Blog post

Property does not stand above the Earth

Andreas Malm makes an impassioned call for the climate movement to escalate its tactics in the face of ecological collapse.

Verso Books27 January 2021

The Dakota Access Pipeline surrounded by machinery on Sioux land

In this excerpt from How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm furthers the ongoing conversations on how, if it is still possible, to pull us back from the tipping point of environmental breakdown. Both a call to action and critical reframing of climate debates that are dismissive of any tactic other than nonviolent action, How to Blow Up a Pipeline makes the urgent case that the future is ours to save or to lose. Malm argues that there is no time for passivity or a refusal to engage with a multiplicity of tactics; when demands that offer hope for a livable, sustainable future won’t be legislated, they must be enacted on the ground. We have to start blowing up pipelines.

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At the time of COP1, few would have thought that two or three decades down the line, the economies of the world would discharge nearly one gigaton of carbon per month, the corporations busily planning for augmented capacity to combust fossil fuels and the governments presiding over it all, proudly or passively. The irresponsiveness to the crisis has exceeded expectations. So has, no less fatefully, the response of the climate system: at the time of COP1, few scientists foresaw that the land and the oceans so soon would fail to soak up the gases emitted, become overfilled and disturbed and start leaking and puffing carbon dioxide and methane at such a rate. The northern zone of permafrost, for instance, is a subterranean storehouse of carbon frozen for hundreds of thousands of years. When the planet heats up, the soil begins to thaw, microbes set to work on the organic matter and decompose it, releasing carbon dioxide but mainly methane – a greenhouse gas with eighty-seven times greater warming effect during the first two decades in the atmosphere – a process now accelerating beyond the predictions. Forest fires work the same way. Carbon locked into trees and soil escape when the flames pass through, as they now do more often, for longer periods, at higher intensity, over vaster territories, the primary fires of fossil fuels igniting secondary fires from Kamchatka to the Congo. Scientists lag behind these positive feedback mechanisms and struggle to capture them in their models. The carbon budgets have yet to fully integrate them, and if they would, they would contract further: if the thawing permafrost and proliferating wild- fires and other mechanisms were accounted for, there would be even less of a margin available to stay below 1.5°C or 2°C.

Thus we find ourselves between two scissor blades: on the one hand, unbending business-as-usual, taking emissions ever higher and confounding hopes for mitigation; on the other, delicate ecosystems crashing down – the extraordinary inertia of the capitalist mode of production meeting the reactivity of the earth. This is the temporal predicament in which the climate movement has to devise meaningful strategies. ‘Even under optimistic assumptions’, the pathways to a ‘tolerable future’ are ‘rapidly narrowing’, in the words of the umpteenth scientific supplication for ‘immediate global action’. Using models with incomplete representation of positive feedback mechanisms, writing in 2019 – another year of rising emissions – Dan Tong and his colleagues concluded that 1.5°C still remained ‘technically possible’ on two conditions. First, to have ‘a reasonable chance’ of respecting the limit, human societies would have to institute ‘a global prohibition of all new CO2-emitting devices’. Now the likelihood of the ruling classes implementing a global prohibition of all new CO2-emitting devices because scientists tell them to, or because billions of people would otherwise suffer grievous harm, or because the planet could spin into a hothouse, is about the same as them lining up at the summit of the steepest mountain and meekly proceeding to throw themselves off the edge.

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. ‘If we can’t get a serious carbon tax from a corrupted Congress, we can impose a de facto one with our bodies,’ Bill McKibben has argued, but a carbon tax is so 2004. If we can’t get a prohibition, we can impose a de facto one with our bodies and any other means necessary.

That, however, would only be a start, for the second condition for staying below 1.5°C – or indeed any other boundary between a tolerable and an intolerable future–  would be ‘substantial  reductions  in  the  historical lifetimes’ of fossil fuel infrastructure. Not only new but existing, young and old CO2-emitting devices would have to be deactivated. The science is eminently clear on this point. Because so much valuable, irretrievable time has been lost – as a matter of fact, not much time is left – assets have to be stranded. Investments must be written off too early for capitalist taste; on one estimate, the instant suspension of every project in the pipeline would make 2°C achievable only if accompanied by the decommission- ing of one-fifth of all power plants running on fossil fuels (this estimate is as of 2018 – more years or decades of business-as-usual would raise the requirement). That is a lot of already sunk capital. Now one reason why climate stabilisation appears such a frightfully daunting challenge is that no state seems prepared to even float this idea, because capitalist property has the status of the ultimate sacred realm. Who dares to throw it on the scrapheap? What government is willing to send in its forces to ensure the forfeiture of this amount of profit? And so there must be someone who breaks the spell: ‘Sabotage’, writes R. H. Lossin, one of the finest contemporary scholars in the field, ‘is a sort of prefigurative, if temporary, seizure of property. It is’ – in reference to the climate emergency – ‘both a logical, justifiable and effective form of resistance and a direct affront to the sanctity of capitalist ownership.’ A refinery deprived of electricity, a digger in pieces: the stranding of assets is possible, after all. Property does not stand above the earth; there is no technical or natural or divine law that makes it inviolable in this emergency. If states cannot on their own initiative open up the fences, others will have to do it for them. Or property will cost us the earth.

The immediate purpose of such a campaign against CO2-emitting property, then, would be twofold: establishing a disincentive to invest in more of it and demonstrating that it can be put out of business. The first would not require that all new devices be disabled or dismantled, only enough to credibly communicate the risk. Strict selectivity would need to be observed. There was a randomness to the property destruction undertaken by the suffragettes, which wouldn’t do now; if activists from the climate movement were to attack post offices and tea shops and theatres, investors would not be dissuaded from anything in particular. It would have to be coal wharfs and steam yachts only this time. But just as the suffragettes sought to twist the arm of the state – on their own, they could not legislate any voting rights – the aim would be to force states to proclaim the prohibition and begin retiring the stock. ‘The current global energy system is the largest network of infrastructure ever built, reflecting tens of tril- lions of dollars of assets and two centuries of technological evolution’, 80 per cent of which energy still comes from fossil fuels. No one in his or her right mind would think that bands of activists could burn all or one fifth of that to the ground (or that such a tertiary fire would be unequivocally desirable). At the end of the day, it will be states that ram through the transition or no one will.

But the states have fully proven that they will not be the prime movers. The question is not if sabotage from a militant wing of the climate movement will solve the crisis on its own – clearly a pipe dream – but if the disruptive commotion necessary for shaking business-as-usual out of the ruts can come about without it. It would seem fool- hardy to trust in its absence and stick to tactics for normal times. Recognising the direness of the situation, it is high time for the movement to more decisively shift from protest to resistance: ‘Protest is when I say I don’t like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don’t like. Protest is when I say I refuse to go along with this anymore. Resistance is when I make sure everybody else stops going along too’, as one West German columnist wrote in 1968, relaying the words of a visiting Black Power activist. There will be no shortage of objections to such resistance.

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How to Blow Up a Pipeline
The science on climate change has been clear for a very long time now. Yet despite decades of appeals, mass street protests, petition campaigns, and peaceful demonstrations, we are still facing a...

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