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Andreas Malm ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire’

Originally published: Marx & Philosophy on March 9, 2022 by John Rapko (more by Marx & Philosophy)  | (Posted Mar 10, 2022)
Andreas Malm How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire

Andreas Malm: ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on FireVerso, London and New York, 2021. 200 pp., $19.49 pb

Despite its title, Andreas Malm’s recent book How to Blow Up a Pipeline contains no concrete instructions on how to accomplish that particular deed. Malm does assure the reader that disabling pipelines is not particularly difficult, and describes a number of cases – in Iraq, South Africa, Israel/Palestine and Nigeria – where it was done as part of political campaigns of resistance to governments and corporations. The ‘How to’ of the title is rather a matter of how to think about strategies of political resistance to the forces of ‘business-as-usual’, to the extent that such forces contribute to and indeed accelerate global warming and ecological degradation. The phrase ‘Blowing up a Pipeline’ is a synecdoche for acts of violence done with the aim of resistance. A more literal though no less startling title for the book would have been ‘Manifesto for Political Violence in the Service of Humanity’s Survival on Earth’.

The book consists of three chapters. The first, ‘Learning from Past Struggles’, first sets out the need and target for action on climate change. The most distinctive problem for formulating action is the urgency of the situation, one that stems from the physical laws governing a planet with increasing atmosphere levels of carbon dioxide. The cause of this increase is the ever-intensifying ‘fossil economy’ that arises in capitalism in the passage from the widespread use of water to coal power in late eighteenth to early nineteenth century England. In an earlier book, Malm characterized this variant of capitalism that endures to the present as ‘an economy of self-sustaining growth predicated on the growing consumption of fossil fuels.’ (Malm 2016: 11) This characterization leads immediately to a demand for action: the immediate cessation of the use of fossil fuels, as demanded by a range of climate protests and movements. But Malm then startlingly charges that the recent movements, in particular Extinction Rebellion, have fetishized non-violence, thereby allegedly resulting in their actions having fallen abysmally far from their goals. Malm further argues that the organizational charter of Extinction Rebellion falsifies the history of violent resistance. In the latter half of the chapter, Malm submits the idea of non-violence as the core of pacifism to analysis, mostly by considering actual cases of non-violent political doctrines and actions in the twentieth century. Realistically, any pacifism in practice is a ‘strategic’ pacifism, one that does not renounce the use of force in any and all cases, but rather argues that the use of force in some particular context is ineffectual or counter-productive. He shows that ‘non-violent’ activists like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were strategic pacifists; and that once one recognizes that the judgment of whether to use political violence is situational, a conceptual route is opened to consider the efficacy of kinds and degrees of force in political strategizing. Malm concludes with the suggestion that in any case the value of comparing past political strategies with those of present climate activism is limited by the unique characteristic of the climate crisis: our crisis is uniquely urgent on account of the various imminent ‘tipping points’ in global heating and ecological degradation, and likewise unique in its global scope.

