Andreas Malm’s book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, with its call for the environmental movement to start sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure to save our planet, has sparked a vibrant discussion on the left about direct action tactics and eco-sabotage to address the climate crisis.
Verso has put together a free, downloadable ebook, Property Will Cost Us the Earth, of essays from activists and writers around the world grappling with the idea of direct action and eco-sabotage, survey climate activism around the world, and argue for the necessity of building a fighting global movement against capitalism and its fossil fuel regime.
Moving from Mozambique, the Niger Delta, and the coal mines of India to the forests of Ecuador and the watersheds of North America, Property Will Cost Us the Earth details the global scale of climate devastation as well as active struggles around the world to halt further extraction. From this come tactical and strategic questions: how can local direct actions relate to political work forcing states to end reliance on oil, coal, and gas? What kind of protest movement can we build that reflects the urgency of our moment? What does a direct action–based movement require from those on the frontlines of struggle?
With contributions from: Alyssa Battistoni, James Butler, João Camargo, Jen Deerinwater, Ben Ehrenreich, Madeline ffitch, Frente Nacional Anti-Minero (Ecuador), Bue Rübner Hansen, Siihasin Hope, Tara Houska, Jessie Kindig, Benjamin Kunkel, Anabela Lemos and Erika Mendes from Justiça Ambiental! (Mozambique), Andreas Malm, M.O.T.H. Collective, Vanessa Nakate and Amy Goodman, Brototi Roy, Andrea Sempértegui, Richard Seymour, and Adam Tooze.
Andreas Malm's introduction is reprinted below.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
Creating a chill
Shortly after midnight on February 17, 2022, a group of more than twenty people emerged from the dark woods around a pipeline construction site in British Columbia. They surrounded the truck of the security guard and demanded he open the gate. But they did not ask meekly: One activist started cutting the gate with a cordless power tool, while others swung axes against the side of the truck. Flare guns, spray paint and strobe lights were also deployed, until all the security forces, overwhelmed by the sudden attack, fled their positions.
The site where the Coastal GasLink pipeline would be injected into the ground under a river known as the Wedzin Kwa was now in the hands of the militants. They entered the driving seats of bulldozers and trucks and used them to smash other machinery. Generators, heavy equipment and modular trailers were hacked to pieces, bulldozers overturned, trucks shattered. Video surveillance systems were methodically gutted. When the police arrived, they were held back by barricades made of trees, spikes, fires and a yellow school bus; after clearing the way into the site, they found an empty scene of wreckage. No suspects remained. The few blurry pictures the guards had shot on their phones showed individuals masked and dressed in white overalls—a trademark outfit of radical climate activists—axes in hand.
The Coastal GasLink is being built by TC Energy, a fossil fuel company whose headquarters in Calgary sit behind a glass facade with the turquoise tint of meltwater; upon completion, the pipeline will ferry two billion cubic feet of fracked gas per day, through the interior of British Columbia to the coast and onward to the Asian market. It will slash through land belonging to the Wet’suwet’en nation. In early 2020, opposition to the pipeline caused a political crisis as a wave of blockades rolled from Wet’suwet’en territory across Canada, shutting down roads, ports, offices and much of the railway network: the most concerted mass action against a pipeline project in the country until that date. It was broken only by means of helicopters, dogs, and officers armed with semiautomatic guns.
A protest camp sprung up again in late 2021, on the banks of the Wedzin Kwa. At one point, several protesters seized an excavator and destroyed a segment of roadway. At another, police “injured a man who had locked himself to the underside of a bus.” The recent history of violence—years of raids and incursions against the Wet’suwet’en nation for the sake of the Coastal GasLink, following decades of assaults on Indigenous populations for the purpose of extracting fossil fuels (a continuation of centuries of settler-colonial aggression in North America)—had never before elicited quite so brazen a militant response as the action at Wedzin Kwa on February 17, 2022.
TC Energy reported millions of dollars of damage. Construction was halted. Perhaps most significantly, the area’s liberal member of the legislative assembly, John Rustad, worried that “violence like this could create a chill for any company or industry trying to undertake or complete resource projects in B.C.” As Rustad said, “ ‘It makes it a very challenging work environment for the people that are trying to move forward on this project and do their jobs,’ ” and further noticed that “ ‘this will have reverberations right through I suspect on anybody working on any resource project in the province’ ”—“resource” here being, of course, a euphemism for fossil fuels.
