — massive tent cities near airports, power plants, and financial districts. The activists held an immense “People’s Climate Summit” in Copenhagen in 2009, but the twin blows of the financial crisis and the austerity measures that followed quickly ended this first phase. The second phase sprang up in the United States between 2011 and 2016, after the Obama administration not only failed to make good on the promise of cap-and-trade legislation but approved new pipeline projects at a record clip and stymied significant climate action in international meetings. In a “sustained campaign of civil disobedience,” activists numbering in the thousands launched sit-ins to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, gathered in the streets of New York for the “People’s Climate March,” and camped in the cold to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline. The election of Donald Trump and his quick reapproval of both Keystone XL and Dakota Access brought this phase to a “dead end.”


The third phase, Malm argues, came about in the midst of the record-breaking heat of the summer of 2018, when a 15-year-old girl named Greta Thunberg sat down on the pavement in front of the Swedish parliament and declared a school strike for the climate. “The picture of vulnerability and defiance,” Malm writes, “touched a nerve in her generation.” Students around the world instigated rolling waves of school strikes in 2018 and 2019, with millions marching in “what might have been the largest coordinated youth protest in history.” At roughly the same time, British activists launched Extinction Rebellion (also called XR) — “another offspring of the hot summer of 2018” — shutting down much of central London in a remarkable act of civil disobedience. XR protests, too, spread quickly and globally. Though covered less in the Western press, indigenous activists led much of this renewed activity. The climate movement, known in the Global North for “its youthful, joyful, exuberant, respectful, orderly manifestations,” also took on “a darker undertone” of “simmering anger.” Greta Thunberg denounced world leaders at the UN in late 2019, warning them that young people “will never forgive” inaction.


All three phases, Malm concludes, share a common insight: “[T]he ruling classes really will not be talked into action.” Yet all three phases, thus far, have “stopped short of one mode of action […] physical force.” Indeed, “the commitment to absolute non-violence appears to have stiffened over the cycles.”


Malm concedes this stance’s obvious tactical advantages but questions whether nonviolence must be “the only way, forever the sole admissible tactic in the struggle to abolish fossil fuels.” In spite of the broad popular success of the climate movement — especially in its most recent phase — fossil fuel investment and extraction are, he points out, only increasing, and increasing fast. Activists may temporarily shutter a mine or force the government to deny a permit, but they have not yet materially stymied the removal and burning of carbon. It is time, he concludes, for “another stage beyond absolute non-violence.”


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Much of the rest of his book amounts to an extended and fervent argument against pacifism, which, Malm writes, is dominant within the mainstream climate activist community. To Malm, moral pacifism merits only derision. It is a strawman he ruthlessly sets ablaze. A true moral pacifist, he writes, would see the example of Mohammed Rafiq — a worshipper who wrestled a gunman to the ground at a mosque in Norway in 2019, thus preventing a likely massacre — and conclude that Rafiq “would have acted more virtuously had he remained seated on the floor when the murderer stormed in.” It hardly seems necessary to write that this is an unfair caricature of a complex and nuanced philosophical position. (It is also unnecessary; many if not most moral pacifists would probably have no problem with Malm’s ultimate prescription for the climate movement, which is strategic property destruction, not bodily violence.)


Malm also condemns strategic pacifism — which “says that violence committed by social movements always takes them further from their goal” — but here he is on much stronger ground. He surveys statements condemning violence from XR co-founder Roger Hallam (violence is “disastrous when it comes to creating progressive change”) and renowned activist Bill McKibben (violence might allow “adventurers” to spoil the movement) and easily pokes holes in their readings of history (many strategic pacifists laud the “moral force” of abolitionists but ignore the actual force of slave revolts). “Pacifism has perhaps never existed as a real thing,” Malm writes. “What exists is the ability, or not, to distinguish between forms of violence.”


Malm finds support in a history that is unlikely to appear in afterschool specials or upbeat XR literature — the bloody necessity of the Haitian Revolution, the righteous violence of John Brown’s raid, British suffragettes breaking windows and setting off bombs, American civil rights activists stockpiling guns, Iranian revolutionaries ambushing the Shah’s thugs, and the subaltern struggles that characterized decolonization from India to Algeria. “I called for non-violent protest for as long as it was effective,” goes one quotation Malm invokes from Nelson Mandela, who famously began blowing up power plants and military installations when nonviolence “no longer worked.”


In all of these contexts, Malm argues, the circumstances became so dire that to rely solely on nonviolent resistance would have been “a fetish.” And surely, he continues, the struggle against fossil fuels is no less dire — “in some respects, this emergency is worse.” Readers may object to Malm comparing fossil fuels to chattel slavery or the gory rule of dictators, but his review of the hellscape our reliance on carbon extraction is hurtling us toward is, well, terrifying: entire species and ecosystems disappearing, entire nations sinking beneath the water, mass migrations of hundreds of millions, fleeing the heat and the storms and the sectarian violence that is sure to follow. The only rational response to this specter, Malm writes, is violence — by which he means strategic property destruction.


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Confrontational tactics, he continues, would serve two purposes: discourage further investment in carbon extraction and demonstrate that the industry can be put out of business. Once again, Malm surveys lesser-known history — this time of fossil fuel infrastructure sabotage — and once again, it’s quite effective. Mandela’s partisans “considered oil supply an Achilles’ heel of apartheid” and so bombed Sasol plants, actions that “shattered the myth of white invulnerability,” writes one historian. Palestinian freedom fighters punctured or set fire to various pipelines throughout the 20th century, sometimes on a near-daily basis. Iraqis resisting American occupation executed nearly 200 attacks on pipelines; Kurdish and Egyptian and Houthi rebels, leftist guerillas in Colombia and Chechnya — all undertook similar tactics. Perhaps the “most extensive property destruction” occurred a generation ago in Nigeria: activists relentlessly resisted the oil companies ravaging the area, “moving swiftly on boats through the creeks and swamps to blow up pipelines, strike vessels, overpower offshore platforms, assault offices, kidnap oil employees.” The Nigerian resistance nearly caused Shell and Exxon to pull out of the region.