The second chapter, ‘Breaking the Spell’, is the core of the book, as it presents positive case for political violence. The only kind of destructiveness Malm describes in detail is not disabling pipelines, but rather an efficient and convivial way of deflating the tires of SUVs, a ‘direct action as prank, perhaps too jolly and tender to deserve the term “sabotage”.’ (84) Here’s how a group of young activists did it in Stockholm in July 2007: They walked by night the streets of an affluent neighborhood. Whenever they encountered a rich person’s SUV, above all Hummers, they would unscrew the cap on the valve of a tire, insert a piece of gravel, and screw the cap back down: job done in about an hour. A leaflet left on the windshield explains that this is no ordinary prank, but an admonishment: ‘what you seem to not know, or not care about, is that all the gasoline you burn to drive your SUV on the city’s streets has devastating consequences for others.’ In defending the deflation of SUVs’ tires as the paradigm of resistance, Malm reasons as follows: 1.) We ought not to attempt to evade the charge that we advocate violence through the verbal distinction between violence (actions that harm sentient beings) and force (that which moves, alters, and perhaps destroys non-sentient objects, processes, or systems). We must accept that property destruction does, at least in the global North, typically count as violence, even though such destruction cannot in principle be cruel. Like strategic pacifists, we renounce certain kinds of violence in certain situations: we renounce violence that aims at or constitutively involves harming sentient beings; but violence targeting commodities, artifacts and infrastructures need not involve such harm and so involve no cruelty. (100-102) 2.) Following the philosopher Henry Shue, we distinguish luxury and subsistence emissions. Luxury emissions are paradigmatically that occur in rich people’s rapid and/or non-essential travel, such as in SUVS, super-yachts or private jets. ‘Subsistence emissions occur in the pursuit of physical reproduction, in the absence of feasible alternatives. Luxury emissions can claim neither excuse.’ (88) 3.) ‘It follows that states should attack luxury emissions with axes – not because they necessarily make up the bulk of the total, but because of the position they hold.’ The position they hold is that such emissions ‘represent the ideological spear of business-as-usual, not only maintaining but actively championing the most unsustainable kinds of consumption.’ (92) 4.) Because of the unlikelihood of the ruling classes self-limiting their emissions, and because luxury emissions are ‘the low-hanging fruits of mitigation’ of carbon emissions, it is ‘[t]ime to pick up some sticks and knock the fruit down.’ (93) Malm concludes that ‘if we have to cut emissions now [which Malm considers a political and moral necessity], that means we have to start with the rich.’ (94)

The rest of the second chapter and the whole of the third, ‘Fighting Despair’, consider the likely effects, more psychological than physical, of committing violent acts aiming at reducing carbon dioxide emissions and ultimately transitioning humanity away from its ever-intensifying use of fossil fuels. To a range of objections that center on the claim that political violence is ineffective and self-defeating, Malm counters with the thought, a political thought that is consistent with practicing strategic pacifism, that violent climate activists will constitute a ‘radical flank’ within the broader movement and induce a shifting of political positions that might actually lead to the positive changes that the non-violent actions of Extinction Rebellion have not brought about. Psychologically, such action might destroy the sense of inevitability and invincibility of the rich and ruling classes; Malm quotes Iranian activist Amir Parviz Pouyan on its hoped-for effect: ‘The spell breaks and the enemy looks like a defeated magician.’ (95)

Continuing in this vein in the third chapter, Malm suggests that such action might end the jaded despair that we can do nothing to mitigate or stop ecological catastrophe, and ends by invoking the alarming, albeit famous, quote from Frantz Fanon that violence is a ‘cleansing force.’ One assumes and hopes that in advocating such cathartic violence, Malm is keeping in mind the stricture on refraining from harming sentient beings. The most important point that the last chapter contributes to Malm’s account is the further analysis of the failure of Extinction Rebellion. Malm notes two features of recent climate activism: its scattershot quality, targeting anything and everything (154), and its tendency to target (at least in theory) civilization as such. (155-57) Malm counters by re-invoking his analysis of fossil capitalism: the climate movement that includes violent destruction of commodities and technologies of luxury emissions by contrast ‘would target a particular deformed kind of civilization – namely, that erected on the plinth of fossil capital – and tear it down so that another form of civilisation can endure (or none will).’ (157)

