Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline is an eye-opening work discussing tactics and strategies within the climate movement. It is important not only in itself, but for the strong reactions it garnered. Malm’s main proposition—that a more radical wing of the climate justice movement should unashamedly coalesce—is not a particularly radical one; it is historically what is expected of any social movement that sets out to change the status quo. The choir of critiques of Malm’s argument that arose after the book’s publication (and which brought the book further acclaim) is an example of the conservatism and lack of strategic insight shared by society, progressives, and most social movements today. In Portugal we have a saying, “The king is naked,” roughly similar to the expression “the emperor has no clothes.” Malm’s book pointed out how naked the king was: the current modus operandi of social movements, in particular the climate justice movement, is overwhelmingly inadequate for the moment we’re living in.
How could such an obvious proposition could raise such an attack? The main answer, I reckon, is in the history recounted by Malm, among others, of our social movements and left-wing political organizations in the last decades: there is a lack of a revolutionary theory beyond marches and protests that can lead to meaningful institutional change. It is not surprising, then, that the millions-strong movement that flooded the streets in 2019 to stop climate chaos didn’t use the popular desire for change brought by the corona crisis, but rather, was crushed by the crisis, and are still struggling to re-emerge. Fossil capitalism, on the other hand, is thriving after the pandemic hiccup. The capitalist political apparatus has fastly co-opted some of our less acute proposals, launching a massive land-grab, recarving up Africa, Latin America and Asia’s less commodified territories for “carbon offsets” and new raw materials.
From my own radical perspective inside the movement, coming from a Blockadia-like organization, Climáximo in Portugal, I agree in general with the critiques Malm raises of the movement. There is a lack of any revolutionary theory that is remotely adequate for the current historical moment. This is our fault. To solve it is our task.
The mildness climate justice movement
Malm’s most relevant personal experience in the book is the COP1, in 1995, and is revealing of the lack of concrete advancements in the movement. The direct actions described by Malm are the same, if not less radical then 27 years ago. At the time, activists actually tried to block the delegates from attending, which doesn’t happen anymore. Keep in mind that from 1995 until today, more than 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolutions were made.
Despite some self-satisfying proclamations, there are absolute grounds for concluding the polite tactics of our movement have led nowhere. The failure is measurable in the gas concentration in Earth’s atmosphere. It is measurable in yearly emissions rates, in fossil fuel infrastructure installed in the last decades and still being built. It is measurable in the average global temperature. This happened not because of the movement, but despite of us.
Malm paints the movement, or at least its most self-identified component, as remarkably tamed, gentle and mild. We haven’t established any serious physical contact with the adversary. We didn’t block any supply lines, blockade any major global route or channel. In many cases, the movement hasn’t even been able to outline clearly who its enemy is. Let’s be clear: it’s capitalism.
The explanation for this is addressed in the book: there is a massive sense of “business as usual” within the climate justice movement. Despite the historical split of the climate justice movement from western environmentalism, we haven’t been able to rid ourselves of the NGO model of negotiation and professionalization. We have been partially reabsorbed by the non-profit machine and guided toward the tactics of the neoliberal-environmentalist alliance and of ecological modernization, even if we have not adopted its ideology. Today’s climate justice movement uses the same tools of analysis and action as the mainstream environmentalist movement, accepting massive defeats interspersed with small victories. We desperately need other references.
A prime example of this institutionalism is the Conferences of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Its historical importance as a logistical meeting ground has long been surpassed, and the annual meeting now functions as an infectious cadaver the movement insists on visiting every year. The COP works as a political magnet for those hoping capitalist governments will finally provide some kind of solution. It provides solace for political, theoretical, tactical and strategical shortcomings.
The historical chances for a clean break—Copenhagen in 2009, Paris in 2015, Glasgow in 2021— were not taken. Despite some radicalization in the movement in 2018 and 2019, comfort levels of climate activism are quite high: in western countries no one expects to stay for more than a few nights in jail. This comfort is a trick. The regularity of civil disobedience might normalize it socially, but will be met with judicial and political response, such as Britain’s new protest law, that directly responds to protests by Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter. But the system doesn’t care about our civility, despite some stories told inside the movement.
