Blog post

Is Sabotage a Pipe Dream?

Alyssa Battistoni responds to Andreas Malm, part of Verso's new ebook, Property Will Cost Us the Earth: "It is oddly comforting to think that blowing up a pipeline would succeed where existing movements have failed."

Alyssa Battistoni21 April 2022

Is Sabotage a Pipe Dream?

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 of essays, Property Will Cost Us the Earth, 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.

Alyssa Battistoni's new essay, "Is Sabotage a Pipe Dream?" is reprinted below.

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"Where are all the ecoterrorists?” So begins James Butler’s essay on Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, echoing John Lanchester’s observation, a decade and a half ago, that “It is strange and striking that climate change activists have not committed any acts of terrorism.” In the years since Lanchester wrote, ecoterrorists have proliferated in cultural representation: consider the radicals plotting to blow up a dam in Kelly Reichardt’s thriller Night Moves (2013), the suicidal climate-obsessed priest in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017), the rogue challenger to Rio Tinto in the Icelandic film Woman at War (2018), the ragtag team of tree defenders in Richard Powers’s Pulitzer-winning The Overstory (2018), the UN-affiliated black ops team in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future (2020).

And yet in real life, ecoterrorists remain elusive, even as the climate crisis grows more urgent by the day. This puzzle—what Malm calls “Lanchester’s paradox”—is Pipeline’s central motivating force. Malm explains it by way of the climate movement’s own shortcomings: he identifies a “form of inaction within the world of activism itself,” one which echoes the “blah-blah-blah of politicians.” Activists say that climate change is apocalyptic, but they are not acting like it. It’s past time they started.

The climate group Extinction Rebellion (XR) might at first glance seem to agree: like Malm, they lament the failure of “traditional” political strategies (voting, lobbying, protests) and call for more militant action. Since 2018, XR has conducted road sit-ins at rush hour, glued themselves to various financial and governmental buildings, engaged in imaginative acts of street theater, and issued a number of politically obtuse statements. Malm takes them to task for their resolute commitment to nonviolence—a near-universal tendency in contemporary Western protest movements but made particularly explicit by XR’s strategic foundations in the research of political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. Drawing on an analysis of hundreds of political campaigns, Chenoweth and Stephan argue that the participation of approximately 3.5 percent of the population in nonviolent protest can produce radical change. For Extinction Rebellion, this means that a small number of committed activists can stave off catastrophic climate change by disrupting business as usual.

Malm, too, believes in the power of a few committed actors—but he has a different kind of action in mind. As he points out, many of the campaigns held up as nonviolent success stories by the likes of XR—the abolition of slavery in the United States, women’s suffrage in Britain, the end of apartheid in South Africa—made use of property destruction or worse. And if property destruction is justifiable in some cases, then climate change is surely one of them. The consequences of significant warming are, as we know, enormous, and wildly unjust in their distribution; the escalation of climate activism, even to the point of XR-style direct action, has thus far failed to produce meaningful decarbonization. So, Malm asks, “When do we start physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy them with our own hands?”

The huge response to the book thus far indicates that many people have asked themselves something similar. Malm’s argument speaks to our intuitive sense that the level of political action on climate change is wildly out of step with the dimensions of the problem. Even Joe Biden now says that climate change is an existential threat; and yet nothing really happens. The case for escalation is obvious.

This, paradoxically, is the problem with How to Blow Up a Pipeline. It answers a different question than its title poses—not how one could blow up a pipeline, but why one should. But “why” is an easy question to answer. Catastrophic climate change is so enormous a threat that it can justify any action: faced with extinction, nearly everyone turns out to be a consequentialist. (Robinson’s imagined black ops team, the “Children of Kali,” goes so far as to blow up fully occupied passenger planes.) To make the moral case for nonviolent sabotage of the world-destroying property of one of the most despised and profitable industries on earth is relatively straightforward. It is much harder, however, to make the case that doing so would lead to meaningful, and immediate, decarbonization. Instead of attempting it, Malm counters the moralistic case for nonviolence with a moralistic case for property destruction.

“How” is an admittedly difficult question to answer in general. The very point of tactics is that they are context specific, as Malm so compellingly argues with regard to nonviolent protest: it does not really make sense to treat any tactic as a strategic absolute to be applied in all situations. To make the case that property destruction is the most strategic way forward for the climate movement, then, would require a more comprehensive analysis of the political conjuncture in a range of places than a short book could possibly be expected to provide. But Malm does not even outline the kinds of questions that movements would need to ask, or the challenges they might confront.

