By Jess Walsh
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Should we blow up pipelines?

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Andreas Malm’s new book examines the role of violence and non-violence in the climate movement, writes Jess Walsh

Extinction Rebellion protest in London in 2019. Is their adherence to non-violence holding back the movement? (Photo: Guy Smallman)

Andreas Malm’s new book How To Blow Up A Pipeline is a thought provoking doctrine for climate activists the world over. The principle of non-violence has been a mantra of much of the climate movement for the last twenty years. As the frequency of once-in-a-lifetime catastrophic weather events gathers pace, there is a growing need for the movement to discuss how we up our game.

Malm contributes to this debate by arguing that time is running out to stop business as usual destroying the planet, and that the climate movement has to become more radical in its tactics. Specifically he concludes that climate activists should begin a campaign of destroying fossil fuel infrastructure. While these conclusions are not ones I’d agree with, the attempt to open a conversation about strategy and militancy within the movement is a welcome one.

Moral non violence

Non-violence in the climate movement has been, according to Malm, either a moral or a strategic decision. There are those like veteran Bill McGibben who advocate non-violent tactics from a moral aversion to violence, and as a part of a spiritual or even religious practice. To them, all violence is abhorrent, even in self-defence. Extinction Rebellion, from its explosion onto the streets in 2019, has laid out an explicit strategic rationale for non-violent direct action. Mass political campaigns that only use non-violent tactics are more likely to succeed, they claim. This is based on historical research and social science by figures such as Erica Chenoweth and, XR argue, can’t be disputed. XR co-founder Roger Hallam lays it out in black and white, “There are two types of disruption: violent and non-violent. Violence is a traditional method. It is brilliant at getting attention and creating chaos and disruption, but it is often disastrous when it comes to creating progressive change. Violence destroys democracy and the relationships with opponents which are vital to creating peaceful outcomes to social conflict. The social science is totally clear on this: violence does not optimise the chance of successful, progressive outcomes. In fact, it almost always leads to fascism and authoritarianism. The alternative, then, is non-violence.”

Malm looks a little deeper at the successful ‘non-violent’ campaigns and figures that are often quoted by climate activists. These include the abolitionist movement against slavery, the suffragettes, the Civil Rights movement, and of course, the campaign against British colonialism in India lead by Gandhi. The first chapter of How To Blow Up A Pipeline serves as a blistering polemical take down of the “social science” underpinning the dogma of strategic non-violence. This dogma reduces the complex character of mass struggles against authoritarianism, colonialism, slavery, apartheid and segregation into binary categorisations of ‘violent’ and ‘non-violent’.

The real history of struggles

As Malm points out, the struggle against slavery began during the Haitian Revolution when masses of slaves rose up and emancipated themselves from bondage. They then defended themselves from successive bloody invasions by colonial powers determined to re-chain them. Their slogan was “freedom or death”. This involved heroic uprisings and battles against the armies of empire. It could hardly be called non-violent. As impressive as the abolitionist movement was – especially in mobilising working class white people to support an end to slavery – it is inaccurate to say that the British ended slavery because of a non-violent movement alone. Slaves bravely fought and died for it themselves, in the process forcing the British Empire to make concessions.

The Civil Rights movement did use tactics familiar to non-violent civil disobedience: sit-ins, protests, boycotts and civil disobedience. But It is worth noting that while the Civil Rights leaders advocated non-violence, this strategy relied on leveraging the federal state to step in and enforce desegregation. This is why it saw confrontations like the National Guard at the school house steps in Little Rock 1957. So the movement can not be described as totally reliant on non violence. Martin Luther King, often held up as the hero of the practice of non-violence, had complex politics that evolved over the course of his political life that was cut short when he was assassinated by the US state.

The fight against racism and segregation in this era was not homogenous. Partly due to the perceived failures of a non-violent strategy did a radical flank of the movement emerge. The Black power movement personified by Stokeley Carmichael, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers very much adopted the slogan that self defence is no offence. They all played a part in the complex story of the struggle against racism in US.

The suffragettes did not shy away from property damage in their campaign to win the vote for women. In fact after years of petitioning and traditional methods failing to break through, the suffragettes turned to more violent means. They smashed windows in high street shops, the Prime Minister’s residence, lit post boxes aflame, slashed paintings and blew up empty buildings. Mass mobilisations alongside these targeted direct actions earned them the wrath of politicians of all spectrums and the establishment press. But nonetheless the vote for women was eventually won, partly as a result of this radicalism.

Extinction Rebellion and other climate groups such as ‘Ende Gelande’ do not support destruction of oil refineries or coal mines, even though these items of private property drive climate catastrophe. A useful question is posed by Malm at this stage: can the destruction of property be deemed violent if no humans were harmed? Would vandalism be a more useful description of this tactic?

Malm turns to Gandhi, probably the most venerated by those who preach non-violence, and exposes a deeply contradictory figure. Gandhi opposed violent tactics against the British in India and condemned violent struggles against them such as the 1946 mutiny in the Navy. He was not opposed to warfare waged by the British however. In fact he was a strong supporter of Indian participation alongside British forces in the Boer and First World Wars. His logic was that the more Indians participated in wars with the British, the more they would earn the respect of British colonists.

When the British did finally quit India in 1946, it was in the context of a weakened British imperialism following World War Two, but it was also partly because the independence movement was using more militant tactics. Many who were inspired by Gandhi broke from his non-violence and engaged in mutinies, strikes and protests that turned violent. These tactics played as much of a role in forcing out the British as Gandhi’s did.

