Luca Richardson reviews Andreas Malm's new book on climate protest and activism in the face of an escalating crisis. He finds a timely intervention in climate movement thinking that questions what it means for actions to be 'proportional' to the catastrophe at hand, and argues for a greater diversity in climate protest tactics.
'You do not disorganise a society with such an agenda if you are not determined from the very start to smash every obstacle encountered.'
Frantz Fanon, 1961
In the 1950s and 60s, a Martinican psychiatrist and anticolonial militant named Frantz Fanon wrote about the social and mental condition of colonized peoples around the world. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon argued how the violent situation of imperial rule would shape the character of the colonized people’s liberation movements. In the midst of blossoming decolonial movements, he proposed to activists and intellectuals new, more open ways of relating to strategy and political action. Like Fanon in the 1960s, climate researcher and activist Andreas Malm today contributes new ideas regarding strategy and subjectivity to the social movement he is involved in. He too thinks it is time to start smashing obstacles.
He too thinks it is time to start smashing obstacles
Malm’s new book How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a timely intervention in climate movement thinking. Identifying a concrete political problem to be overcome, HTBUAP analyses the history and dynamics of social movements with the intention of bolstering a climate movement that has so far been 'gentle and mild.; Malm offers a historical rebuttal of pacifism, proposing a more open strategy that includes counteroffensive tactics of sabotage and property destruction. As the subtitle Learning to Fight in a World on Fire suggests, Malm’s book is about discovering the actions proportional to the catastrophe at hand.
Malm’s personal stories of activism throughout HTBUAP relate his commitment to the climate movement. This new book works through the tensions that hold back a movement capable of abolishing the fossil fuel economy. The premise for this book is the observation that most climate activists believe in strategic nonviolence. Malm examines a paradoxical situation: despite the scale of emissions and pollution, property-destroying sabotage campaigns have been largely avoided by climate activists. He asks: '[w]hen do we conclude that the time has come to also try something different?' It certainly seems like that time is near. Despite the swelling of their ranks, activists have faced continuous investment in fossil fuel energy production—in 2018, two-thirds of investment in new energy production still went to fossil fuels. Polluting infrastructures continue to expand, and 'the climate movement has made no dent in these spiralling curves.' Capital sees no risk and fears no losses in fossil fuel investments—given current climate movement strategy.
This new book works through the tensions that hold back a movement capable of abolishing the fossil fuel economy
Having examined a real mismatch between the continued development of the fossil fuel industry and climate movement response, Malm turns his attention to the basis of the widespread acceptance of strategic pacifism. Most big European and North American climate organizations today profess a historically-informed commitment to non-violence. Extinction Rebellion, for example, claims that 'the social science is totally clear'  on the efficacy of non-violence versus violence. HTBUAP challenges this claim. As Malm lucidly argues, every successful social movement in the past 300 years has included in its tactical arsenal sabotage and the destruction of private property, from the anti-slavery struggle, to the suffragette, anticolonial, US civil rights, and anti-apartheid movements.
With vivid historical examples—see the firey destruction of London in March 1912 at the hands of the suffragettes, or the apartheid oppositionist Umkhonto we Sizwe’s sabotage of South African energy infrastructure in the 1960s—and polemical clarity, Malm proposes a deeper historical understanding of social movements. What is especially useful in his counter-history is an analysis of social movement composition (the different groups and individuals that make up a social movement). Malm focuses on the role of the 'radical flank,' the militant component of a movement capable of acting as a catalyst for scaling up struggles and building power for the wider movement.
In HTBUAP’s second chapter, Malm puts forward his concrete proposal for the climate movement:
For a start: announce and enforce the prohibition [of all new CO2-emitting devices]. Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.
This, according to Malm, will be key to both discouraging fossil investment and tearing down the 'facade of durability' that so plagues the climate fatalist’s imagination. Fanon, and not Ghandi, is whom the climate movement now needs to turn to, according to Malm.
Malm assures us of the technical feasibility of fossil fuel sabotage with reference to indigenous, anticolonial and antiauthoritarian movements across the Global South. He then advances a further proposal: to begin by sabotaging the 'low-hanging fruit' of luxury emissions of the rich, providing the hammer with which to shatter the vitrine of eternal and worsening capitalist relations to nature. His focus on the consumption of the rich is tenuous, however. While it is undoubtedly true that climate activists need to start pointing out enemies and obstacles, calling for individual consumption-targeting may divert attention away from the more important struggles over collective organization. Behind individual consumption lie collective social problems like concrete infrastructures and economic 'laws' that shape the possibilities for current individual choices. The climate movement in my view must set its sights on these targets, above all.
His focus on the consumption of the rich is tenuous, however... calling for individual consumption-targeting may divert attention away from the more important struggles over collective organization
Malm makes it clear in HTBUAP that his vision of militant sabotage would prepare meticulously to avoid casualties and go after strategic polluting targets only. Malm acknowledges throughout his book that peaceful mass action will remain the most widely used tactic. However, he advocates for a 'diversity and plurality of tactics,' including property destruction. It is easy to agree with Malm that we are likely to see a 'tendency of the receptivity [of property violence] to rise in a rapidly warming world; anything else would be to presume a species-wide death wish.' After all, the current environmental situation is itself already violent.
In closing HTBUAP, Malm refutes the despair and fatalism of several prominent climate writers. In his discussion of climate fatalism surfaces a useful way to think about political action. 'To act politically is to reject probability assessment as a ground for action (since it could inspire no action),' muses Malm. Intervening in the business-as-usual accumulation of emissions is a fight, one that requires that we get together and decide to take things into our own hands. The peer-reviewed literature agrees that the effects of cumulative pollution are still very mitigatable, per Malm. Political action will just require us to attack the conditions that make it easier 'to imagine learning to die than learning to fight, to reconcile oneself to the end of everything one holds dear than to consider some militant resistance.'
When the violence of climate change cannot be as clearly pinpointed as the relation between a victim and a murderer, it is up to climate activists to seize disasters as opportunities
In a conversation with It’s Freezing in LA! Malm explained how important it will be for climate activists to begin to politicize the ambient 'natural' disaster unfolding everywhere. Referring to the storming of a police precinct following the murder of George Floyd and the following wave of popular support across the US and internationally (some estimates point to the summer’s Black Lives Matter movement being the largest social movement in American history), Malm points to how a 'Minneapolis moment' could really catalyse a new progressive dynamic within the movement against climate change. When the violence of climate change cannot be as clearly pinpointed as the relation between a victim and a murderer, it is up to climate activists to seize disasters as opportunities to articulate the connections between fossil fuel emissions and misery. In other words, it’s time for us to make the weather political.
HTBUAP will be a refreshing and provoking read for any participant in the climate movement, especially for those frustrated with the present lack of political change. Malm’s case for a more open and situationally aware strategy for the fight against fossil fuels holds up, and deserves to be read widely by all those thinking about and organising to postpone the end of the world.
1. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of The Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963).
2. Roger Hallam, “The Civil Resistance Model” in This is Not a Drill- An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, ed. Extinction Rebellion (London: Penguin, 2019).