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Desperate Times

Is Environmental Radicalism Inevitable?

The new film “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” arrives at a time when climate action has stalled and even nonviolent protest is criminalized.

A person walks across a frozen field with a gas or oil flare in the background.
Courtesy of Neon
A still from the film "How to Blow Up a Pipeline"

Andreas Malm’s 2021 nonfiction book How to Blow Up a Pipeline was a punchy 161-page manifesto on the role of violence in social movements, probing why rich-world climate activists have largely shunned tactics like sabotage. Director Daniel Goldhaber’s fictionalized film adaptation releasing this week, on the other hand, offers a stylized, tense picture of what the world might look like if they didn’t.* Watching it amid soaring oil profits and scant hopes for adequate climate policies in the next few years, it’s hard not to wonder: Why isn’t more of this type of thing happening?

Young people, thronging to groups like the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion, were the ones who propelled the most recent phase of the climate movement, eventually extracting the first and only piece of climate-themed legislation Congress is likely to pass for the foreseeable future: the Inflation Reduction Act. But that package of tax credits, whose benefits accrue largely to corporations, is a far cry from the transformative public investments outlined by proposals for a Green New Deal, which are strongly supported by younger voters. Neither has the IRA been coupled with a commitment to shut down fossil fuel infrastructure responsible for both greenhouse gas emissions and an estimated eight million preventable deaths per year.

Instead, the opposite has happened. The Biden administration seems to have doubled down on the dubious idea that extraction can expand indefinitely without compromising the goals of the Paris Agreement. At an oil and gas conference last month, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm praised executives’ potential to be “brave visionaries,” agreeing with them that fossil fuels will be needed for “decades to come.” Days later, Biden—who young people turned out in droves to elect in 2020—contradicted a campaign promise, approving a drilling project on federal lands in Alaska that is expected to produce 19.2 million barrels of oil per year for the next 30 years. Over the course of their lifetimes, meanwhile, people born in 2020 could see temperatures rise twice as much as they have since the Industrial Revolution. Even at 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming, whole towns in the United States are being smoked off the map by forest fires and wet bulb temperatures are making it dangerous to go outside on expanding chunks of the map.

The film How to Blow Up a Pipeline tracks a small crew of people who—fed up with other options falling short—have decided to go a step further. The characters are archetypes, albeit maybe ones only a climate reporter would recognize from years of press releases: college students disillusioned with reformist campus campaigns, one of whose mother has just died in a freak heat wave; a young person poisoned from childhood by the fossil fuel infrastructure in their backyard; an Indigenous teen doing low-wage work while oil companies get rich off his people’s land; an addled crust punk whose father has a white-shoe lawyer on retainer; a father in rural Texas fighting a pipeline company trying to build one through his property—complete with a shotgun and pickup truck. At one point a liberal coastal filmmaker parachutes in to “raise awareness” about the evils of the fossil fuel industry by prodding the Texan father and his photogenic family of unlikely climate champions with uncomfortable questions. (The filmmaker and his crew are brusquely told to scram.)

All of these activist characters live somewhere in the U.S., and all are young. The oldest actor in the core cast of rag-tag monkey-wrenchers is 33. One has played a recurring character on Euphoria, and others dress like they’re in the show too. The most unlikeable among them aren’t totally unredeemable. For the most part, they are smart, reasonable people taking desperate actions inspired by desperate circumstances.

They’re also meticulous. Their attempt to blow up energy infrastructure isn’t a shoddy plot but a months-long planning effort, concerned as much with crafting a compelling narrative about the blast for the public as with what chemicals they need to procure. They’re also making it up as they go along, new to the business of blowing stuff up. The group’s self-taught explosives “expert” could blast them all away at any minute. Characters harbor doubts as to whether their scheme is going to hit working people hardest while life continues as normal for those profiting off destruction. They take care, as well, to make sure no one is physically hurt. There’s a general atmosphere of paranoia that someone will betray the group through deceit or incompetence. Nobody really knows how it’ll pan out.