He is clearly aware that there are good reasons to be skeptical. Malm notes, for example, that XR does not argue against violent action on the basis of strategic constraints that he presumably finds more compelling—for example, “because the level of class struggle is so low in the Global North that adventurist actions would only rebound and suppress it further.” This may not be XR’s argument, but it is a good one—one that will be on the minds of many of his readers. Disappointingly, Malm never addresses it. Instead, he seems content to rout the easiest of enemies—taking Roy Scranton and Jonathan Franzen to task for fatalism, for example—or to pick fights with benign figures like Bill McKibben.

The core logic of Malm’s own strategic argument is unspooled across just a couple of pages. Property destruction, Malm argues, uses direct action to accomplish what has so far remained elusive: the end of CO2 emissions: “If we can’t get a prohibition, we can impose a de facto one with our bodies and any other means necessary.” After this incendiary rhetoric, however, Malm’s examples can be deflating, sometimes quite literally: the most prominent example, in which activists let the air out of a couple of hundred of SUV tires, does not actually seem that far off from something XR might do. But Malm isn’t arguing that individual acts of sabotage alone can do away with “CO2 emitting property,” whether fossil fuel infrastructure or carbon-intensive consumer goods. Instead, he argues, they can make investment in such entities costly, with the ultimate aim of “forc[ing] states to proclaim the prohibition and begin retiring the stocks.” In other words, states must not only stop issuing permits for new fossil fuel infrastructure projects, as demanded by, for example, protests against the Keystone, Dakota Access, and Line 3 pipelines, but must also prohibit the continued use of existing infrastructure—in effect, shutting down fixed capital which would otherwise operate, and generate profits, long into the future. On these grounds, Malm claims that decarbonization requires an assault on private property itself. “Property will cost us the earth,” he proclaims.

Malm is right that immediate decarbonization would constitute an attack on valuable property, leaving fossil fuel companies with what are typically referred to as “stranded assets.” He recognizes that states have no inclination to seize private property in order to decarbonize more rapidly, let alone to undermine property rights altogether—hence the need for activists to take things into their own hands. But how plausible is it that direct action would prompt states to act as he suggests?

Malm largely avoids this question, instead emphasizing the symbolic import of attacking private property: it is necessary to “break the spell” that property is inviolable. He has little to say about the actual leverage that climate activists might have in forcing the state’s hand—surprisingly so. After all, Malm’s Fossil Capital focused intensely on the implications of the material infrastructure of energy for political power, drawing on Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy in tracing shifts in the balance of class power across energy regimes. Mitchell notably argues that oil is less easily bottlenecked by workers at the point of production than coal, and, more controversially, that the growing significance of oil as an energy source in the twentieth century therefore set limits to democracy. But even without accepting Mitchell’s most sweeping conclusions, the injunction to think through the imbrication of physical infrastructure and political struggle remains invaluable. Even if oil is less easily disrupted by workers, its circulation via pipelines might render it more vulnerable to activist disruption. To take a pipeline offline could potentially have the same effects as a traditional labor strike—shutting down production and the flow of profits.

Could this kind of disruption, in turn, prompt the kind of state action Malm envisions? While Malm locates successful instances of pipeline destruction amid anti-colonial struggles in the Middle East and Africa, he never quite connects their disruptive force to the political action he envisions. And as analogies, these have limits, particularly for the Global North climate movements which are Malm’s primary subject. The history of anti-colonial sabotage might be more illustrative in places like Ecuador, where anti-extractivist struggles have developed within the context of mass Indigenous movements. In much of North America and Europe, however, the lessons are harder to draw. Many actions against pipelines in North America, for example, are anti-colonial, insofar as they involve struggle against the imposition of settler infrastructure on Indigenous land. But they are not the leading edge of mass movements for independence. In this context it is hard to imagine that the destruction of pipelines would be received with the same kind of popular support which might attend, say, the Palestinian rebels’ bombing of a pipeline built by the British Mandate.

