In honor of the release of the film How to Blow Up a Pipeline, I decided to review the nonfiction book of the same name that inspired the film.
I’m glad that I did.
Despite its provocative title, How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm isn’t a how-to manual for aspiring saboteurs. It’s a thought-provoking exploration of the history, ethicality, and strategic considerations of a broad range of violent and nonviolent tactics of resistance to systems of oppression, particularly the fossil fuel industry.
The author’s main emphasis in this text is the popular struggle to interrupt the harms caused by the ongoing expansion and continued existence of the fossil fuel industry. But many of the same considerations apply to the popular struggles to interrupt other systemic harms. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the author’s conclusions about the need for an escalation of resistance tactics, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a good overview of the question of the role of nonviolence, violence, and property destruction in social change movements, particularly the climate movement.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline starts with a brief preface acknowledging the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the movement for climate justice. Prior to the pandemic, the climate movement was building momentum. This includes, but is not limited to, that segment of the movement which engages in progressively more militant tactics of disruption of the fossil fuel industry and its supporting institutions: civil disobedience, occupations, destruction of property, and so on. When the pandemic struck and lockdowns began in many countries, much of this momentum was lost, thereby changing some considerations discussed later in the book, which was written before the pandemic.
The first chapter, Learning From Past Struggles, explores the history of the movement for climate justice and social change movements generally. This exploration alternates between lively narrative storytelling about incidents involving more radical tactics in the climate movement, narrative descriptions of broader trends in the history of the climate movement, comparisons to other social change movements such as the anti-slavery movement and the women’s sufferage movement, and analysis of the ethicality and strategic value of a broad range of both nonviolent and violent approaches to social change.
Given how short and relatively informal the book is in structure and tone, it covers considerable ground. This ground includes the use of property destruction and uprisings by the women’s sufferage and anti-slavery movements; the ethical and strategic distinction between property destruction and violence against sentient beings; and Lanchester’s Paradox, a newly-defined paradox which recognizes the stark disparity between the magnitude of the tremendous harm caused by the climate crisis and the relative lack of commensurately militant responses to the climate crisis. When framed in such terms, it does seem strange that a systemic crisis resulting in millions of deaths and the alteration of our entire planet’s climate has inspired so few militant responses.
From the very beginning, it’s clear that How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a far more well-considered, insightful, and relevant text on ethics and strategy than some might assume given the provocative name. The inclusion of numerous personal and historical accounts of varying degrees and types of sabotage and other escalation tactics will surely keep many readers engaged in ways that an abstract text on strategy and ethics would not. Stories about deflating SUV tires, vandalizing storefronts, spontaneously storming through the fences of a massive coal mine, and other incidents of tactical escalation serve both to keep the reader engaged and to illustrate ethical and strategic differences in various resistance tactics.
The second chapter, Breaking the Spell, is the heart of the author’s argument in favor of an escalation of tactics in the climate movement. Much of the chapter directly or indirectly addresses the causes and possible solutions to what the author calls Lanchester’s Paradox — the profound disparity between the severity of the climate crisis and the mild tactics of the climate movement. Over the course of the chapter, Malm explores many vital considerations on the topic. How have other social change movements handled the escalation to more militant tactics such as occupation or sabotage of property? What forms of occupation and sabotage have some in the climate movement engaged in so far? What is the relationship between nonviolent mass movements and smaller groups of occupiers and saboteurs? Are they mutually compatible or mutually incompatible? What may be standing in the way of more militant resistance to the incalculable harms caused by the unabated increase in greenhouse gas emissions caused primarily by the fossil fuel industry?
The author’s ultimate conclusion, bolstered by a combination of ethical, strategic, and historical arguments, is that more militant tactics such as occupation and sabotage have a pivotal role to play in the climate movement. Such tactics can not — and should not — take the place of nonviolent mass mobilizations. Those mass mobilizations play a vital role in demonstrating public support for change and empowering large numbers of people to participate in the creation of change. Instead of seeing the two approaches as contradictory, the author makes the analogy to a pair of scissors, with one blade being nonviolent mass mobilization and the other blade being sabotage and militant resistance. According to Malm, it is only when the relevant systems of power are pinched between the two blades of nonviolent mass mobilization and militant resistance tactics like sabotage that a popular movement can achieve profound social change.
Of course, the author’s argument will be resoundingly rejected by advocates of strategic pacifism, which Malm critiques as an ineffectual approach based on a sanitized version of social change history. However, such advocates of strategic pacifism will be hard-pressed to refute the author’s critiques of their analyses of the history of social change and nonviolent mass mobilization. Regardless of anyone’s ethical or strategic assessments of more militant tactics such as occupation and property destruction, they do seem to happen often in successful popular struggles for social change. And after the fact, systems of power do tend to sanitize history by emphasizing the most nonviolent elements of social change movements that are most palatable to the current system.
Even if the reader remains unconvinced by the author’s overall argument, How to Blow Up a Pipeline should at least illustrate for the reader why a reasonable person might look to the lessons of history and conclude that many movements for social change only achieve material gains when they involve mass mobilizations supported by a smaller flank that engages in more militant tactics such as occupation and sabotage.
Supporters of Malm’s perspective will be delighted to see a book-length exploration of the historical, ethical, and strategic foundations of social change movements that incorporate, but are certainly not limited to, sabotage. Opponents of Malm’s perspective will gain a greater understanding of why many people in the climate movement will likely find such escalations of tactics justified and even appealing. Either way, this book is definitely worth reading for anyone who is seriously concerned about the climate crisis and seeking to understand how to build an effective social change movement to disrupt the incalculable harms caused by new and existing fossil fuel infrastructure.
If you’re interested in the themes explored by this book and this review, be sure to stay tuned for my review of the film! I watched How to Blow Up a Pipeline at a local theater last night shortly after finishing the first draft of this review of the book. I’ll be publishing my full review of the film within the next few days. To stay up to date with my reviews and other writing, please subscribe to my newsletter and follow me on social media. In the meantime, thanks for reading!
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My name is Treesong. I’m a father, husband, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Ko-fi for my latest climate fiction releases and superhero adventures. Sign up for my newsletter to receive free cli-fi in your inbox. Check out my bookshop for climate change books, including both climate fiction and climate nonfiction!