As for the nature of the violence, the militants clearly avoided hurting any workers or security guards. The crushing force they mustered, as made manifest in the tools they brought and the vehicles they conquered on site, was applied to pieces of property. As of this writing, one month later, no arrests have been made. The militants appear to have so far slipped away successfully. A local chill could be in the making. Some would then be tempted to say: create two, three, many Wedzin Kwas!
A pattern of escalation?
The signs of a rising pattern of eco-sabotage have been here for some time. In April 2021, activists from Extinction Rebellion (XR) targeted the London headquarters of HSBC, the second-largest funder of fossil fuels in Europe: nearly twenty bank windows were shattered. This was not impetuous window smashing in the manner of, say, a French crowd, but rather the gentle and controlled breaking of glass by means of a hammer and nail; even so, it marked a tactical escalation for XR, hitherto careful not to stretch the concept of civil disobedience into property damage. Styling herself a climate suffragette, Gail Bradbrook, one of the group’s founders, initiated the turn: she went for the windows of a Barclays branch. There was certainly no shortage of easily accessible property held by financial institutions pouring money into fossil fuels, no shortage of targets at hand.
In Germany, long home to the most powerful climate movement in Europe, a parallel process has been unfolding since the heady days of 2019. If XR was the main British instantiation of that year’s crest of climate activism, in Germany it was the Fridays for Future movement that carried climate activism to unprecedented heights when millions of striking school children and sympathetic adults—including trade unionists—flooded streets and squares. Then the pandemic-induced doldrums created a sizable pool for potential radicalization. What would the activists of 2019 do next? Seeing that business as usual had survived first the mobilizations of that year and then COVID-19, some began to experiment with new tactics: In September 2021, an outfit calling itself Letzte Generation (The Last Generation) launched a hunger strike close to the Reichstag. A handful of headstrong activists eventually refused liquids and became quite frail before calling the action off. They had other things than their own bodies to close down. Letzte Generation soon engaged in high-profile road blockades—inspired by Insulate Britain, an offshoot from XR—and, most recently, as of this writing, declared their intention to disrupt air traffic by flying balloons into airports.
A backbone of the German movement has been Ende Gelände, whose thousands of activists clad in white overalls periodically enter and shut down lignite coal mines. In conjunction with the Ende Gelände climate camp against fossil gas in the summer of 2021, a group calling itself Fridays for Sabotage claimed responsibility for rupturing a piece of gas infrastructure and urged the movement to embrace this tactic: “There are many places of [climate] destruction, but just as many places of possible resistance.” This followed the development of a veritable archipelago of forest occupations around the country, in which some squatters wrecked equipment for coal extraction. The national debate over such tactics then went into a head spin when Tadzio Müller, the most brilliant strategist and intellectual of Ende Gelände, in an interview with Der Spiegel, predicted that, in the continued absence of meaningful government action on climate, some of the radicalized youth would form “a green RAF”—a reference designed to touch a raw German nerve. Like every other public activist contemplating escalation, however, Müller himself missed no opportunity to discourage violence against people. Instead, he insisted on friedliche Sabotage (peaceful sabotage), a hashtag and talking point in the German movement over the winter of 2021–22.
One form of extremely peaceful and gentle sabotage that took off around the same time was that of deflating the tires of SUVs. Sporadic actions of this kind began in France in the autumn of 2020—some 220 SUVs were deflated in the posh neighborhoods of Bordeaux, followed by similar sweeps in Grenoble and the Francophone parts of Switzerland—with local XR chapters or the group La Ronce (Brambles) claiming responsibility. Germany saw scores of the killer vehicles temporarily put out of commission in Berlin, Munich, Leipzig, and Dortmund. But it was in the UK that the campaign shifted gears. On the night of March 8, 2022, activists deflated—“disarmed,” they called it—SUVs in a dozen affluent neighborhoods in London, Bristol, Cambridge, Sheffield, Liverpool, and Edinburgh; calling themselves the Tyre Extinguishers, they struck again nine days later, counting 1,000 SUVs flattened to the ground in less than a fortnight. This time, actions also took place in Colorado, United States, and now they seem set to spread farther afield.