The sorts of actions plotted out in the film aren’t unprecedented in the U.S., including in the environmental movement. Scholar Michael Loadenthal found that Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front, Animal Liberation Front, and similar, smaller outfits carried out a remarkable 27,100 actions between 1973 and 2010, ranging from graffiti to bombings: 99.9 percent involved no injuries; there were four casualties, albeit all from actions carried out by groups unaffiliated with the EF!, ELF, and ALF.

Whether those incidents or what’s shown on film count as terrorism or even violence can be debated on a philosophical level, although the U.S. government certainly defines them that way. Malm rejects the framing, tending to refer more specifically to property destruction and sabotage.

Groups embracing those tactics, though, have always been a marginal force in the climate movement. And they’re particularly rare today. In the book this film is based on, Malm praised the momentum generated by the latest wave of youth-led climate activism in the global north—including Extinction Rebellion in the UK, climate strikes in Europe, and the Sunrise Movement in the U.S.—while finding it lacking for precisely this reason. The movement’s dogmatic commitment to nonviolence, he argued, was based on a cherry-picked reading of history. Malm accused advocates of both strategic and principled nonviolence in the climate movement of having ignored violent flanks that complemented the effective civil disobedience movements of prior generations. “The civil rights movement won the [Civil Rights] Act of 1964,” he wrote, “because it had a radical flank that made it appear as a lesser evil in the eyes of state power.” (His emphasis.)

His point wasn’t that the movement should give up nonviolent tactics or workaday organizing. A long section praises occupations of German coal mines that Malm has participated in—via the Ende Gelände movement—as an admirably disruptive example of nonviolent direct action, not unlike those that have helped stop pipeline projects in the U.S. He urges for the climate movement, instead, to put property destruction back on the menu. The nuts and bolts of that are, admittedly, almost alarmingly easy these days: Armed with the internet, just about anyone with enough motivation—the film shows—can learn how to build a bomb and research strategic choke points for the fossil fuel economy. Goldhaber likewise portrays those high-stakes logistics as an ideal canvas for the sorts of human drama inherent to any underground cell: Will they blow themselves up, as such groups have before? How have they convinced themselves to take such tremendous risks? Will it work?

Other questions don’t lend themselves as well to film. Toward the end of the book, Malm distinguished between actually existing eco-terrorism in the global north and the sort he believes should be considered. The “elves” (as members of the Earth Liberation Front are known) have been guilty, in Malm’s eyes, of the same sort of self-indulgent politics that he prods Extinction Rebellion for, albeit with more nefarious, misanthropic politics. Earth First!, ALF, and ELF—now even more marginal than in their modest peak in the 1990s and 2000s—mingled “punk and hardcore with dumpster diving and veganism, spiritual voyages and holistic meditation with squatting and guerrilla gardening, fanzines and herbs,” Malm wrote. “All those thousands of monkeywrenching actions achieved little if anything and had no lasting gains to show for them. They were not performed in a dynamic relation to a mass movement, but largely in a void.” When the climate movement finally “took off,” it did so “because it had no connections to the ecosystem of EF!, ALF and ELF.”

But how could it be otherwise? What the film highlights is that an embrace of eco-terrorism will be a necessarily lonely one. Were such a phenomenon to arise here it would be well out of the purview of established environmental groups, coordinated—as in the film—over encoded Signal chats and off-the-grid meetings of tiny underground cadres. Following any such action, politicians would make a show of issuing subpoenas to green NGOs and sniffing out any connections they might have to the plotters. Fox News and more would have a field day with two of the main characters having campaigned to get their college to divest from fossil fuels, work long supported by prominent environmental nonprofits. The hope, though, as spelled out in Goldhaber’s film, is for one act of sabotage to beget others.

Malm never detailed precisely how to do that or how some new wave of principled property destruction could be more strategic than those that came before it. Actions should be “explainable and acceptable to enough numbers in some places,” he urged, and potentially planned to coincide with high-profile climate disasters, when the public might be more receptive. Would-be saboteurs “should walk ahead—not too far from the masses, which would lead to isolation; nor in the median or rear, which would obviate their mission,” Malm argued, “steering clear of tactics that would put off too many—the tightrope walked by any working vanguard.” That more mainstream groups will “reproach and disown them” is to be expected. Plotters should be prepared to call off campaigns when they are expected to invite too much retaliation.