An obsession with violence
Malm opens, in his book, the possibility of building a section of the movement that sabotages fossil fuel infrastructure, in a fairly academic and well documented fashion. He does not advocate for a violent movement or a violent mass movement at any point. Why, then, has his book received such criticism? Because of an obsessive focus inside the movement on violence and non-violence. This is a trap to block the movement, and it is working.
– Malm’s critics argue that his book advocates for terrorism. Malm does not advocate this or anything remotely close to it at any moment in the book. In fact, it is capitalists who use terrorist tactics every day, on almost any extractivist project around the world, either directly through state terrorism or indirectly through proxies and aliases.
– Malm’s critics demand a uniformity of tactics. Yet the movement would be stronger with a diversity of tactics. For example, there is a ubiquity of potential targets all around the world that a part of the movement could focus on. The idea of creating an inventory of emissions sources in each country, as proposed by the Glasgow Agreement, would give a the movement a backbone and prompt a diversity of tactics, including direct action.
– Malm’s critics refuse to see the movement as a legitimate source of power. The movement’s current default theory of change, based on moral pacifism, is that violence committed by social movements always takes them further from their goal. This is coherent with the post-modern revolutionary theory of eternal mobilization with no escalation and decisive action. This is also a theory based on the idea that the movement, workers, and ordinary people don’t recognize the legitimacy of taking power into their own hands, which is exactly what capitalists do. There has been an ideological domestication of society, which proposes that the only locus for legitimacy are bourgeois institutions and formal liberal democracy.
Comparing the climate justice movement with other mass social movements in history, it is important to notice that permanent campaigns of non-violent civil disobedience rely heavily on favorable press and its current successor, social networks. The climate movement already enjoys little of this. Chenoweth and Stephan, Extinction Rebellion’s most cited sources for a strategy of strict non-violence, are not the IPCC of resistance. If anything, they are the Heartland Institute of resistance. They are part of the fourth wave of theoreticians of revolution that has become a subfield of security studies. More than anything, this field of study is aimed at preventing any meaningful revolution. Since the 1980s, there has been a demise of revolutionary parties, a degradation of revolutionary theory, and the creation of revolutionary theories of defeat, seriously advocated by actors such as Chenoweth and Stephan. Stephan is—I kid you not—an employee of the US State Department. With such references, the movement is bound to get stuck in muddy waters—if not ideologically, certainly in tactical terms.
Take power, ram it through
Malm’s starting point for a radical wing of the movement—to announce and enforce a prohibition on high-emitting infrastructures and begin to shut them down—reminded me of the starting point of the Glasgow Agreement, signed in 2020. The platform has so far fallen short of achieving this. An issue raised is that bands of activists could not achieve these closures, and that it could only be states that “ram through the transition or no one will.” So Malm’s breadcrumbs from radical wing to take the power are not very subtle. Though it follows from his arguments, in How to Blow Up a Pipeline, regrettably Malm doesn’t raise the obvious next step: that the movement take state power and use it to “ram through” the closures. We wonder what the critics would say, had he proposed that?
All isn’t bad and all isn’t lost. The movement has a collective self-discipline, looks for operational leadership, and conducts actions according to plans all around the world, and I have considered this as good training for what we need to do next. We have learned from popular experience in this process.
For example, in 2019, after four years of a struggle against oil and gas contracts in Portugal, we were down from fifteen contracts to just two. We organized an action camp in the Portuguese interior, where we blockaded a projected gas site with over 200 activists and townsfolk. It was a huge success and, a few weeks later, the company gave up on the contract. Months earlier, there had been a promotion event, run by the gas company. Upon leaving the venue, all the tires of rental cars of the company’s executives had been slashed by the locals. Had they brought in any materials into those fields, I have no doubt they would have been set ablaze, by the locals or by us. Probably by both.