Anyone can deflate an SUV: it is virtually child’s play. It requires no formal organization, no leadership, no funds, no implements other than bits of gravel or beans or green lentils (the latter favored by the Tyre Extinguishers). It does, however, require the audacity to move around in pairs under the cover of darkness and tinker with other people’s property. On their website, the Tyre Extinguishers posted a simple manual for how to make a minute object release the air from a tire and made available a printable version of the obligatory leaflet explaining the action to the unfortunate owner. The group announced its goal as nothing less than “to make it impossible to own a huge polluting 4x4 in the world’s urban areas.” Given the infinitely replicable nature of the action—sabotage as meme—its potential for making SUV ownership less convenient and attractive could not be discounted. And given the bizarrely outsized role of SUVs in global CO2 emissions, that might represent a chill of its own.
These were no more than tiny, tiny dots in the fossil fuel landscape of the Global North. Did they nevertheless form a pattern of escalation? It might be too early to tell. For one thing, just as the mass protests of 2019 were punctured by the pandemic, the tentative escalation of 2021–22, spanning the gamut from Wedzin Kwa to Letzte Generation, coincided with the outbreak of a war in Europe, destructive enough to smother most, if not all, other political initiatives, at least for a time. But on the other hand, the imperative for escalation was not diminished by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It had only one conceivable future: unrelenting reinforcement.
The case for escalation
In January 2021, Verso published my book How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire. Written more than a year earlier and slightly delayed by the pandemic, it was the product of the conjuncture of 2019, a call for escalating the climate struggle and diversifying the movement by taking up property destruction. Needless to say, I take zero credit for anything that has happened on the ground since then. Sometimes it merely happens that a book appears at just the moment when its idea is in the air.
At most, How to Blow Up a Pipeline might have given concrete inspiration to groups like the Tyre Extinguishers, as the book includes a how-to guide and vindication of this particular low-key sabotage, based on a deflation campaign in Sweden in 2007. If so, it speaks to the enduring value of the written word for social movements: experiences of past struggles, positive as much as negative, need to be passed on to coming generations, or they will have to start from scratch. In the age of social media, books become not less but more important in this regard. Countering the evanescence of an update or tweet, they serve as repositories of tactical lessons and strategic knowledge; but they must be written anew for every cycle of struggle. To again state the obvious, my own contribution here rests on as narrow and parochial a set of experiences as any single individual has; the book should be read as an incitement to others to write up their own version and intensify the exchange. For this project—book as conversation, debate, community—the traditional book here remains the indispensable medium.
No number of books, however, can make the cumulative case for escalation as effectively as the objective state of affairs on this planet. It deteriorated further with usual dependability in 2021 and early 2022. In March of the latter year, the International Energy Agency published its authoritative estimate for energy production in the previous year: it set another record. Never before had global CO2 emissions increased as much as over the course of 2021, by more than two gigatonnes. The result bears repeating. In 2021, after 2.2°F of global warming, six IPCC reports, twenty-six COPs and immeasurable suffering for the most affected people and areas, the capitalist world economy generated the largest bounce in total CO2 emissions—the single metric that determines the speed of climate breakdown—in recorded human history. Belying talk of its decline, coal was the main culprit. Its smoke belched out of the Chinese chimney of the world in ever-greater quantities. But Europe and the United States likewise burned dramatically more of this one fuel in 2021. Coal, dirtiest of them all: not even in 2021 did its fires go down. They just resumed their growth in perpetuity.
