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Last October, climate activists threw soup at a van Gogh painting. The painting was fine (it was behind glass), but the symbolic souping became the protest version of The Dress, with the internet arguing not about blue versus gold, but “good” versus “dumb.”
Climate activist and theorist Andreas Malm was, at first, team “dumb,” not because he was scandalized, but because he prefers actual sabotage, ideally directed at fossil fuel infrastructure or the wasteful carbon emissions of the rich. Van Gogh’s sunflowers represent neither. But splashing them got people talking, so Malm switched teams. In an essay for the New York Times, he came down in favour of the souping, pointing out the parallel to another movement: In 1914, suffragettes slashed paintings on their way to the vote (they also planted bombs).
For the climate movement, Malm argues, the time has come to really start breaking shit. He makes this case in his 2021 book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which renews a decades-old debate: Whether or not property destruction has any place in otherwise nonviolent campaigns.
Much of Malm’s argument will be familiar to proponents of strategic nonviolence, but if you find the idea of destroying property for a cause verboten (as many people do), it is worth spending time with. In one argument, Malm explains that violent groups can create a “flank effect” for nonviolent movements, making everyone else look reasonable (and worth bargaining with) in comparison. It is a risky strategy that can backfire. But Malm argues that we are running out of options — and time.
Fossil fuels are killing us; earnest appeals to goodness have failed. To actually mitigate the climate crisis, Malm believes, fossil fuels must become an unthinkably bad investment. Everyone who values life must become “the investment risk,” by blockading infrastructure, filing lawsuits, or finding other ways to challenge business as usual. Those who feel so led should become the militant fringe.
How to Blow up a Pipeline (the book) does not offer practical tips on blowing things up. Neither does the film adaptation of the same name, which came out on April 7. (Offering bomb-building advice on the big screen is illegal; the filmmakers consulted with someone “very high up in counterterrorism in the U.S. military” to keep the process “well-Greeked.”) Instead, it imagines what it might look like if people who read Malm’s book made good on the title.
The movie gets plenty right about climate activism. Success hinges not on a singular hero but on a small affinity group, most of whom already know and trust each other: The young protagonists feel, desperately, that they must do something. They find an industry insider to help with logistics. They organize over Signal. They take precautions in case the FBI is listening; in this case, by tossing their phones in the fridge.
But this is not a “watch the movie, skip the book” situation. This is a heist movie, after all — dialogue is scarce. Instead, the movie delivers explosions and suspense: bomb-making and bomb-planting are inherently dicey, and the ever-present question, “Which one of y’all will rat?” was delightfully uncomfortable. While Malm offers up violence against property as one tactic among many, the movie seems to dismiss anything short of property destruction.
A new movie based on a book by the same name explores climate activism beyond peaceful, “reasonable” actions. #ClimateActivists #ClimateChange #Terrorism #HowToBlowUpAPipeline
The plot of the movie is straightforward: eight people come together to bomb a pipeline. The goal is to influence oil prices, and the climate fight is personal. For Xochitl, Theo, and Alisha, it’s about a cancer cluster in a refinery town; for Dwayne, it’s about eminent domain; for Michael, a “man camp” on or near the Fort Berthold reservation; and for Shawn, it’s about watching the world burn on Twitter. In another nod to real-world organizing, two saboteurs (Logan and Alisha) join mostly to support their girlfriends (Regan and Theo).
On their way to rolling barrels of explosives across the West Texas desert, the would-be bombers reject conservation work, peaceful campus divestment protests, and soup kitchens as insufficient responses to the climate crisis. Nor do they pause to consider civil disobedience (blocking pipelines is much more popular than bombing them). With the rest of Gen Z, they presumably grew up watching more “reasonable” solutions fizzle. Xochitl rejects nonviolent movements — including, presumably, the blockades that Malm himself has participated in — as “passive nonviolent kumbaya shit.”
Malm, in contrast, sees strategic violence as useful in conversation with larger movements, not as a tactic that will do much on its own. His issue with nonviolence comes when it is fetishized to the exclusion of other methods; a problem that he sees in the current climate movement. “If the temptation to fetishize one kind of tactic should be resisted, this also applies, of course, to property destruction and other forms of violence,” he cautions.
The movie leans toward fetishizing property destruction (fair enough, given that its mandate is to entertain). “Sabotage is messy,” says Xochitl. Contrast that with Malm, who writes that “sabotage can be done softly, even gingerly.”
“They’re gonna call us terrorists because we’re doing terrorism,” Xochitl’s friend Theo observes casually, as the group kicks back after a long day of bomb-making. No one in the group on screen vehemently disagrees. But Malm does.
“In a political climate still haunted by al-Qaeda and Daesh, it would be catastrophic for the movement if any part of it used terrorism,” writes Malm. He argues that the term should be reserved for the destruction of something much more important than oil company property: “If terrorism is to have any analytical substance, its core definition must be the deliberate and indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians for the purpose of instilling terror or something very nearly like it.”
I was surprised when Theo self-identified as a terrorist. In the group’s winding, late-night debate, I was more surprised that not one of her co-conspirators nodded to what might be their actual legal defence under U.S. law: that property damage is only technically terrorism if you are trying to influence the state; they were just trying to influence markets.
In the real world, how to apply terrorism charges is contested ground with big stakes. In 2016, activists Jessica Reznicek and Rosa Montoya practiced nonviolent civil disobedience at the Standing Rock pipeline blockade, then punctured pipelines and turned themselves in. Malm celebrates these saboteurs in his book. After it was published, Reznicek and Montoya both received sentences that added terrorism enhancements to their vandalism and arson charges. Last year, an appeals court let Reznicek’s charges stand.
Whether or not these charges are justified — or worth risking — is a big question for anyone who might actually consider sabotaging a pipeline. (Given how broadly these charges have been applied, it’s also now a question for anyone considering pranking oil executives or wearing muddy clothes at an outdoor music festival.) But it’s not a question the film gives audiences the opportunity to consider. Ultimately, the film’s take on Malm’s analysis is as “well-Greeked” as the bomb-making itself.