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A Frontline Response to Andreas Malm

Earth First! activist Madeline ffitch responds to Andreas Malm: "What if the mass climate movement was focused on supporting frontline direct action?"

Madeline ffitch22 April 2022

A Frontline Response to Andreas Malm

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.

Madeline ffitch's new essay, "A Frontline Response to Andreas Malm," is reprinted below.

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By the time I read How to Blow Up a Pipeline, I had already seen its neon cover around, the unmistakable title plastered across the front in large block print. I had seen activists reading it, but not the activists I’d expected. These were well-heeled and buttoned-up types, people from environmental nonprofits, people I would associate with a permitted rally rather than an act of eco-sabotage. When I showed the book to one of my movement elders, a far less well-heeled person, they grimaced. “Who the hell comes up with a title like that?” they asked. “Does he think this is a game?” This movement elder, known for being grumpy and speaking plainly, is a decades-long veteran of direct-action eco-defense, a walking repository of tactical knowledge and movement history. They’re also an old Earth First!er. I’m a slightly younger one.

In his sensationally titled book, Andreas Malm tells us that between 1973 and 2010, Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front, the Animal Liberation Front, and related groups pulled off 27,100 separate acts of direct action and sabotage. These would seem to be laudable examples in service of Malm’s central proposal, which is that climate activists must be willing to escalate tactics and consider property destruction. Yet Malm includes these actions only in order to disqualify them. “All those thousands of monkeywrenching actions,” he writes, “achieved little if anything and had no lasting gains to show for them. They were not performed in dynamic relation to a mass movement, but largely in a void.” Malm goes on to say that these actions “petered out just as the climate movement came into its own.”

Malm gets a lot right in his slim neon polemic, but when he dismisses existing traditions of militant eco-defense, he undermines his own good ideas. Direct action is not made relevant by its link to mass movements. It is the other way around. The more out of touch the climate movement is from what is happening on the frontlines, the more irrelevant it becomes. The frontline might sound to some like revolutionary jargon, but it’s simply another name for the often rural and sparsely populated places where people must defend their homes and lifeways from being sacrificed to industrialization. Here, theory is put into practice. There is real work to do—dishes, chopping wood, hauling water, physically stopping a pipeline from being built—and this means that the abstractions that bog down mass movement participation (ideological pacifism, climate fatalism) are less likely to gain a foothold. If the climate movement is looking for direction, as Malm claims, it would do well to pay attention to the tactics and strategies of those who defend the land and water far away from major centers of commerce and policy, often with only a handful of people and by whatever means necessary. In comparison to mass movement maundering, the ethical and strategic clarity on the frontlines is bracingly refreshing.

Malm bases his dismissal of monkeywrenching on his able take-down of Deep Green Resistance (DGR), a nasty little clique whose trans-exclusionary and bizarre authoritarian principles have made them a pariah of nearly all serious organizing, militant or non. Malm actually gives them more page space than they deserve, since they mostly exist on the internet or in the self-regarding books they always seem to be promoting. To conflate DGR’s apocalyptic cosplay with Earth First! and similar shoestring models of direct action is to misunderstand the history, function and possibilities of frontline eco-defense. Sure, some people choose to fight in small or decentralized groups because they have a vanguardist fantasy with an unsavory dose of dehumanizing supremacy ideology. But far more people, especially those who are rural and land-based, take action with only a few people because that is what is practical and, dare I say, strategic. One Earth First!er I spoke to put it this way: “What we can accomplish with 30 people and fifty bucks, the mass movement drags 5,000 people to and most of the time can’t accomplish it anyway. They overthink it and decide that it would be better and less alienating to just take a photo or have a concert or something, maybe a gentle mass trespass, leave when asked and go home. We shut shit down. We stop the destruction. And by doing that, we’re building relationships and power in small communities where people are fighting for their lives.”

In fact, many of us live in the remote areas where the pipelines or pump stations or power plants are actually being built. Because of this, we know that the fight to stop them cannot wait. We will not wait for NGO support, grant funding or photo opportunities. We will not wait for porta-johns, a PA system or a celebrity speaker. We will not wait for the climate movement. We will fight now with the people and resources at hand.