For the most part, moreover, states seem far more inclined to shut down movements than pipelines. Let’s consider, for example, the US state’s reaction to property destruction on a much smaller scale—the “ecotage” carried out in the 1980s and 1990s by radical environmentalist groups like Earth First! and Earth Liberation Front (ELF). In a brief discussion of these groups, Malm rightly notes their ideological distance from today’s climate movement: they represent a reactionary strain of the ecological movement, remarkably misanthropic and often explicitly hostile to the idea of garnering mass support. Acts of sabotage—typically referred to as monkeywrenching—took place “not in a dynamic relation to a mass movement, but largely in a void.” As a result, he correctly observes, they are not a very good comparison to contemporary mass climate movements. Nevertheless, the response of the US state to such actions gives us a sense of what we might expect contemporary climate saboteurs to face.

Throughout the 1990s, Earth First! and ELF, alongside animal liberation groups like the Animal Liberation Front, undertook direct action, mostly arson, against the likes of animal testing facilities, logging offices, ski resorts, and—yes—SUV dealerships. In response, the FBI named radical environmentalism the primary domestic terror threat. Much of the pre–“War on Terror” counterterrorism apparatus was constructed in response: Legal penalties for protest increased dramatically; environmental organizations in both the United States and the UK were infiltrated by state intelligence agents and surveilled using practices pioneered by COINTELPRO. In the UK in the 2000s, undercover police officers went so far as to father children with activists in the environmental movement, in what is—not hyperbolically—described as rape by the state. Even Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), a novel that actually does include quite a lot of detail about how to blow things up, ends with the ecotagers getting caught and their prosecuting attorney winning a Utah Senate seat on a platform of prison expansion and subsidies for mining. Of course, Malm argues that the destruction of property should not be considered “terrorism,” and I agree. But it doesn’t really matter how he or I think terrorism should be defined. What matters is how the state defines it. And in the United States, the Patriot Act explicitly defines terrorism as consisting of violent acts which seek to “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion” or affect government actions. An effort to spur state expropriation of fossil fuel infrastructure via property destruction would almost certainly qualify.

Indeed, climate movements which have engaged in direct action have already faced significant repression, as Ted Hamilton’s forthcoming book Beyond Fossil Law details. The Standing Rock encampment was eventually dismantled by a massive militarized police force, as were numerous Wet’suwet’en blockades in Canada. Hundreds of Water Protectors were charged; five were eventually sent to federal prison. Prosecutors have recently imposed “terrorism enhancement” charges to increase the length of sentences for pipeline saboteurs Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek, in hopes of deterring others from following in their footsteps. In the aftermath of Standing Rock and other anti-pipeline protests, a number of US states have instituted particularly harsh penalties for people who interfere with “critical infrastructure,” in other words, oil and gas infrastructure. Under these laws, one only needs to walk in the vicinity of a pipeline to be charged with prison time—let alone blow one up. (Consider it the activist-to-prison pipeline.)

Malm is right that state repression is to some degree unavoidable and is not, in itself, an argument against action. All movements, not only those engaged directly with issues of police and prisons, must confront the repressive force of the state; all must seriously consider the risks and possible consequences of action—and all would do well to challenge the creep of surveillance and police powers. But the realities of that repression deserve serious strategic consideration from movements of all stripes, in all their specificity: the severity of potential charges, the degree of protection for activists, the legal status of Indigenous land claims, the political stance of elected officials, and other details matter. Again, these questions can’t really be answered in the abstract. Instead of raising them as ones that movements should take into account, however, Malm dispatches the question of repression by gesturing to the need for sacrifice and with a glib remark about the “comfort levels” of activists in the Global North: “So far, few have been prepared to risk more than a couple of nights under arrest. Compared with what struggling people in history have gone through, the comfort levels of climate activism in the Global North must be deemed fairly high.” But surely the unprecedented scope of state power and surveillance, and the increasingly severe level of penalties, is as relevant to Lanchester’s paradox as activist complacency, at least in the United States. (Climate activists elsewhere may find they can push the state further.)

