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Sabotage in the time of the Anthropocene

Originally published: Canadian Dimension on May 24, 2023 by Scott Stoneman (more by Canadian Dimension)  | (Posted May 27, 2023)

Strategic pacifism is sanitized history… it is a guide of scant use for a movement with mighty obstacles.”

Andreas Malm

The film adaptation of Andreas Malm’s influential book starts with the deflation of tires on luxury vehicles and ends with the sabotage of a superyacht. Between the two ends of How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2023) is the eponymous mission to punch a hole in the market logic that keeps us en route to the worst effects of climate change. The endgame of the film consists in making sure that “fossil fuel gets priced out of the market.”

The film’s conclusion does not present a clear-cut victory; it is more like a morally-ambiguous hedging. Recently, Malm even seemed to distance himself from the film’s resolution, writing that “We can’t blow up a pipeline and then sit on the site until we all end up in jail (although some of us might want to—see the film How to Blow Up a Pipeline).” We’re given a sense of triumph as the group defies the odds and achieves its objective, but some of the saboteurs take the fall and allow themselves to be arrested—offering the sort of punitive outcome that some filmgoers will feel is fitting in the context of a carceral state.

Both the film and text versions of How to Blow Up a Pipeline are earnest in their endorsement of industrial sabotage and their suspicion of climate action they deem to be meeker. The difference is that the film version suggests that only extreme forms of sabotage hold any value for morale and mobilization. Reductionist and romantic in its vanguardism, the film’s emotional core evokes the lyrics from David Bowie’s “Heroes”: “We can beat them, just for one day / We can be heroes, just for one day.”

How to Blow Up a Pipeline has the narrative structure of a superhero movie. It leverages easy sources of aesthetic pleasure—moments we might describe as hero shots. Similarly, it hinges on giving us the “origin stories” of each character, told in flashback. It’s no coincidence that the first flashback acquaints us with a character whose friend compares her radicalization to Batman’s well-trodden path to vigilante justice. The transformation of billionaire Bruce Wayne into the caped crusader offers a familiar point of reference for viewers, driving home the inherent heroism of How to Blow Up a Pipeline’s young stars, but it’s an ill-fitting analogy for climate justice—especially in a film that is concerned with how the poor, the disposable, the underdogs in the climate fight, learn to fight fire with fire.

Malm has addressed how folks will be radicalized by the climate crisis and made it clear that he thinks it will take three different but related forms:

  1. The direct impacts of climatic events will drive people to mobilize out of concern for their survival.
  2. People will join the struggle without having “personally experienced” the true “severity of the crisis.”
  3. People will be “driven by solidarity with people suffering from climate disasters” by educating themselves about the consequences of inaction.

Malm’s intellectual fingerprints are all over this film, so it is no surprise that we get versions of each of these routes to climate activism in it. The main protagonists lose loved ones in extreme heat events, they’re made terminally ill as a result of petrochemical exposure, and they’re compelled to fight by learning the truth. The title image of Michael in anguish underneath a gas flare in North Dakota gives us an immediate idea of where his fury over extraction’s destructive impact on Indigenous communities comes from. We don’t need to be told why Michael is learning how to make bombs; we see it and feel it.

Like the other saboteurs, who understand that they’ll be labelled “terrorists” by powerful interests, Michael is fed up with the incrementalism of the climate movement. Most environmental protection is about making “white people feel better,” he says. Later in the film, we get a pointed rejection of fossil fuel divestment as a market-oriented measure that mostly preserves the status quo.

The member of this group of climate radicals that most embodies the status quo is Dwayne, a stereotypically laconic Texan who is first shown blocking a road with his pickup truck and firing a shotgun as a warning to an unidentified female oil worker. He is trying to hold onto his land, to hold the line against extractivist encroachment, and he’s doing it for his family. And yet, at the same time, Dwayne’s wife Katie is conspicuously voiceless in the film, despite having just as much at stake.

Dwayne might be the most interesting character in the film, given that the attack on oil infrastructure in Texas is about intentionally targeting the arteries of the whole beastly fossil fuel organism. His arc suggests that even those who might be most attached to what Cara Daggett has called “petromasculinity” can learn to fight in a world on fire, if provided the right sense of what’s possible.

That we are now debating the efficacy of “physically attacking the things that consume our planet” means that things are “infernally out of control,” as Malm admitted in a recent lecture. This is in large part because “the classes ruling this planet seem bent on burning [fossil fuels] as fast as physically possible and absolutely nothing has yet reined them in.” For Malm, what this means is that “climate politics has become virtually by definition revolutionary politics” and all tactics should be on the table.

That sense of the inevitability of escalation is why Malm takes no credit for the greater frequency of clandestine attacks on pipelines (like the daring one that targeted Coastal Gaslink in February 2022). Malm tells us that his “book just happened to appear… when the ideas it propounded were in the air.”

One of the central ideas in his book is that nonviolent civil disobedience has gained the status of dogma in the climate movement. Malm spends a lot of time digging into the political pragmatism of the argument made, for example, by Extinction Rebellion (XR), that engaging in more aggressive direct action against fossil fuel infrastructure—or even just deflating the tires of SUVs—is likely going to lose you points in the boxing match of public opinion. Earlier this year, Malm got into a heated argument with Rupert Read from XR, rejecting Read’s belief in strategic compromise and his assumption that the middle class will soon wake up to their need to make critical sacrifices in order to save our planet.