Earth First!’s current iteration was born out of the forcible confrontation of fascist tendencies within its ranks during the 1980s (yes, it’s true, we anarchists and queers took Earth First! away from Ed Abbey and we’re not giving it back). The fact that Earth First!, with its checkered past, now emphasizes its rejection of fascism, racism and colonialism is as significant as it is aspirational, imperfect and ongoing. This is another area where the mainstream climate movement might take note. The white supremacist roots of Western environmentalism are well documented. Environmental groups, particularly if they are white dominant, must make their anti-racist and anti-fascist stances clear or be left behind. Earth First! as it exists today is not an organization. It’s more like a direct-action solidarity network and an embodied compendium of generational tactical skills. As my friends like to say, there is no Earth First!, there are only Earth First!ers. And most Earth First!ers spend their time supporting frontline resistance.

A crucial lesson Earth First! has learned is that if we really want to “stand for what we stand on,” as our slogan goes, we must act in practical solidarity with people who belong to the land. From the Wet’suwet’en blockade against Coastal GasLink to the fight against Enbridge Line 3 on Anishinaabe territory, from Standing Rock to Oak Flat and Thacker Pass, from Bayou Bridge to the O’odham and Kumeyaay campaign against the border wall, Indigenous people are inventing and sustaining the most potent direct action against industrial infrastructure. Earth First! has long embraced the slogan No Compromise, but fighting alongside Native land defenders has deepened my understanding of this concept.

Malm casts decentralized direct action as fatalistic. I will readily admit that we do not fight with the strategic arrogance of the mass movement, where hubristic road maps to victory are a dime a dozen, from the XR handbook to the punditry of Bill McKibben. It is true that on the frontlines, we act in the full understanding that we cannot know the outcome, that there are no guarantees, and that our determination to resist is not governed by the likelihood of success. The “success condition,” as Malm would agree, rings even uglier when Indigenous resistance is setting the tone, representing a 500-year tradition of disregarding the odds. I asked one Indigenous frontliner why they continue to fight pipelines even when we lose more often than we win. They answered my question with a question. “What does losing mean?” they asked. “Is it failing to stop the pipeline? Or is it failing to fight back with everything we’ve got? If the consequences of losing are unacceptable, then fighting is your only option. I’m here because my ancestors fought back. Did they win? If they’d won, then the US wouldn’t be here. But if they hadn’t fought back then, I wouldn’t be here and neither would my children. As Indigenous people, we have that same responsibility to the land. We are the land. There is no option of not fighting back.” You will find no fatalism here. What you will find is humility, bravery and realism. This is another reason why it makes sense for the climate movement to take its cues from the frontlines.

It’s also a misrepresentation to suggest that the militant eco-defenders of the past did not operate in “dynamic relation to a mass movement, but largely in a void.” Earth First!ers like Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were famous for building solidarity with the labor movement. Tree sitters in the early 2000s held off timber companies until the legal injunctions filed by more mainstream environmental groups could stick. One Native organizer reminisced about his grandmothers from the Warm Springs reservation in Oregon who organized with Earth First!ers to defend their territory from logging in the 1980s. I could go on. There have always been alliances and collaborations.

It wasn’t climate fatalism that marginalized militant eco-defense in North America, and it wasn’t that there was no connection to movement organizing. So what happened? Why were there nearly thirty thousand instances of militant direct action during the ’80s, ’90s and the early part of the twenty-first century, and why did they then, as Malm says, peter out?

The answer is, of course, that they didn’t. What actually happened was an era of industry-sponsored, state-enforced backlash against environmental activists in North America. September 11, 2001, turned nationalistic paranoia mainstream. The Department of Homeland Security was created. Surveillance and crackdowns on all manner of dissent increased exponentially. Eco-defenders experienced waves of arrests, accusations of terrorism, steep charges, COINTELPRO-style infiltration, lengthy prison terms, suicides and deaths. Many activist networks and communities were scattered and destroyed. We are still recovering. What Malm calls petering out, we call the Green Scare.

During the Green Scare, Earth First!, which mostly engages in public direct actions such as tree sits, equipment lockdowns and rural blockades, refused to denounce sabotage and supported activists swept up in the raids. In contrast, mainstream environmental groups disavowed property destruction and in many cases any form of confrontational action. They did not defend or support targeted activists, but publicly rejected them in order to maintain an image of civility and to prioritize negotiating relationships with power brokers. Ethically, this was bankrupt. Strategically, it was disastrous. The mainstream movement’s willingness to compromise and make deals with politicians and industry while abandoning escalatory eco-defenders has done nothing to decelerate the warming of the planet. In fact, if I may repurpose Malm’s words, it has achieved little if anything and has had no lasting gains to show for it.