Sanitised history

As Malm says, “strategic pacifism is sanitised history”. To reduce the whole history of human struggle against exploitation and oppression to either ‘violent’ or ‘non-violent’ and then saying that only the ‘non-violent’ struggles are ever successful is selective at best and wilfully misleading at worst. While claiming that the choice of non-violence is strategic, it is often codified and applied by activists on the ground in a moralistic way. “We condemn all violence,” is what I’ve heard from XR activists attacking rioters in Bristol struggling against police repression. It plays into the media and establishment’s ability to label protesters either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and split the movement based on respectability. As Martin Luther King said, ‘Riots are the language of the unheard’ and condemning those who spontaneously fight back against the unjust system is not something activists should be engaging in.

How to Blow Up A Pipeline is very useful as a tool at opening up a conversation about violence, force and destruction of property as tactics within the climate movement and wider, and it should be widely read on that basis. The specific proposals outlined by Malm are more controversial. He calls on climate activists to target and destroy any attempt to open up a new site of fossil fuel extraction or combustion. His hope is that this will force fossil fuel bosses to cease opening any more. He then argues we should begin to target and destroy legacy fossil fuel infrastructure. So, in Malm’s view, the tactics of climate groups like Ende Gelande – who overwhelm coal sites with thousands of activists and shut them down for a day or two – should be developed into actually destroying machines.

To have a chance of staying below 1.5℃, Malm is right that there needs to be a prohibition of new fossil fuel emitting devices. I completely share the despair at the almost unbelievable reality that while the climate is visibly changing and breaking down, emissions are still rising and new sources of CO2 are being built around the world. We have not even begun to bend the curve.

The counter to this despair is the mass movements that erupted in 2019 in response to the warning from the IPCC that we had only 11 years left to save the planet. Extinction Rebellion and the School Strikes for Climate lead by Greta Thunberg made 2019 the year of climate struggle. It involved millions of people around the world demanding action for the climate. To advocate for sabotage and property destruction is, in my view, to turn from building a mass movement into secrecy and conspiracy.

Spontaneous eruptions of violence against the state or even direct action taken as a part of a mass struggle are vitally important. Think about the statue of slaver Edward Colston being pulled down in Bristol as a part of a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020, or the Poll Tax Riot that contributed to ending Thatcher’s reign. Spontaneous expressions of force by the mass numbers of people in a moment of struggle can make important gains and boost the confidence of those fighting. To advocate for conspiratorial methods that don’t involve big numbers of ordinary people can itself be a symptom of pessimism and despair. As tempting as it may be, it can end up an attempt to shortcut the work to build a mass radical movement to challenge the power of fossil capital within capitalism.

A radical strategy?

Malm argues that because the targets of the climate campaign are not people, as they are in struggles against authoritarianism, but CO2-emitting machines, it is not terrorism but vandalism. But we know in capitalist society the state protects private property with more vigour than it does people. An underground and secret campaign would be necessary to destroy oil refineries and coal mines. To challenge the hegemony of fossil fuel machines you have to challenge the interests they represent. Taking on some of the biggest corporations on the planet requires more than a handful of dedicated and brave activists dismantling machines.

The machines are not neutral. They were imbued with the unequal social relations in society so that they appear to have a power over us. The great discovery of Malm’s earlier work Fossil Capital is that fossil fuels were chosen by early industrialists over water, wind and other energy sources because of the power they gave the capitalists over workers in the class struggle. Capitalism and the dominance of fossil fuels grew together and became intertwined so that as the power of one grew, so did the other. To challenge fossil capital is to challenge capitalism. It means challenging a system that imbues a handful of companies the right to enrich themselves by extracting and burning fossil fuels at the expense of people and planet. Towards the end of the first chapter, Malm bemoans the dearth of revolutionary politics in the 21st century and the lack of class consciousness in the movements. But the conclusions he offers turn away from the forces in society that can challenge that system.

The most disappointing thing about How To Blow Up A Pipeline is the conspicuous absence of workers and workers’ struggle. There is no mention of workplace action as a strategy, or of workers themselves taking action for the environment. Malm also ignores the power of strikes and social weight workers can bring to a movement.

There have been great struggles in the past where workers have fought for the environment. The implementation of a green ban by Australian builders union NSWBLF in the 1970s is an important example. As a part of the union policy of using their labour only for socially useful projects, the workers stopped the development of green urban areas by refusing to work on them. In 2009, Vestas workers occupied a wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight to fight against its closure and to highlight the issue of jobs that are geared towards a decarbonised future. While they didn’t succeed in saving that plant it shows the potential of workers to unify economic and climate demands. And crucially it raised the possibility of workers fighting for their labour to be geared towards socially useful tasks instead of just profitable ones. In September 2019, workers across the world joined school students and took part in mass political workplace action as part of Fridays For Future.

This is not just a history lesson. Whatever the ups and downs of the movement over the past few years, it has opened up the potential for class politics to become a central force in climate activism. The talk of system change not climate change, climate strikes and climate jobs has become much more common than it was five years ago. Our focus should be on deepening this process, not turning towards the direct action of a few.

The accelerating destruction of the environment has not been stopped or even slowed one year after the implementation of lockdowns during the pandemic. The economic crisis is throwing thousands out of work and into poverty. Capitalism is in a great crisis of multiple dimensions. The outbreak of struggles and resistance against the system are inevitable whether they be driven by revolts against inequality, racism, sexism or climate breakdown. The urgent task of socialists remains to drive those political struggles into the organised working class, and to drive that movement to its most radical conclusion. Workers remain the only force on earth capable of upending the class relations and pulling the brakes on a system which is rapidly leading to disaster.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm, Verso, £10.99

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