The Climate Case for Property Destruction

Andreas Malm’s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” urges activists to turn to tougher tactics.

By Benjamin Kunkel
The New Republic

Political protest in the twenty-first century has so far been distinguished by its sheer numerical scale—and its ineffectuality. In 2003, crowds assembled in cities across the planet to register their opposition the U.S.-led attack on Iraq, amounting to the largest street demonstration in history to that date—only to see themselves belittled as a “focus group” by President George W. Bush as he proceeded to rain shock and awe on Baghdad. In 2011, the so-called Arab Spring brought huge public demonstrations against autocracy to half a dozen Middle Eastern and African countries—with the result, a decade later, of just one precarious new democracy, in Tunisia, while larger states such as Egypt have redoubled their oppression. Later in 2011, this same “movement of the squares” migrated to the rich countries on either side of the Atlantic, in the form of Occupy Wall Street and kindred encampments against income inequality—an eruption of indignation that did less than nothing to narrow the economic chasm between the one percent and the rest, which only grew thereafter.

Vast protest, null effect: By this point, the formula appears something like a global law. Toward the end of last year, Slate published an article about the concerted rebellion of tens of millions of Indian farmers and their allies against the ruinous agricultural policies of the Modi government. “India Just Had the Biggest Protest in World History,” announced the headline. Just as tellingly, the subhead read: “Will it make a difference?” Given that similar demonstrations, of like magnitude, took place in 2016 and 2018, the question sounds a rhetorical note.

This demoralizing vista of the ineffectual sublime—innumerable protesters, undetectable results—lies behind How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a brief, intense argument in favor of destroying fossil fuel infrastructure by the Swedish eco-Marxist thinker Andreas Malm. As Malm points out, the same rule has held for the movement against climate disruption: magnified protests, perfect futility. On the one hand, the climate movement has over the last dozen years “undergone several cycles of intense activity, each on a larger scale than before.” Malm registers high-water marks of each tide of protest: 100,000 people on the streets of Copenhagen in 2009; 400,000 participants (I was one) in the People’s Climate March of September 2014, in New York City; and, on March 15, 2019, a million and a half schoolchildren in Europe and elsewhere, playing hooky from classes to demand a livable planet. Six months later, as many as four million kids across the globe, taking inspiration from Malm’s compatriot Greta Thunberg, were striking on Fridays for Future.

On the other hand, this graph of rising climate militancy has been accompanied by an even steeper graph showing CO2 emissions. In 1995, Malm was among the demonstrators outside the first U.N. Conference of the Parties summit, in Berlin, chanting: “Action now! No more blah-blah…. Action now!” In the quarter-century since, more carbon has been spewed out than in the 75 years before. And investment in fossil infrastructure has continued just as relentlessly: “Two-thirds of capital placed in projects for generating energy in the year 2018 went to oil, gas, and coal—that is, to additional facilities for extracting and combusting such fuels, on top of that already spanning the globe.” These investments, chasing quarterly returns, have very long-term effects: Plants, refineries, and pipelines commissioned in 2020 will generate emissions down through 2060.

Malm cites a study by the University of California climate scientist Dan Tong and her colleagues in China and the United States, which concludes that carbon released by power plants already in operation—not counting CO2 resulting from other sources such as transportation and deforestation—would by itself suffice to heat the planet above the 1.5 degrees Celsius that the Paris accord of 2016 enshrined as the limit of tolerable warming. “Combined with proposed plants,” Malm summarizes, “they would nearly exhaust the budget for the amount of carbon that can be released while still giving the world some chance of staying below 2°C.” In order to remain below 1.5°C, Tong found, governments would need not only to impose an immediate ban on “all new CO2-emitting devices” but to rapidly decommission already existing power plants. Dozens of countries, including such industrial powers as Japan and Germany and, recently, the United States under President Biden, have pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, but their money has never yet been where their mouths are.

