It’s hardly a secret that we are at a critical moment in the fight against climate change. If carbon emissions continue at current rates, planetary warming could reach a point of no return. As the planet heats up, previously arable land will become unusable, huge quantities of animal life will be lost accelerating the biodiversity crisis, some cities and potentially even some nations will become too hot for human habitation. This process is tightly bound up with capitalism and global economic inequality. The richest most ‘developed’ nations in the world are vastly more responsible for historic CO2 emissions than the poorest; colonial histories and unequal ecological exchange between core and periphery nations within the world-system compound these issues. Just a handful of companies produce the vast majority of greenhouse gases, and when it comes to consumption a relatively minute number of the most well-off dominate the consumption of international flights, high-end clothing and animal products.
Given our growing awareness of the scale of the catastrophe that we find ourselves hurtling towards, the question remains, what do we do about it? The environmental movement is well known for its commitment to strategic pacifism. Those of us who have taken part in climate change activism will be well familiar with our chosen array of tactics: occupations, A to B marches, divestment etc. And yet, we still continue to hurtle towards climate breakdown at much the same pace as before. While our movement grows in number every year, coal is still thrown into the fire and capital continues to accumulate like never before. Marxist-ecologist Andreas Malm, in potentially his most controversial book yet, invites us to consider the following: what if it is now time for the environmental movement to abandon our strategic aversion to violence and sabotage?
Malm argues that maybe, the time is ripe for a change towards that direction, yet, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is not really a call for campaigners to start picking up the monkey-wrenches and crowbars unthinkingly. The author instead opts for a thoughtful consideration of the tactical and ethical implications of such a position, and why it might be necessary. Malm takes aim at the ‘Gandhian’ strategic pacifism of the contemporary environmental movement, embodied in groups such as Extinction Rebellion. Many ‘big names’ in climate change activism, including XR co-founder Roger Hallam, have emphasised the historical success of supposedly ‘pacifist’ movements that primarily engaged in peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience.
For the strategic pacifists, movements gain success when their radical wings are kept in check, and violence minimised – hopefully to the point of zero. Figures such as Gandhi and Mandela have been canonised by these climate-pacifists, who often cite the Suffragettes, the American Civil Rights movement and the Anti-Apartheid struggle as examples to emulate. These movements, some of the most formative in modern history, are certainly worth echoing in our current moment for Malm. Where would we be without the freedom rides? However, the pacifists are confused about their history, and ignore the radical and often quite violent groups within these cases that built a non-pacifist strategy to achieve social change.
Malm deploys the theory of the ‘radical flank effect’ to explain why this pacifist rewrite of history is mistaken, and subsequently, why the climate movement may benefit from a new radical and confrontational ‘flank’. The ‘radical flank effect’ describes the effects that radical factions within a broad social movement may have on movement success, positive or negative. The positive effects of radicals are multiple. The presence of a radical faction within a movement may, as it turns out, contribute to a more positive image of so-called ‘moderate’ activists; or, it may pressure those with power to conceding demands sooner.
If we take the example of the civil rights movement in the United States, can we really say that the 1964 civil rights act was a pure product of non-violent direct action? Malm does not think so. Citing the 1963 ‘Birmingham Offensive’, where Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and thrown in a cell. From his cell he wrote the famous ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’, warning that if the demands of the civil rights movement could not be met through a non-violent channel, people may well turn to other means to achieve justice. This was a scenario that the Kennedy administration, and all the president’s men, sought to avoid at all costs. This is not the only example. Malm this points out that this effect is replicated throughout history, from Tahrir Square to Indian independence, from the anti-apartheid struggle to the fight for suffrage in the United Kingdom.
With the environmental movement continuing to grow and time continuing to slip through our fingers, Malm thinks that a radical flank within the movement may well be a tactical benefit. But if radical, direct, violent action is a strategic asset, the question still remains – is it right? Violence after all, is not generally looked upon with favour, even if it is only violence against property. Might letting the tires down of SUVs and dismantling oil infrastructure be morally incorrect? Malm posits a more interesting question in response: if sabotage of the fossil fuel industry, as an encroachment on the right to property, is violent, what of the ruling class that continues to pump our skies full of carbon? After all, while the continued polluting of the earth by the rich (and for Malm, it is certainly the rich) may not feel as violent as revving up an SUV, what of the human (and non-human) consequences? The acidification of the oceans, coral bleaching, rising sea levels and continued ‘natural’ disasters may not initially feel ‘violent’ until you consider that they arise as a consequence of the actions of a specific faction of the global bourgeoisie. The concepts of ecocide and ‘social murder’ may serve us well going forward.
Additionally, our cultural disdain for violence in political activism is not exactly a universal behaviour. In France, the working class is exceedingly combative – just look at the Gilet Jaunes. Just recently after the Black Lives Matter uprisings in the USA, one poll found that around 54% of Americans thought the torching of Minneapolis police station was at all justified, an astonishing result considering America’s general distaste for confrontational protest. Malm doesn’t shy away from other ethical questions, launching a savage critique of anti-humanist tendencies within environmental politics, such as ‘climate fatalism’ and ‘deep green’ versions of environmental politics – both of which, in my opinion, are deeply deserved. It would however, have been useful if the author had engaged with the question of repression in a bit more detail. He rightly criticises Extinction Rebellion for their cavalier approach to the state and (racialized) policing, and while it’s certainly true that “comfort levels” among activists in the global north are exceedingly high given what is at stake, a more thorough engagement with policing and protest repression would certainly be a welcome addition to an otherwise generally thoughtful manifesto.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is likely to be a controversial publication, but it is a necessary one. The climate movement desperately needs to grapple with its own strategy going forward, and Malm offers a critical, passionate and hopeful assessment of where it might go next. Malm’s refreshing humanist ethos combined with his marxist radicalism make him one of the most exciting contemporary writers on the climate crisis, this forceful new entry into his repertoire is no exception, though perhaps a different beast from his more academic work. The author’s characteristic combative writing style combined with numerous personal anecdotes make it clear that this text is not a strictly academic tome, but a popular manifesto for radicalising the environmental movement. As the title suggests, it is a guide to fighting in a world on fire. This is a book for activists, pacifist or not, but will no doubt be of interest to anyone studying climate change or social movements. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, a crisis deeply bound up in questions of ecology, Malm declares that the time of Gandhi is over, and we might be better served embracing Fanon, he may well be right.
George Buskell is a student on the Goldsmiths MA Global Political Economy. He tweets at @gbuskell.