More recently, Malm stuck to his guns in a missive on Verso’s blog that responded to George Monbiot’s criticism of sabotage. Monbiot’s Guardian piece is about his fear that we in the climate movement will lose traction “if we… engage in violent conflict with those we seek to swing.” In Malm’s retort, he notes that the “things that cause people to die do not belong to those ‘we seek to swing.’ They belong to the class enemy.”

The fossil fuel industry is a threat to collective survival. In spite of decades of disinformationdriven strategically by oil giants invested in their very lucrative self-preservation, pretty much all of us know how damaging business as usual already is and how much worse it will be down the road. The fossil fuel industry is fiercely committed to perpetuating what David McDermott Hughes calls “the spill everywhere” and is doing just enough greenwashing to paper over the fact that air pollution killed 8.7 million people in 2018 alone and that we are locked into cataclysmic biodiversity loss.

Let’s not forget that oil and gas are also directly implicated in a long history of “oppression, corruption and conflict,” to quote Holly Jean Buck. Buck reminds us that this impact of fossil fuels “exists right now,” impacting “millions, if not billions of people.”

Still, the mere idea of sabotaging the machinery that produces these harms is seen as unconscionable by some.

For example, in an article by Katarina Szulc, CBC aligns itself with the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) by lazily reinforcing the legitimacy of the corporation’s warnings about the potential effects of the film.

Rather than responsibly reporting on the AER’s alarmist rhetoric, Szulc’s article characterizes the threat of sabotage as a form of “violence.” When Malm spoke with me about his encouragement of more extreme measures in the climate fight, he drew a distinction between targeting oil infrastructure and directing violence at human beings: the former is a revolutionary act, while the latter is prima facie a morally repugnant one.

Szulc leaves some room in her piece for director Daniel Goldhaber to defend the film, but she focuses on the threat to fossil fuel projects over the threat of fossil fuel projects, downplaying the reality of mass suffering and the suffocating of entire ecosystems by CO2.

In Szulc’s piece, Goldhaber denies that his adaptation is a procedural account of how to blow up a pipeline. Even so, one of the most interesting scenes has two of the central characters, Logan and Shawn, meet at a bookstore and briefly discuss Malm’s book. It is odd that the book’s distinctive sunset orange cover makes a cameo in the film when its ideas are woven into its narrative fabric. Regardless, what is notable in the scene is what Logan says to Shawn: that the book “doesn’t tell you how to do it.” Logan’s statement is ironic in the context of a film that dramatizes precisely how it could be done.

What is enticing about the prospect of blowing up pipelines, from Malm’s perspective, is the promise of radical action starting a revolutionary wave in response to the ecocide occurring all around us. The problem with this martial model of mobilization is that heroic action tends to get coded, according to Cara Daggett, as a masculine thing: “where action is judged according to its efficacy at increasing power,” it is typically celebrated in opposition to what is seen as “feminized passivity.”

The film actually tries to dislodge these gendered assumptions about heroic activism by giving us a team of saboteurs that is led by women, and that is also multiracial, intersectional, self-reflexive, and committed to collective struggle. The film contains some very subtle insights about gender division in activist struggles and about how the internal tensions of men can cause serious friction within a group.

Despite all its theorizing, How to Blow Up a Pipeline seems to be a movie that aims to entertain more than anything else. The question of whether it convincingly attacks what Malm calls the “façade of durability” that the fossil fuel industry enjoys is unclear.

It’s worth thinking about how Goldhaber’s narrative choices differ from Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future. Robinson’s epic tale of resistance and revolution depicts an increasing militarization of the climate movement in the aftermath of a wet bulb heat event that kills twenty million people in India—turning human beings into “cooked things.” Because of its constantly shifting narrative perspective, the novel would be challenging to adapt to the screen. Malm has spoken many times about being captivated by Robinson’s book and was no doubt keen to see his own text turned into a movie because of faith in the emotional power of storytelling.

How can we collectively “blow up a pipeline” in less literal terms? Rather than cinematic acts of bad-ass heroism, what if we had room for a narrative form like the one we see on display in Sean Baker’s Red Rocket (2021)? Baker’s film, set in Texas City in the shadow of oil and gas infrastructure, doesn’t explicitly attack the fossil fuel industry. What it shows instead are the important ways that informal community care networks can and do keep people going as we accelerate towards climate catastrophe. It speaks to Naomi Klein’s reminder that “We don’t have the luxury of throwing up our hands on climate and saying ‘we’re doomed, let’s just go Mad Max on this.’ We need to invest in the labour of care at every level and guarantee basic economic rights: housing, food, clean water.”

Military-grade sabotage feels like the only appropriate strategy in our time of dangerous stuckness because there is something seductive and recognizable about its immediacy. However, it is not the only reliable strategy. Malm gets this, but I am not sure that Goldhaber’s film does. This is the issue: if, as Rinaldo Walcott says, “the best politics is generous” and tries to “bring people along,” the strident politics of this film will leave some behind.

We don’t need to be heroes to attack the systems that demean and dehumanize care. We don’t need to blow things up to defend nature. Sabotage comes in many shapes and sizes. It can mean aggressively withdrawing our labour, time, and investments from fossil capitalism and its carbon-intensive practices. At its historical root, the idea of sabotage meant looking for “a relatively minor malfunction, mistiming or interruption, introduced at the right place and moment.” Leveraging our collective intelligence to introduce those interruptions into the system might mean learning to immobilize all the lies, lifestyles, and legal structures that bind us to runaway global heating.

Scott Stoneman is a communications specialist working with the Environment and Climate Change team in Kjipuktuk (Halifax) to implement the municipality’s climate action plan HalifACT.

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