By Sophie Squire
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2783

Should we destroy polluting infrastructure?

Accelerating climate change means we must look to radical solutions within the climate movement. Author Andreas Malm’s radicalism is welcome but cannot replace a mass workers’ movement, argues Sophie Squire.
Issue 2783
Ende Gelände activists in Germany occupy fossil fuel infrastructure in 2015.

Ende Gelände activists in Germany occupy fossil fuel infrastructure in 2015. (Pic: Paul Wagner/350.org/Flickr)

Author, historian and activist Andreas Malm puts forward radical solutions to the climate crisis.  

In his book How to Blow up a Pipeline, Malm makes a case for systematic sabotage of CO2 emitting infrastructure. 

His advice to the ­movement is, “Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. 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.”

But why isn’t that already happening? 

This is the question Malm grapples with for a large section of the book. 

Malm took part in direct action with the German climate group Ende Gelande (End of the Road). 

The group swarmed coal mines in their thousands to shut them down. 

But he notes, especially in the last few years, these kinds of disruptive actions haven’t been common. 

And he describes the climate movement as “gentle” compared to other movements against, for example, racism.  

In small pockets, climate activists have blocked and disrupted fossil-fuel emitters. 

Last week, two young women climbed machinery at the world’s largest coal mine in Port of Newcastle, Australia, effectively shutting down production. 

But considering the frequency of extreme weather disasters in 2021 and the utter inaction of world leaders, it seems surprising that this kind of action has been so rare. 

 

For Malm, the answers to why this kind of direct action isn’t popular today are complex. 

One reason he gives is the impact of ideas around non-violence. These are especially popular with the climate movement in the global north.  

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is used as a prime example by Malm of the strengths and weaknesses of strict non-violent action. 

The theory that underpins XR’s beliefs can be found in Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works.  

Chenoweth and Stephen looked at hundreds of struggles for liberation across the world and concluded non-violent tactics are always the most effective. 

Malm argues this “peace washed” rewriting of history has been used to make non-violence a condition within sections of the climate movement. He corrects a sanitised version of how change happens and writes, “The first sweeping emancipation of slaves occurred in the Haitian Revolution—hardly a bloodless affair. 

“As some recall, slavery in the US was terminated by a civil war, whose death toll still remains close to the aggregate from all other military conflicts the country has been embroiled in.”

For Malm, the effort to sanitise history is another ­example of a failing of the current climate movement and a turn away from more radical and revolutionary politics. 

Throughout his writing, Malm rightly asserts that the climate movement needs to be more radical and more militant, which most socialists would agree with. 

His call to diversify tactics to hit the bosses’ profits on every level is a very valid one. He also says that creating a larger movement is important. Malm writes, “In politics numbers are everything. One worker ­staying home is a shirker, one thousand are a strike. 

“One Greta is a girl in Stockholm, one million girls and boys a force to reckon with.” 

Another of Malm’s strengths is he firmly asserts that ­capitalism provided the conditions for climate disaster.

In his earlier book, Fossil Capital, Malm goes into depth about how in Britain the switch from water power to fossil fuels was pushed by the bosses’ demand to make a profit and establish control. 

He is also sure to point out the capitalist state won’t be ­prevailed upon to take the action necessary to protect the planet.

 

In How to Blow up a Pipeline, he writes, “The ruling class will not be talked into action. They are not amenable to persuasion. The louder the sirens wail, the more material they rush to the fire, so it is evident that change will have to be forced upon them.” 

All of this adds to Malm’s argument of needing disruptive tactics to challenge the capitalist system as it currently stands. 

The need to look for practical solutions to save the planet from climate ­breakdown is important to Malm. 

And in his later book War Communism? Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, Malm grapples with what kind of system is needed to survive on an already damaged planet. 

He proposes what he describes as “ecological Leninism” as a transitional and emergency way of organising society.  

Malm uses the term War Communism in reference to the emergency measures put forward by the Bolshevik party after the Russian revolution of 1917. 

Russia had been besieged by invading armies, and wrecked by famine and economic crisis. It needed to nationalise industries swiftly and redistribute food supplies for the revolution to survive. 

While not suggesting history should be repeated, Malm says an emergency reorganisation of society is needed to save us from climate catastrophe. 

 

Malm is right to say this. The crisis calls for a complete reorganisation of society. But socialists’ vision of what that would look like goes further than Malm suggests. 

In White Skin, Black Fuel, which Malm co-wrote, he claims climate change is “a revolutionary problem without a revolutionary subject”.

He later wrote, “We have just argued that the capitalist state is constitutionally incapable of taking these steps. And yet there is no other form of state on offer. No workers’ state based on soviets will miraculously be born in the night. 

“No dual power of the democratic organs of the proletariat seems likely to materialise ­anytime soon, if ever. 

“Waiting for it would be both delusional and criminal, and so all we have to work with is the dreary bourgeois state, tethered to the circuits of capital as always.”

While Malm does mention strikes in How to Blow up a Pipeline, they are just one of a set of diverse tactics he proposes. 

For all its militancy, Malm baulks at the real challenge we face. A movement that breaks the law will face the fury and repression of the state.

And, as he himself writes,  climate destruction is an integral part of capitalism. So the task is not just to protest and pressure but to destroy capitalism and its state.

 

That is why the working class, a collective class at the centre of the process of producing profits is so crucial. If it stops then the system itself shakes.

Turing this potential into a “revolutionary subject” is not simple. 

It’s true that workers aren’t currently revolting in their millions for the climate or downing tools on oil rigs or coal mines. 

This doesn’t mean that socialists should argue against disruptive tactics in favour of just passing motions in their trade union. 

We argue that we must go a step further.

That requires infusing workers’ struggles with an argument about the climate. Simultaneously, and as an essential part of winning the first argument, the workers’ movement has to be far more combative and to take on climate issues.   

We say that when they fight and organise and create structures of democratic power workers alone have the power to create a society that puts people and planet before profit. 

And the potential for ­workers’ anger to boil over is everywhere. 

Explosions of anger when extreme weather destroys a village, flattens crops or dries up wells are likely to become more frequent as the temperatures soar. 

These struggles can become climate struggles that challenge the system itself. 

In Iran workers and farmers have taken part in furious protests over water shortages for the last week. 

The crisis has been caused by environmental destruction coupled with government incompetence and corruption. 

Climate change might not be what is driving most of the protesters, but it is the root cause.

That shows the possibility of going further.

Malm offers important arguments. But ultimately he is not militant enough.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance
One-off