What, then, is to be done? The main argument of How to Blow Up a Pipeline is simple: The climate movement should itself enact, through direct action, that prohibition on new fossil fuel infrastructure, and that dismantling of existing pipelines and power plants, which governments have so far refused to take on. Only if such equipment is damaged often and badly enough as to make its continued operation unprofitable does the stabilization of the climate stand a chance. For climate activists to confine themselves to peaceful protest is meanwhile to watch the earth become less and less hospitable to human life. Plenty of readers will react (as I did) with a sort of instinctive skepticism to Malm’s case that only widespread property destruction can forestall civilizational suicide, but his case deserves a hearing.

The title of his book is a misnomer: The text within does not explain how to blow up a pipeline so much as argue for why to do so. It’s no use trying to change the minds of politicians and corporate boards through mere demonstrations, Malm contends. Instead, “the movement must learn to disrupt business-as-usual.” Some tactics that are already in use—blockades, occupations, sit-ins, and school strikes—impede the everyday functioning of a fossil-fueled civilization rushing toward ecological collapse. Property destruction would be the next step.

Malm wants the climate movement to consider this for two reasons. The first is that damaging or destroying fossil fuel infrastructure would directly impair the functioning of fossil capital. He describes with admiration the drone attack that Houthi rebels in Yemen launched against Saudi Aramco’s refineries in Abqaiq in 2019: “The unmanned vehicles swarmed into the precincts to puncture storage tanks, light fires, disable processing trains; in one fell stroke, half of the oil production in Saudi Arabia, accounting for 7 per cent of global supplies, had to be taken offline. No single action in the history of sabotage and guerrilla war had achieved a commensurate break on the pumping of oil.” Carbon pollution is of course a planetary phenomenon, more or less evenly distributed throughout the atmosphere, but the infrastructure responsible for it is, by contrast, very geographically concentrated and isolated. Malm does not say so, but these features render power plants, refineries, and pipelines exceptionally vulnerable—and attractive—to saboteurs.

A second purpose of ecologically minded property destruction is more abstract. Malm contends that it would contribute to the morale of the climate movement, and make nonviolent petitions for governmental action look mild and reasonable by comparison. The blowing up of pipelines would, he argues, constitute increasingly effective propaganda for climate justice. Naturally, critics will wag their fingers at the saboteurs of fossil capital—so be it. Malm believes that climate activists “must be prepared to be calumniated by some … while steering clear of tactics that would put off too many.” They should act as a vanguard that will eventually lead a large part of the public to the same goal that they have: “They should walk ahead”—not too far in front, which would isolate them from the masses, but also not hovering too near the middle, which would never get them anywhere.

The argument is similar to one made back in 2003 by Michael Specter in the eminently respectable New Yorker about the animal rights outfit PETA. PETA, Specter argued, had been continually condemned by right-thinking people for its extremist rhetoric and theatrical tactics (such as throwing red paint on fur coats)—and had at the same time continually succeeded in shifting the Overton window in the direction of animal rights. Ordinary citizens would invariably object that the radicals had gone too far—and in the next breath concede that they had a point: Animals truly deserved better treatment. And U.S. law on animal rights has since changed accordingly.

For Malm, “intelligent sabotage” of the fossil fuel industry would unleash a similar dynamic. The destruction of pipelines and damage of refineries would presumably elicit the enthusiasm of some political factions and the condemnation of others—while shifting “the existing consciousness” of everyone in a green direction.

Standing in the way of Malm’s counsel of strategic property destruction is, of course, the virtual taboo on any such thing that has characterized the climate movement to date. The pacifism of climate activists appears in two main forms, Malm observes. A few subscribe to “moral pacifism,” which “says that it is always wrong to commit acts of violence.” Malm makes short work of this doctrine by pointing out that unchecked climate change would entail the premature death of tens if not hundreds of millions of people. (An article in this magazine by James Robins has made the case for considering climate change a form of genocide.) If the use of force could prevent this enormity, it would be a dereliction of duty to refrain.