Evidently the book is an attempt at a tactical intervention of our current moment, and, unlike Fossil Capital, there is seemingly nothing central to How to Blow Up a Pipeline that is tightly bound to Marx. Nonetheless, in his earlier book Malm explicitly drew from and developed the recovery and interpretation of the ecological dimension of Marx’s thought that was pioneered by Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster two decades ago. On their various accounts, a central though almost entirely overlooked feature of Marx’s thought was his account of the ‘metabolism’ between human beings and nature through labor, and the disruption of this perennial though historically varied relation under capitalism. On their account, the crises endemic to capitalism diagnosed by Marx were not only those of the falling rate of profit, but also those arising from the inevitable wastefulness and environmental destructiveness of capitalism (cf. Burkett 1999: 126-28 and Foster 2000: 163-64). Malm explicitly drew upon Burkett and Foster’s work in diagnosing fossil capital as arising at a particular time and then sustained in the service of particular interests, and so carrying in train the thought that there is nothing inevitable about such a global economic system. Here Malm’s Marx-inspired analysis in turn guides his criticisms of recent climate activism and partially motivates the specific form and target of his proposal for the violent destruction of the furniture of luxury consumption.

As a piece of political reflection, Malm’s account must stand comparison with related but marked different proposals from other climate activists. Consider the views expressed in a video discussion recently by Roger Hallam, one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion, and the philosopher Rupert Read, a major spokesperson and activist in Extinction Rebellion (Read and Hallam 2022). Both roughly agree with Malm in thinking that Extinction Rebellion, in the two years before the pandemic, broadened and heightened awareness of climate change and the urgency of action aiming to slow the change and massively reduce anthropogenic carbon emissions. Both further agree with Malm’s diagnosis that nonetheless, Extinction Rebellion fell far short of its aims, as well as Malm’s insistence upon the urgency for action in the face of imminent climactic tipping points. So there is a great deal of overlap in the diagnosis of the contemporary crisis between Read and Hallam on the one hand, and Malm on the other – except that the former two treat the crisis as one of ‘our civilization’ and emphasize its danger to humanity as a whole. Malm, by contrast, treats it as rooted in a relatively recent and particular socio-economic form, fossil capitalism. So Read has declared in a recent book that ‘this civilization is finished’, while now acknowledging that it is too late to halt the effects of fossil fuel consumption. He accordingly calls for adaptation to the heating earth with the development of new forms of local community, economies and non-fossil power (Read and Alexander 2019). Malm implicitly rejects what he would see as the defeatism of Read’s account, when in the last chapter he urges that we abandon talk of a single goal (such as 1.5 degrees centigrade of global warming) as decisive. Rather, Malm thinks that if the earth warms by two degrees, we should fight to keep it from warming three degrees. Resistance is a non-finite task for indeterminately many generations. As with Malm’s likely criticism of Read’s proposal, Halam thinks that Read’s strategy is defeatist, and instead urges a continuation of Extinction Rebellion’s tactics. This is grist for Malm’s mill, but Hallam makes the further claim that the existential threat to humanity as a whole from climate change is so dire that response to it is not, or no longer, a political issue, but rather an ethical one. Hallam claims that as with resistance to Hitler, recognition of and resistance to climate change unites the terrain of ideological differences that is the field of political action. Malm would counter that the issue remains political, in that the class dimension of fossil fuel consumption, that is, the great difference between the consumption rates of rich and poor, first world and the rest of the world, is part of a realistic analysis of our current crisis. Malm’s proposal then turns on the point that the ruling classes won’t be talked into changing their luxurious fossil fuel consumption, nor a fortiori into dismantling the current economic system and replacing it with another: the violence of destruction of luxury together with its props and symbols is the most likely route to fulfilling something of the aims of the climate movement. Whether Malm’s proposal shall be adopted, and whether it shall be effective, is not something upon which I can speculate; but it’s not clear that those of us who share Malm’s aims have any compelling alternative.

References:

  • Burkett, Paul 1999 Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective (New York: St. Martin’s Press).
  • Foster, John Bellamy 2000 Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press).
  • Malm, Andreas 2016 Fossil Capital (London and New York: Verso).
  • Read, Rupert and Samuel Alexander 2019 This Civilisation is Finished (Melbourne: Simplicity Institute).
  • Read, Rupert and Roger Hallam 2022 Radical Flank or Moderate Flank Youtubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lI-QHGZfZlo