The film offers a relatively happy ending that will alarm more conservative viewers. There’s no hero cop, for instance, who shows the crew a righteous path away from property destruction. And they don’t regret their actions.

Even viewers without moral objections to sabotage might find that unsatisfying. The best-case outcome for climate activists opening themselves up to sabotage would be what might best be termed a vibe shift. It’d be ludicrous, Malm acknowledged, to expect saboteurs to systematically dismantle the fossil fuel economy one homemade incendiary at a time. In this and other work, he’s emphasized that only states can do that. Both he and the film’s protagonists, accordingly, articulate eco-terrorism as a kind of DIY market signal meant to force states’ hand into doing something they otherwise wouldn’t: “The immediate purpose of such a campaign against CO2-emitting property, then, would be twofold: establishing a disincentive to invest in more of it and demonstrating that it can be put out of business,” Malm wrote. “The first would not require that all devices be disabled or dismantled, only enough to credibly communicate the risk … the aim would be to force states to proclaim [a prohibition on fossil fuel infrastructure] and begin retiring the stock.”

Activists have already used nonviolent means to halt plenty of pipelines here, of course. Ongoing campaigns against the (e.g.,) Keystone XL and Atlantic Coast pipelines have employed a combination of civil disobedience and litigation to dissuade investors and policymakers alike.

Though these nonviolent campaigns are a far cry from what’s shown in the film, that hasn’t stopped the right from codifying any actions that might disrupt fossil fuel infrastructure as terrorism. Those taking direct action against fossil fuel infrastructure face increasingly dire punishments. In the U.S., 21 states have enacted bills to further criminalize protests that target “critical infrastructure,” including pipelines. In North Dakota—the epicenter of resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline—“interfering, inhibiting, impeding, or preventing the construction or repair” of such projects is now a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both. Organizations found to have “conspired” in such acts can be made to pay up to $100,000. Activists arrested at a music festival protesting a proposed police training facility in Atlanta—to be built on a razed forest—are being slapped with terrorism charges; one land defender was already killed. Such things are even more common abroad. As political theorist Thea Riofrancos pointed out in her review of Malm’s book, roughly three-quarters of movements against fossil fuel energy projects have taken place outside of the global north, where such interference can carry deadly consequences. Ironically, it’s possible the crackdown on nonviolent protest in the U.S. could strengthen the case for those considering eco-terrorism: If protesting near a pipeline carries a heavy prison sentence, why not just put it out of commission yourself?

In the U.S., especially, the government responding to sabotage by seizing and shuttering fossil fuel infrastructure does not seem more likely than its embarking on an even more brutal wave of repression against protesters. Property destruction, in turn, demands tremendous risks for those involved and promises very little in return. The reception of How to Blow Up a Pipeline the film will probably mirror the book’s—magnified by the fact that more people see movies than read nonfiction. Filmmakers may well be accused of glamorizing, even encouraging, criminal behavior. In the perhaps unlikely event some wave of eco-sabotage materializes, however, it won’t be because someone made a movie. It will happen for the same reasons it does in the film: because some number of people see a yawning gap between what needs to happen and what is happening, and property destruction as a justifiable way to help fill it.

Each new climate science report and extreme weather event puts the dire reality of the climate crisis into sharper focus. Obvious, as well, is what’s needed to ward off runaway catastrophe: a rapid and orderly transition off fossil fuels and the simultaneous buildout of emissions-free alternatives to power a transformed society. That the problem and solution are so painfully clear makes it all the more agonizing that the road to the latter remains so uncertain. Neither the film nor book versions of How to Blow Up a Pipeline posit sabotage as a silver-bullet solution for getting governments to enact adequate climate policy. But nothing else has convinced them to, either.

* This piece has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of director Daniel Goldhaber’s name.