[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
COP26 is winding down, and I think nobody can seriously disagree with Greta Thunberg’s take: “Blah, blah, blah.” And then she continued “The real work continues outside these halls. And we will never give up, ever.” I wonder: What form does that “real work” take? Well, I just finished reading How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm, which doesn’t include instructions for blowing up pipelines but argues that that Real Work should include infrastructure destruction. It’s a good book, and if you (like me) are horrified at the onrushing climate catastrophe and enraged at our leaders’ incapacity and unwillingness to take actions that might seriously mitigate the devastation, you might want to read it.
To start with: I believe that the path the world’s leaders are on, post-COP26, is simply unacceptable. There are hundreds of millions of lives that might be saved, but won’t be. There are whole nations and irreplaceable ecosystems that might be preserved from destruction, but won’t be. To act ethically, we must find other paths than the ones our leaders are offering.
Before I jump into the whole blowing-up-pipelines thing, some takes on where we stand, to get you in the mood.
Bill McKibben, one of the central voices in global climate activism, from his New Yorker platform writes Trust Is Hard to Find at the U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow. It is a lucid and comprehensive tour through the many reasons why nobody should believe the messaging coming out of COP26. (More on McKibben later.)
In Rolling Stone Jeff Goodell offers Obama Addresses Climate Activists in Glasgow, But Should They Listen? Obama’s speech was (of course) both soaring and punchy, urging the young activists to stay angry and frustrated, to gird themselves for a marathon not a sprint. Goodell continues: “But the big problem was Obama’s words were that they were just words. And there have been too many words before. Too much high-mindedness. Too much bending of the moral arc of the universe. Too much blah, blah, blah.”
Finally, let’s go back to 2016, to Alex Steffen’s Predatory Delay and the Rights of Future Generations. Because that’s what the 500+ oil-company delegates at COP26 were there for: To, at all costs, delay the arrival of environmental sanity, so that they can keep the oil cash flowing. They know about the scale of the problems they’re creating, but they’re making too much money to care.
What next? · Let’s agree that climate-change activism, decades into the struggle, has mostly failed. The progress is not remotely proportionate to the scale of the problem. What are we doing wrong?
How to Blow Up a Pipeline offers an answer. Although short-ish, the book is rambling and discursive, finding its way indirectly but smoothly through the story it wants to tell. It spends time outlining the direness of the current climate picture, and quickly proceeds to marvel at the absence — up till now, anyhow — of anything that could be called “terrorism” or even sabotage, given that the problem is urgent and targets aplenty are easily accessible: SUV’s and gas stations, to start with.
Malm isn’t just a talker, he has been on the front lines, talking about how “we brought 100,000 people to the streets on a daylong march” to COP15. The numbers of COP demonstrators have escalated from there, year over year (until COVID) but the velocity of fossil-fuel extraction and burning keeps increasing remorselessly.
He goes deep on two organizations: Extinction Rebellion (XR) and, in Germany, Ende Gelände, which has led a very hands-on program of direct action against that country’s insanely filthy and destructive brown-coal industry. Both have a core principle, not only of nonviolence, but of no destruction of property or infrastructure. Both of them, by any reasonable metric, have failed miserably.
Beyond Nonviolence · This leads to Malm’s core argument, which is an articulate and stimulating read, from which I quote::
“So here is what this movement of millions should do, for a start: announce and enforce the prohibition. 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. ‘We are the investment risk’, runs a slogan from Ende Gelände, but the risk clearly needs to be higher than one or two days of interrupted production per year.”
Climate activists, he says, should abandon the policy of absolute nonviolence. They should strictly refrain from actions against humans, but proceed with sabotage and destruction, specifically of energy-industry infrastructure and apparatus.
There are plenty of strong moral arguments for forceful and even violent action in certain circumstances, and it’s not hard to construct one when the lives of hundreds of millions of children and poor people are at stake.
Existing organizations preach — Bill McKibben has been very urgent on this subject — that nonviolence is the only way forward, and that anything else would instantly and entirely discredit the movment. Anyhow, they continue, violence is unnecessary; the suffragettes, the anti-slavery Abolitionists, and the movements of Mandela and MLK showed that nonviolence wins.