In the United States, perhaps a better analogy than either radical ecotage or mass anti-colonial struggle is the appropriately named Weather Underground Organization (WUO), which notoriously turned to a bombing campaign after years of organizing a mass anti-war movement through Students for a Democratic Society. SDS had grown rapidly throughout the 1960s, peaking at an estimated 100,000 members; by the late 1960s, it was at the leading edge of a growing anti-war movement. But the war went on. The Weatherman faction of SDS saw themselves as anti-imperialist forces within the heart of empire; the moral duty of Americans—and white Americans in particular—was to stop the war machine by any means necessary. Time was intensely of the essence: an estimated two thousand Vietnamese civilians were killed each day. As WUO leader Mark Rudd later reflected, “Our country was murdering millions of people … This revelation was more than we could handle. We didn’t know what to do about it. It was too great a fact. Every second of my life from 1965 to 1975, I was always aware that our country was attacking Vietnam. I could be up in the mountains, I’d be thinking about the war in Vietnam. I could be taking an acid trip, and I’d be thinking about the war in Vietnam.” The moral case for bombing uninhabited buildings as a means of disrupting daily life was extremely compelling. Their execution was, on the whole, effective: WUO claimed credit for some twenty-five bombings, including one at the Pentagon, and eluded a yearslong FBI manhunt. They hurt almost no one—except, in the infamous accidental explosion of a West Village townhouse, themselves. Eventually, the group fractured and members spent years in hiding. Some went to prison for decades.

Did they help end the war? It’s hard to say. They certainly didn’t bring it to the immediate halt they’d imagined: the war dragged on for another five years, with WUO bombings continuing throughout. The WUO campaign is probably best understood as symptomatic of broader trajectories: it reflected a general souring against the war, contributed to the sense of the breakdown of everyday life, and made it clear that something had to give. But whatever effects they might have had came at a high cost, both to individuals and to a fractured left.

This analogy, too, is imperfect in many ways. WUO was involved in a struggle directly against the state rather than capital; stopping the war did not also require the construction of an alternative system, as the turn away from fossil fuels does. There are countless other differences. But it seems likely that in the United States, the turn from the slow composition of a mass climate movement, however loosely organized, to a campaign focused on the destruction of fossil capital would follow a roughly similar trajectory. It very well might add to a broader sense of crisis and underline the urgency of taking action. It would almost certainly splinter climate movements, alienate millions of people, and consume enormous resources in legal defense. But it is very hard to imagine such a turn would set off a wave of direct action culminating in the state seizure and shutdown of all fossil fuel assets.

It is quite plausible that attacks on fossil fuel infrastructure would cast a further pall on an already embattled industry. What seems more likely than state expropriation, however, is that such actions would simply help clear the way for “green capital” to go for fossil capital’s jugular. (If the FBI already has its eye on Pipeline, as has been reported, I would bet that the book has also made its way into a solar entrepreneur’s slide deck.) From a climate perspective, of course, green capital is preferable to fossil capital. But it isn’t quite the revolutionary vision of state transformation that Malm imagines, either here or in his recent book Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. It is grim to think of climate activists going to prison to clear the way for Elon Musk. And while urgency is essential, climate movements cannot stake everything on the short term: unlike a war, there is no moment at which climate change will simply come to an end.

Of course, my own reflections here are no less speculative than many of Malm’s own examples. They likewise rely on selective comparisons and partial analogies. Others will read history differently or see different possibilities in the present. People will inevitably disagree about the acceptable degree of risk, the likelihood of success, even the end goals. And so whatever critiques I have are outweighed by my appreciation for Malm’s charge to climate movements to engage more seriously on precisely these questions. Even Pipeline’s shortcomings evince some of Malm’s most admirable qualities: his deep belief in the power of popular movements, and formidable commitment to political action.

The climate movement has gradually, if too slowly, built mass support for climate action in some form; it has slowly assembled a coalition, if too loosely organized. Malm is right that these mass movements have failed to achieve many of their goals. He is right to argue that it is time to try something different. But perhaps that something is, as he briefly suggests, more on the order of the climate camp. Indeed, his reflections on the German climate camp Ende Gelände, which has convened thousands of anti-coal activists to disrupt extraction at brown coal pits, are the most inspiring parts of the book. They occupy, quite literally, an important intermediate space between the tame big tent of mass marches and the tiny cadre of saboteurs. As cases like Standing Rock demonstrate, they are not immune to repression. Nor, most notably, have they succeeded in shutting down fossil fuel production.

It is oddly comforting to think that blowing up a pipeline would succeed where existing movements have failed: it suggests that the fate of the world really is in the hands of those who want to change it. The truly difficult thing to contemplate is the possibility that better strategies or more radical tactics might not, in themselves, be able to remake the world built by fossil capital on the timescale we face. Malm broaches this possibility toward the end of the book and finds in it another justification for violence: even if the struggle is futile, we should act righteously. It is always better to go down fighting. But this, too, is just another inversion of an argument Malm elsewhere condemns—another way of learning to die in the Anthropocene.

Filed under: environment, environmental-racism, environmentalism