In the Global South, in other words, the tactics Malm highlights have long been a feature of resistance. Their relative absence in the Global North is, he speculates, partially attributable to “the far right’s virtual monopolisation of political violence.” He calls for climate activists to embrace non-nonviolence nonetheless. Property destruction “doesn’t have to come in the form of explosions, projectiles, pyromania,” he writes. “It can be performed without a column of smoke. That is preferable. Sabotage can be done softly, even gingerly.”


In this respect, How to Blow Up a Pipeline does not go as far as other works aiming to ignite mass movements. A far cry from the anticolonial strategy summed up by Frantz Fanon in his famous speech, “Why we use violence” (and later echoed by Malcolm X): by any means necessary, it is also noticeably distinct from Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 classic, Steal This Book, which included specific instructions for how to make several kinds of bombs and engage in guerilla warfare. (It is worth noting that, other than quoting a journal article from 2005 — “Pipelines are very easily sabotaged. A simple explosive device can put a critical section of pipeline out of operation for weeks” — Malm doesn’t actually teach readers how to blow up a pipeline.)


Instead, Malm calls for “intelligent sabotage” — that is, targeted property destruction, and not, say, the assassination of coal company executives. He calls for such tactics to target not only fossil fuel companies and fossil fuel infrastructure, but also, in a manner that is no longer de rigueur in some corners of the climate movement, the lifestyles of the rich — primarily the superrich but also the upper middle class. (Hence, the SUV-deflating protest in which he took part.) The emissions of the few are, he contends, rendering this world uninhabitable for the many.


Malm indicts the mainstream climate movement — and especially, perhaps unfairly, XR — for being far too deferential to the private property of the rich, as well as to the police, even as some XR activists “wreak generalised — but, mind you, non-violent — havoc on the urban fabric,” shutting down London subways at times that only hurt commuting workers. “Not only do the rich make our lives miserable, they are working to terminate the lives of multitudes,” he writes. “Here is another dimension in which XR leaves room for radical flanks of the movement: those who dare to speak the name of the enemy.”


Malm concludes by arguing passionately against the climate fatalism of such popular writers as Jonathan Franzen and Roy Scranton. It may be too late to halt climate suffering, but it is far from too late to minimize suffering. Using an analogy that may be alienating to some readers but is powerful nonetheless, he compares the need for mass resistance to the fossil fuel economy to the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943.


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Many observers would probably agree that, in a world of accelerating carbon extraction, strategic property destruction or sabotage is justified, but they might also point out the many reasons most activists choose not to escalate their tactics: namely, structural poverty, widespread exhaustion from laboring in neoliberal economies, and increasingly violent and carceral responses by the state. Malm mentions this critique only to dismiss it; he argues against the pacifist position but does not seriously consider the pacifist context, the barriers hindering many from engaging in such direct actions. He discusses two climate activists indicted on charges that could have carried 110 years in prison and writes that their “sacrifice” could be seen as a “signal to others that this is worth fighting for, even spending the rest of one’s life in prison for,” without truly contemplating what life in prison means. Malm may well be correct that the alternative is even less thinkable, but surely it is not entirely fair to blame “the comfort levels” in the Global North for the relative rarity of such sacrifice. This is especially so because, at another point in the book, he notes the increasing criminalization of protest, especially protest against pipelines.


Disappointingly, considering Malm’s expertise on Iran and the occupied Palestinian territories, he focuses inordinately on protest in the Global North. Only in passing does he mention indigenous activists who battled the police and temporarily shut down the largest pipeline in Ecuador. The European activist group Ende Gelände (translated from German as, roughly, “here and no further”) gets far more space in his book. For years, Ende Gelände has sent thousands of its members to disrupt operations in coal mines and fracking sites but it has not escalated its tactics nearly as aggressively as the Ecuadorean protestors did. An alternative focus would have revealed far more individuals engaging in the strategy Malm favors, even if these activists will never get the headlines XR or Greta Thunberg do. Certainly, his scattered references to such actions in the Global South end up troubling his three neat phases of climate activism.


Nonetheless, Malm makes a stirring moral case for the necessity of escalation — sure to move, if not always convince, many readers: “Will those in school today or born next year grow up to think that the machines of the fossil economy were accorded insufficient respect?”


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Malm completed How to Blow Up a Pipeline before coronavirus shut down much of the world, but in a preface written in late March he noted that the burgeoning pandemic had already been devastating to the climate activist movement. “Before COVID-19, the climate movement was soaring to ever-greater heights of mass participation,” he wrote, “but the fuel of every social movement has suddenly become so insalubrious as to be outlawed: crowds.” Still, Malm sees some opportunity in the pandemic — emissions are sure to plunge, which raises the question, “If a pandemic can induce governments to take emergency actions, why can’t a climate breakdown that threatens to kill off the very life-support systems of the planet do the same?”


The “need for militancy,” he concludes, will very much be present in a post-corona world — “or even in a phase contemporaneous with COVID-19 or some other future pandemic. Sabotage, after all, is not incompatible with social distancing.”


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Scott W. Stern is a lawyer and historian, originally from Pittsburgh. He is the author of The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women (2018).