“At what point do we escalate? 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?” (From How To Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm)
Presented below is a Five Book Plan for addressing the looming climate apocalypse, curated by the creative team behind the hit film How To Blow Up a Pipeline.
In his How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm identifies a paradox. Though climate change poses an existential threat to life on earth, the types of militant tactics that typified earlier social justice struggles, such as those against white supremacy and patriarchy, have been ruled out of bounds in the fight against fossil capital. Through an historical examination of these struggles, Malm makes a cogent case for the addition of property destruction to the toolbox of climate struggle.
In our film adaptation of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, we tell the story of eight characters who all have their own reasons for fighting the fossil fuel industry. Each sees blowing up a pipeline as an act of self-defense. Researching the movie, we wanted to understand this perspective from multiple angles. From strictly non-violent environmental radicalism (Stephenson) to anticolonial resistance by water protectors (Estes) to systematic arson against women's disenfranchisement (Atkinson) to equally incendiary anticapitalism (Invisible Committee), the books on this list present a range of tactics and strategies from movements that have found themselves compelled to disregard the letter of the law in service of their own set of ethical and moral standards. Each presents a theory of what must be done to change the status quo.
The making of How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Photos by Daniel Garber.
1 - How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire — Andreas Malm (Verso, 2021)
An experience we all shared when reading Malm's text was visceral excitement. So much writing about the climate crisis ends up being either pollyannaish, blindly optimistic about humanity's ability to technologically overcome, or despairing, given to understandable doomerism about the intractability of the problems launching us toward climate apocalypse. But Pipeline recognizes both the magnitude of the crisis and the practical possibility that people who are not in formal positions of power can do more. While many arguments and examples from the book made it into our movie in one way or another, the central concept—both an idea and a feeling—that we wanted to adapt is this: change is possible. The fossil fuel economy is not too big to attack. It is vulnerable. There are tools at our disposal that, in this movement, we have yet to deploy.
2 - What We're Fighting for Now is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice — Wen Stephenson (Beacon, 2015)
In 2008, Tim DeChristopher attended a Bureau of Land Management auction for oil and gas drilling leases and submitted winning bids totalling $1.8 million. Intending to protest what he viewed as the illegal nature of the proceedings, DeChristopher never meant to pay. The fact that the auction was later deemed illegal (and many of the sales were reversed) was excluded from DeChristopher's trial, as was his conviction of the moral necessity of such an action. He was sentenced to serve two years in prison and pay a fine of $10,000.
DeChristopher is one of what Wen Stephenson describes in this book as the "new American radicals." Drawing on interviews with over 100 activists fighting for climate justice, Stephenson lucidly puts forward the case for abandoning the mainstream, Washington-focused environmental movement and embracing this new radicalism. The movement to salvage human civilization will be less like the environmentalism we know "and more like the human-rights and social justice struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."
With a steady, measured tone; with an attunement to the spiritual dimensions of the climate crisis; and with an affection for the long history of American civil disobedience (the book opens in Walden), What We're Fighting for is a good book to offer anyone who believes there is a problem but is skeptical of more radical tactics.
3 - Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long History of Indigenous Resistance — Nick Estes (Verso, 2019)
The abuses of power of the fossil fuel industry, the fouling of the commons through extraction, and the complicity of governments the world over in valuing profit over life are inextricable with white supremacist colonialism. The present system, hurtling us toward an unlivable world, has been built on the forced marginalization and dispossession of indigenous peoples. Any understanding of fossil capital that fails to reckon with this fundamental truth can only be a misunderstanding.
In Our History is the Future, Nick Estes combines a visceral retelling of the resistance at Standing Rock with a long-term perspective that helps explain how we arrived at our current politics of death. The Indigenous-led battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, he makes clear, is one more chapter in "an Indian War that never ends." Fossil capital is the trophy of the "ongoing holocaust" perpetrated by white settlers against natives.