The biggest revolution in the history of humanity
If we accept the IPCC’s information—and the climate justice movement does—we need to cut 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to the 2010 emissions’ levels. This means a cut higher than 50% compared to now, as emissions have risen rather than declined in the past decades. We obviously need a prohibition of all new fossil fuel projects, but we also need a massive shutdown of existing projects and infrastructure.
The movement objectively needs to liquidate a massive amount of capital. The crisis will not be solved under capitalism, which will block any meaningful changes. Fossil fuels and its technologies are productive forces that need to be abolished, with no possible compromises.
Malm argues that success doesn’t belong to the peaceful. If we want to not repeat historical mistakes, we must ask: what of the moral imperative of preventing collapse? We have a duty to guarantee the existence and livelihood of our current and all future generations. We claim to be the movement that wants this. We must become it. Violence, much like non-violence, can’t be fetishized as an abstract absolute, but understood as one tactic among many. If the movement’s objective is to win, it mustn’t exclude any, as they certainly do not apply to all contexts and all times, it must adopt a plurality of tactics, rejecting total tactical confirmity. Popular support does not evaporate with the destruction of property; if some people are appalled, others will be encouraged and heartened. We must take the offensive in order to survive.
Western democratic republics are the most resilient forms of the capitalist state, with tools to reduce conflict levels in society, while guaranteeing that only minor adjustments and concessions are given, as a trade-off to keeping the system working in full. But it will not be able to adjust to what to either the climate crisis or to the change that needs to happen. The movement needs to escalate to win.
We recognize the gravity of the climate crisis, so it’s hard to understand the moral argument that property deserves respect. (Malm doesn’t introduce the issue of real violence). Only a combination of alienation and lack of revolutionary theory can explain this. If the movement doesn’t evolve, the likeliness of random violence (and in a much lesser level, terrorism) is likely, as despair takes hold. Even more, we will see the expansion of cynicism, hypocrisy, and social apathy, which is how people who are pushed into a corner and refused any real alternative usually evolve. We need to jump into a revolutionary movement now.
Hopes and prospects
Extinction Rebellion proved that many of the movement’s previous assumptions didn’t make sense. Go and get arrested, they said, and people actually went. That was a surprise. Now we need to appeal to something more: let’s go and take power!
Climate activists have yet to time their actions to singular climate catastrophes, connect the climate crisis to its producers, its companies, and use trigger events as revolutionary opportunities. Revolution and the fear of revolution were the biggest triggers for social change in the last two centuries. To envision a revolution that is tactically limited by the moral privilege of not having to win is to immediately refuse that the objective is winning. Violence should not be the only tool, but to demonize it is suicidal. Malm advocates only for sabotage—that is, to damage property—and his critics demonize his ideas just the same. Part of the movement also does it. Fossil companies and investors still feel like they own the world—because they do, and the tame nature of the movement is keeping it so.
Despite its modus operandi and lack of systemic threat, climate justice activists are already depicted as irresponsible and marginal in many countries. This will aggravate in coming years. Society will polarize much more in the coming years. And if this revolution doesn’t come from the left, the far-right will put a piledriver into the heart of society and civilization. It will defend capitalism and, by proxy, fossil capitalism. It will correspond capitalism to western civilization, even to “Christian” civilization and defend fossil-fuel based capitalism as a crusade.
“To act politically is to reject probability assessment as the ground for action,” Malm recalls. The odds are never in our favor. As Nelson Mandela put it, non-violent protest had to be abandoned “when it no longer worked.” Malm justly remembers the African National Congress’s formula of “the hammer of armed struggle on the anvil of mass action.” The fear of a trade-off between a mass movement and a radical movement can’t be a justification for building neither, and certainly not an alibi for failing to organize the revolution without which we can’t win.
The king is naked. In 1908 the Portuguese king and the crown prince were killed by republicans in Lisbon. In 1910, the October 5th Revolution abolished a 760-year monarchy and installed the republic. Abolishing something that seems unchangeable is possible if we take power. We need not only to blow up a pipeline: we need to blow up the system.
Article originally published in Property Will Cost Us the Earth, A Verso Report