It’s a second kind of pacifism—“the strategic one”—that really bedevils the climate movement, and that Malm takes more seriously. Strategic pacifism “says that violence committed by social movements always takes them further from their goal.” On this account of things, nonviolent demonstrations are an effective tactic because they tend to rally an observing public to the cause, whereas violence and property destruction are ineffective because they alienate would-be sympathizers and invite massive state repression. Malm devotes a chapter, “Learning from Past Struggles,” to refuting this case for strategic pacificism, especially as enunciated in the handbook of Extinction Rebellion, the U.K.-based group that through its colorful street demonstrations has become one of the most visible instances of the climate movement in recent years. “The social science is totally clear on this,” the handbook states: “violence does not optimize the chance of successful, progressive outcomes.”

To rebuke this reading of history, Malm examines the use of violence and property destruction in a series of emancipatory movements. These range from the mass liberation of slaves in the Haitian Revolution of the late eighteenth century, through the suffragette struggle of the early twentieth (“Fed up with their own fruitless deputations to Parliament, the suffragettes soon specialized in ‘the argument of the broken pane,’ sending hundreds of well-dressed women down streets to smash every window they passed”), to the ANC’s anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa, among other instructive cases. He quotes a Nelson Mandela different from the familiar figure of sanitized, official commemoration: “Our policy to achieve a non-racial state by non-violence has achieved nothing,” Mandela said in 1964. In his 1994 memoir, he recalled his thinking: “Our strategy was to make selective forays against military installations, power plants, telephone lines and transportation links; targets that would not only hamper the military effectiveness of the state, but frighten National Party supporters, scare away foreign capital, and weaken the economy…. But if sabotage did not produce the results we wanted, we were prepared to move on to the next stage: guerrilla warfare and terrorism.”

Malm’s contention is not that property destruction should replace peaceful demonstration as the principal tactic of the climate movement, but that nearly all successful social movements have employed both peaceful and destructive means, and that there is no reason the climate movement should provide an exception to this rule. Indeed violence (at least against property, rather than people) and nonviolence are, typically, symbiotic features of a movement, as in the American civil rights struggle. Malm quotes the sociologist Herbert Haines: “Nonviolent direct action struck at the heart of powerful political interests because it could so easily turn to violence.” Not only sit-ins in the South but urban riots, highly destructive of private property, throughout the United States lay behind the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. As Malm puts it, “Next to the threat of black revolution—Black Power, the Black Panther Party, black guerrilla groups—integration seemed a tolerable price to pay. Without Malcolm X, there might not have been a Martin Luther King (and vice versa).”

Eloquent as Malm is (in a second language, no less), his brief for “ecotage,” as he calls it, provokes a few natural objections. One is: Would it actually work? Particularly for an American audience, the specter of ecological sabotage is likely to call up images of the hapless campaigns of such radical green outfits as Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front during the 1980s and 1990s. If peaceful protest, on Malm’s account, has proved unable to redirect the stream of events during the first two decades of this century, the eco-sabotage of the last two decades of the prior century surely matched and exceeded it for pointlessness. The militants involved spiked some trees, destroyed some SUVs, wrote out some graffiti, and (thrillingly, from my point of view at the time) burned down a ski lodge in the Colorado county where I grew up. But this delirious monkey-wrenching did approximately nothing either to derail the juggernaut of ecocidal capitalism or to convert the voting public to the cause. Its main result was long prison sentences for some activists, from a federal government intent on classing vandalism as “terrorism,” and exile abroad for others.

It wasn’t that a piously reformist American environmental movement didn’t all along imply a logic of property destruction, should its own lobbying initiatives prove unavailing. In The Ecocentrists (2018), a superb history of radical environmentalism in the United States, Keith Makoto Woodhouse quotes a 1971 speech by Sierra Club president Phil Berry: “No responsible conservationists advocate violence and certainly I don’t, but it is worth noting that if we fail in our efforts, others who might assume leadership in the conservation field would be unwilling to work through existing institutions.” Mainstream environmental organizations may have succeeded in setting aside pristine tracts of land for preservation as “wilderness,” but they failed to rally the general population to a new land ethic, or to convince the government to take climate change seriously. In this sense, their shortcomings supplied the rationale of more radical environmentalists. And yet the saboteurs of Earth First!, the Animal Liberation Front, and the ELF no more launched a mass movement against the despoliation of the earth than did the responsible statesmen of the Sierra Club.