All of this leads me back to my movement elder, the grumpy one. Why would they be so down on Malm’s book, which they hadn’t even read? They are not a pacifist. They are not an acolyte of the XR handbook. They are like me, a direct-action land defender, someone who might wholeheartedly agree with most of Malm’s central suggestions. They were reacting to Malm’s title, to the design, to the byline on the inside flap where Malm’s publisher claims that he is a “saboteur of SUV tires and coal mines.” My movement elder is someone with scars. They have learned to be suspicious when it seems that someone is approaching the prospect of sabotage in a boastful, cavalier or rhetorical manner. This, too, should point the climate movement in the direction of the frontlines, because this should be understood: the Green Scare has not broken us, but it has changed us. We have had to learn how to exercise what we call “security culture,” a set of practices to outwit surveillance. If we know people who say they want to slash SUV tires or sabotage coal mines, we remind them not to talk to us, or anyone else, about it. We don’t talk to the police, let alone thank them. We continue to support our friends and loved ones in prison. We seek ways to outmaneuver state repression and to outwit industry. We take care of each other and build on what we’ve learned.

Malm’s failure to even mention the Green Scare, let alone examine it, confounds me. Frankly, it makes it difficult to evaluate his seriousness. To highlight hard-won lessons that already exist would signal that Malm believes in his own proposal, rather than simply launching a neon-colored provocation. There is something just a bit convenient about introducing pearl-clutching liberals to the idea that nonviolence might not be the panacea they believe it to be (a revelation most frontliners had a long time ago) while at the same time skimming over the deeper discussion about grand juries, infiltration, prisoner support and security precautions. Yet the perspective of battle-weary land defenders is vital if Malm’s book is to be taken as something more than sensationalism. Recently, the counterinsurgency tactics and brutality documented against frontliners fighting Enbridge Line 3, Water Protectors at Standing Rock, and Appalachians fighting the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia have been characterized as “the new Green Scare.” When climate scholars propose sabotage, seeking generational movement perspective is not only respectful, it’s necessary.

Malm’s book illustrates convincingly how everyone from letter writers to saboteurs contribute to effective resistance. Time is of the essence, he reminds us, and none of us have the luxury of ideological or tactical purity. I don’t mean to polarize or attack (no, not even Bill McKibben) but to invite and to challenge. Here is my challenge: If the climate movement lacks a strategic compass, it can find that compass on the frontlines. What if the mass climate movement was focused on supporting frontline direct action? Not advising frontline struggles, not evaluating them, not launching snide critiques, not delivering lectures on civility and proper messaging, not handing down smug analysis about what works and what doesn’t. I mean real support. Throwing out their handbooks. Refusing to denounce militant tactics. Asking frontline campaigns what they need instead of telling them what they should do. Funneling resources, amplifying actions, asking blockaders to share our ideas instead of telling us to be nice. Allowing the movement to be transformed by the urgency of the moment and the bravery of the people we are honored to fight beside.

“At what point do we escalate?” Malm asks. “When do we conclude that the time has come to also try something different? When do we start physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy them with our own hands? Is there a good reason we have waited this long?” Malm asks these questions in order to urge the climate movement to escalate their tactics. At the same time, he bets against himself by giving short shrift to direct action traditions that already exist. To answer Malm’s questions sincerely, the climate movement must look to the frontlines for guidance and must grapple with its ongoing failure to support militant resistance. The climate movement’s strategy of abandoning its staunchest fighters in favor of the optics of respectability has failed.

After I talked to my movement elder, I thought again about the people I’d seen reading Malm’s book, and suddenly it began to make sense. They were indeed people more accustomed to rallies and marches, letter-writing campaigns and street theater outside the White House, people who might be used to thanking the police. This is by design. Malm is, in fact, not talking to my grumpy mentor, to those already escalating tactics, to those who have tried it, to those who have paid the price. His audience is the mainstream environmental movement, people who have never considered sabotage, or direct action, people who are outright against it. For such an audience, Malm’s book is an important intervention. But I also hope that his audience will understand that the climate movement should not act in a void, and that in order to achieve lasting gains, it must act in dynamic relation to frontline direct action. There they will find communities who uplift a diversity of tactics; act with ingenuity and humility; make systems to protect each other from repression; support escalating action with clarity, spontaneity and integrity; and most importantly, have the fortitude to face the aftermath together.

Filed under: author-malm-andreas, environment, environmental-racism, environmentalism