In the US, Indian communities are singled out for sacrifice to fossil fuel extraction. The DAPL, as Estes relates, was first slated to cross the Missouri river upstream of Bismarck. But after concerns about how a spill might affect the 90 percent white city, the Army Corps of Engineers re-routed it to cross upstream of an 84 percent Native residential area.
Indian communities have also been on the front lines of the fight against fossil capital and the long history of dispossession it extends. This is as true of Standing Rock as it has been for centuries of indigenous resistance. Just as clear as he is on the possibility of a new world, Estes is clear on the enemy: escaping climate catastrophe requires a definitive break with settler colonialism and racial capitalism.
4 - Rise Up, Women: The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes — Diane Atkinson (Bloomsbury, 2018)
Malm's historical case studies of successful militancy include slave revolts pushing toward emancipation; the radical flank of the Civil Rights movement as well as the armed protection of the movement's mainstream; and the car-bombing and infrastructure attacks of the Spear of the Nation catalyzing Apartheid's collapse. Eminently valuable historical studies of all of these movements are available. Rise Up, Women is about another of Malm's examples, the UK suffragette movement.
After forty years of organized moderate campaigning for women's suffrage in the UK, the feeling that the effort had gotten no closer to its goals led to a widespread turn to militancy. Founded under the slogan of "deeds not words," the Women's Social and Political Union broke windowpanes in the PM's and MPs' houses, took hammers and axes to statues and paintings, and torched letter boxes. In 1913, after a major setback, the WSPU escalated by embarking on a systematic campaign of arson, burning villas, tea pavilions, boathouses, hotels, post offices, and theaters, causing widespread property damage without loss of life.
The author of Rise Up, Women, Diane Atkinson, has called it a "collective biography" of 200 women, and it tells its story at the level of lives and lived experience to remind us how important everyday people are in effecting political transformation. In addition to serving as a veritable compendium of militant tactics, the book also shows that destruction is most effective in conjunction with widespread, popular, and media-savvy appeals, including distributing newspapers, raising consciousness, assembling bodies in the streets, coordinating publicity stunts, and even shrewd political merchandising.
To contemporary readers with climate change on their minds, many of whom may also feel that decades of organizing have yielded woefully insufficient gains, Rise Up, Women offers a provocation: was the loss of the property burned by suffragettes a fair price to pay to break the male monopoly on the franchise?
5 - The Coming Insurrection — The Invisible Committee (Semiotext(e), 2009)
The Coming Insurrection was famously waved around on Fox News by an irate Glenn Beck, who called it—not inaccurately—an incitement to violence on the behalf of the world's dispossessed. This aspect of the book was emphasized when a group that came to be known as the "Tarnac Nine," some of whom are thought to have penned the essay, were arrested in rural France and charged with terrorism for plotting to disrupt overhead railway power lines. Yet the book is more capacious than its place in cultural memory (or its slim page count) might suggest.
Avowedly anticapitalist and anarchist, unrepentantly enthusiastic about vandalism and petty theft, The Coming Insurrection also postulates that the upwelling malaise of world populations can catalyze a total transformation of society. Yet that transformation, if we are to come out on the other side with a system more livable than what we have now, will require extreme conscientiousness, care, and social solidarity. The Coming Insurrection takes very seriously the work that will need to be done.
The nine accused plotters had made their way to Tarnac as part of a group relocating to the rural area to design a way of life not structured by consumerism. When they weren't allegedly planning railway disruption, they took over the operation of a failing general store and bar (among the town's only businesses) and ran them as volunteer collectives. They hosted film screenings, raised livestock, and delivered meals to the town's elderly residents. At the heart of the book is a declaration of the necessary concurrence of destructive and constructive politics. Its central assertion bears reckoning: if a new society is to take shape, it will need to be forged in the crucible of insurrection.
One formulation seems especially germane:
"It's the privileged feature of radical circumstances that a rigorous application of logic leads to revolution. It's enough just to say what is before our eyes and not to shrink from the conclusions."
Photos by Daniel Garber.