As for oil and gas, the conjuncture of 2021–22 was marked by another turn of events: a windfall such as the industry hadn’t seen in a decade or more. Thanks to high prices (pre-dating the Ukraine war), companies like Exxon, Total, Shell and BP posted astonishing superprofits. There was little doubt where they would end up. The hard core of fossil capital prepared for fresh rounds of reinvestment in expanding the production of oil and gas: more rigs, more platforms, more terminals, more pipelines. All the cant about net-zero was revealed as such when the profits came flowing in in irresistible quantities. Of course Exxon, Total, Shell, BP, and the lesser players would valorize more value by producing more fossil fuels—why else would they exist as capitalist corporations? The rush was then accelerated by the outbreak of the war, which, just like the outbreak of the pandemic two years prior, at first glance seemed to represent an opportunity to move away from fossil fuels. Instead, dominant class fractions seized on it to cement their status as the material substratum of accumulation in countries hostile to Russia. Thus, the Tory government of the UK, to take but one example, viewed intensified drilling in the North Sea as a substitute for Russian oil and gas—an excellent outlet, as it happened, for the superprofits of recent vintage. And onward the spiral would go.
As these words are written, the website of the Guardian is running two headlines close to each other. One: “Saudi Aramco to Increase Oil Production to Meet Global Demand.” Like its peers, that company earned profits 124 percent higher in 2021 than in 2020 and is now prepared for “substantial new investments.” Two: “Heatwaves at Both of Earth’s Poles Alarm Climate Scientists.” Temperatures in the Arctic stood 54°F above the seasonal average, and some parts of Antarctica were 72°F above the seasonal average. These figures were so doubly off the charts as to beggar belief. And as the poles melted at a speed no scientist had dreamed of, fossil capital went into overdrive to deliver more fuel to the fireplaces. There can be only one accurate description of the situation: out of control. The classes ruling this planet are bent on burning what remains of it as fast as physically possible, and nothing—nothing—has yet reined them in to even the slightest degree. They are utterly, demoniacally, infernally out of control.
From this can follow only a single possible logical conclusion. We have not yet done enough. We must try something more. We don’t need any advanced conceptual maps to take us in the direction of Wedzin Kwa. It is fossil capital itself and all the immutable realities it creates on a daily basis that push us there. A refusal to accept this conclusion in principle, while leaving all the details to be worked out, is tantamount to giving up on life on this planet.
From green lentils to ecological war communism
In September 2020, Verso published my book Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, which has come to be read as a prequel or companion piece to How to Blow Up a Pipeline. If the latter is focused on tactical options for the climate movement in the Global North, the former has little, if anything, to say about strategic matters. Its final parts are written in a speculative register, including rough sketches of ecological Leninism and war communism as programs for attacking the causes of the chronic emergency. But no handful of activists, no matter how committed, can institute something like ecological war communism, most simply defined as the exercise of coercive state power to break up and abolish fossil capital in a situation of extreme climate emergency. Given how extreme that emergency is on the way to becoming, and how stubbornly fossil capital has so far resisted every effort at public control over—let alone abolition of—its exercise in planetary destruction, nothing less seems required. But activists entering a construction site or inserting lentils in cars are far from a position to enact the measures in question. No number of them can begin to solve something as astronomic in its dimensions as the climate and wider ecological crisis: that would demand action on a qualitatively different scale, as in states expropriating the likes of TC Energy and Exxon and shutting their fossil fuel production down: not just one or a couple of sites, but all, tutti, forever.
Readers have rightly pointed out the yawning gaps between the two books. How to Blow Up a Pipeline might discuss some venues for climate activists to step up their struggle, but there are no real suggestions anywhere for how they (or anyone else) could bridge the abyss and cross over into actual projection of state power. It is easier to deflate a tire with green lentils than to build ecological war communism. It is exceedingly difficult to see any path that leads from the former to the latter. However, any state action against fossil capital can only come about if sufficient mass pressure is built up from below. What starts with a green lentil might, if it’s done fast and often enough, end with a state ban on gas-guzzling SUVs; or the work that is initiated with a cordless power tool might culminate in expropriation. How exactly, nobody knows. But this is the unknown country in which we must, as a matter of urgency, stumble and search: the terra incognita that lies behind everyday resistance and revolutionary rupture. Because the former is within easier reach, most of the discussion in the following pages will stay closer to the terrain of How to Blow Up a Pipeline. I hope to return in some depth to the questions only crudely dealt with in Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. Fully cognizant of the disjuncture between the two and the respective problems within each, it is with utmost gratitude that I see comrades finding it worthwhile to critically engage with both. We should have merely one conviction in common: that something more must be done.