Malm pushes back at length, with a whole lot of historical evidence. First, the end of slavery cannot be divorced from the blood and pain of the Haitian revolution and the US Civil War. The suffragettes regularly used anti-property violence, breaking windows, starting fires, successfully managing to damage property without causing human casualties (although one suffragette apparently horsewhipped Winston Churchill). As for Mandela and MLK, they were personally nonviolent, but in each case there were scarier factions waiting in the wings, for example Malcolm X in the USA and uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in South Africa.
I’m not going to reproduce Malm’s subsequent discussion of the moral and political appropriateness of this course of action, nor his specific recommendations on what classes of asset should be subject to attack, and when. Once again, it’s worthwhile and readable.
His final chapter (of four) is a harsh rebuttal of the councils of despair, represented by by Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene and Jonathan Franzen’s cries of pain in The New Yorker. I think this is wasted; anyone who’s read three-quarters of a book entitled How to Blow Up a Pipeline is not the kind who intends to give up.
What then? · I mean, what then for me and people like me? The forces of the state will react to the infrastructure sabotage with brutal overkill. I have some personal experience here: When I got arrested for violating an injunction against interfering with the construction of the pathologically stupid and misguided TMX pipeline, I was fined a big $500, but when people weren’t deterred, kept on doing it day after day, they started being sent to prison.
And it gets way worse very quickly. Last August, Jessica Reznicek self-reported to a U.S. federal prison to begin her eight-year sentence for sabotaging the Dakota Access pipeline. Ominously, and I quote: “Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger also concluded that a terrorism sentencing enhancement could apply because Reznicek tried to stop the flow of oil, retaliated for decisions by state and federal governments to approve the project and wanted to prevent the government from approving future projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline.”
A few brave individuals here and there going to jail is absolutely not going to slow the fossil-fuel juggernaut that is wrecking our grandchildren’s world. So although I would very much like to see that TMX pipeline reduced to a pile of rubble, I have no plans to be a member of another tiny group getting arrested and possibly charged with terrorism.
But, I noticed something that day. The process of law is extremely bureaucratic, inefficient, and time-consuming. Some thirty people were processed, and it took hours; the court cases stretched on for many months. If it had been a thousand, they would have had to put every available cop within a hundred kilometers on overtime for days to handle the load, and the court workload would have been insane. If there’d been ten thousand, there’d have been no point even trying.
So I’d like to point out to anyone who is exercised about a particular piece of petroleum-driven catastrophe unfolding near them: You can shut it down. All you need to do is pull together a big enough crowd. Which is one of the hardest things in the world, of course, but on this issue it’s getting less hard all the time.
Because, you know, it is going to happen. When the crops fail across the US Prairies, when a hundred million people start walking north from the Bay of Bengal with empty stomachs and empty pockets, when Miami and Kolkata and Ningbo are wrecked by a nasty combination of a bad tide and a bad storm, people will run out of patience and start engaging in spontaneous unprincipled violence.
The sort of thing that Malm is proposing is a much better alternative for all concerned.
Footnotes · In the rare pushback I get on this subject, I often hear something along the lines of “But how about the poor in the world’s South, who need the cheap energy offered by oil to lift themselves out of poverty?” This is ridiculous. The onrushing climate catastrophe is going to hit those people way, way harder than it hits us rich white folk in the Northern Hemisphere who’ve mostly caused the problem. Also renewables are less capital-intensive and can be built faster.
Another pushback: “But a whole lot of the carbon is coming from dictatorships like Russia and China, which just don’t allow any flavor of activism, let alone sabotage.” Which is true but irrelevant. First of all, we need to prove that you can decarbonize an economy. That’s not actually in doubt and while it’ll be a huge effort, it looks like a whole lot of money is going to be made along the way and the society on the other side will be considerably more pleasant. But we still have to prove it. And just because my neighbor leaves garbage all over their front yard doesn’t mean it’s OK for me to.
In any case, it’s our moral responsibility to act.