Woodhouse suggests in The Ecocentrists that both the mainstream environmental movement, devoted to lobbying, and its radical stepchildren, bent on direct action, made a mistake, as long ago as the late 1960s, when they divorced their campaign to protect nonhuman nature from programs for the renovation of society. The result was a misanthropic movement that wrote off as hopeless or, at best, inconvenient the very constituency—the population of industrial societies—that would have been needed to effect its program.

Malm distinguishes his politics from that of the deep-green groupuscules of past decades—with their simultaneously dramatic and useless vandalism—through the observation that EF!, ALF, and ELF had no relationship to any popular struggles, and indeed scorned the very idea of connection to a mass movement. Malm is not merely a green provocateur but an eco-Marxist: He insists that ecological rescue cannot occur without social emancipation. No great and decisive number of people can be expected to seek the salvation of the climate unless it simultaneously implies the betterment of their own lives. This is of course the insight that lies behind ideas of a Green New Deal: the proposition that ecological rescue of the planet could also entail economic rescue of the population at large. In this image, wind farms and solar arrays represent full employment, unionization, and high wages.

Malm elaborates on the better living conditions that the climate movement could promise in another recent polemic, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. Unlike the restrictions mandated by Covid, he writes, “climate mitigation would never require people to become hermits in their homes. In fact, convivial living would be conducive to that project: riding a bus, sharing a meal, … spending time with loved ones in retirement homes or paying for a concert instead of the latest console from Amazon would be in line with the endeavor to live sans fossil fuels.” A “climate emergency program,” Malm insists, “could offer improvements in the quality of life,” rather than ascetic self-sacrifice and pain.

Another obvious query to the program of How to Blow Up a Pipeline is that things have changed even since Malm composed his preface in late March of last year. Inevitably, the authors of urgent manifestos give hostages to fortune, unable as they are to anticipate the events that will have taken place by the time they publish. Malm is no exception. Over the past year, both governments and investors have shown signs of taking the climate crisis more seriously than before. As David Wallace-Wells recently observed in an essay in New York magazine, the costs of solar-energy generation have fallen so far that the International Energy Agency now estimates that India will construct 86 percent less in the way of coal-burning power plants than was forecast only a year ago. As for governments, as Wallace-Wells notes, since the start of the pandemic, Japan, South Korea, the European Union, and China independently made “new net-zero pledges, far more ambitious than those offered at Paris.” The implication is that the coronavirus crisis has given new urgency and legitimacy to sweeping state action on behalf of public well-being, to the benefit of aggressive climate policy, even in the absence of large public demonstrations, let alone pervasive ecotage.

Where does this leave the tactic of blowing up pipelines? The events of the last year suggest (but by no means prove) that in fact peaceful protest and technocratic undertakings may be sufficient to induce leading powers to bring their emissions down to a survivable level, no property destruction required. And, ultimately, Malm applies the same standard of efficacy to sabotage that he does to nonviolent protest. “The temptation to fetishize one kind of tactic,” he writes, “should be resisted.”

It may be time for the climate movement to apply the insights of ecology to itself: We can no more desire to see the ultimate triumph of one or another political tactic than we can wish to see one particular organism dominate a landscape. The point of a given tactic is not to prevail against other tactics but to join an ecosystem of tactics—electoral campaigns, community and union organizing, public demonstrations, and, yes, property destruction—that as a group win out against an opposing system that spells the doom of organized human life on this planet. We should blow up no more pipelines, and drone-bomb no more refineries, than is necessary—but also no fewer. It’s not, after all, that property rights don’t matter. It’s that the contest is between the property of a few—the awful ensemble of fossil fuel infrastructure—and of the many, which is the commons of this earth.