Can a righteous resistance ever cross the line?

Activist Andreas Malm urges sabotage as a way to save the planet

Sabotage, in French and in English, indicates the act of deliberately destroying or damaging property. It's an apparatus that aims at weakening an enemy or oppressor through means such as subversion and obstruction. It is a tool that, we are told, has been adopted by French workers as a substitute for strikes, but sabotage doesn't limit itself only to workplaces. Its literature survey connotes that it occurs within a variety of contexts -- in wars, political and social campaigns, or socio-economic programmes that effect someone's livelihood. In all cases, however, the intent of sabotage is analogous -- to use extreme civil disobedience to inflict damage upon goods or properties in order to serve a particular purpose or higher goal. The end justifies the means, according to the saboteurs.

"When we revolt it's not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe."

- Frantz Fanon, 1961

How To Blow Up A Pipeline, a radical environmental manifesto, places sabotage at the centre of argument. Written passionately and in a stirring manner, Andreas Malm (Fossil Capital 2016) delivers his essay by sketching from the onset that despite the fact climate movements have been organising for longer than two decades, there has been no concrete impact on the global emission of greenhouse gases, which keeps climbing expeditiously. This is because regular and big polluters can still go on doing their businesses without interruption. Can a climate movement activist justifiably obstruct this profit-ridden capitalist system? Malm asks and finds himself an argumentative answer that she can. Her only device is radical action -- to sabotage a project as cataclysmic as the pipeline.

Malm's slim manifesto is divided into three consecutive parts.

Part One elucidates the three phases of climate change activism. Begun in the mid 1990s in northern Europe up to the mobilisations for the Climate Summit in Copenhagen, the first phase saw massive "climate camps" -- activists' "tent cities" near power plants, airports or financial districts escalated. But the financial and international banking crisis of 2008 ended this phase abruptly.

The second phase, to Malm, was found in the United States after the Obama administration failed to deliver the cap-and-trade legislation and went on to approve new pipeline projects. Thousands of activists took to the streets to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline. One such protest, a historic act of civil disobedience outside the White House in August 2011, resulted in the arrest of more than 1,200 activists. Obama vetoed the pipeline in November 2015 -- acknowledging its pervasive threats to life and ecosystem. Then, immediately after taking office, Donald Trump reapproved the plan. He signed an executive order to advance Keystone XL (as well as the Dakota Access Pipeline), ending Malm's second phase of activism.

The third phase, according to Malm, was visualised when a 15-year-old Greta Thunberg sat down in front of the Swedish Parliament and declared a school strike for climate change. Her image symbolised the act of resistance that "touched a nerve in her generation". Soon, millions of students around the world started to go on strike between 2018 and 2019. Thunberg went on to warn world leaders at the UN in 2019 that young people would never forgive climate passivity, but several months later, the world plunged into a plague crisis. The ramifications of Covid-19 paused this third phase of activism.

However, although these three phases impelled activism to a social impact, Malm argues that capitalists "knew what sources to bank on". He writes that in 2018, two-thirds of capital placed in projects for generating energy went to oil, gas and coal, while only one-third went to wind and Sun, and "the amount of money flowing into 'upstream' oil and gas, meaning infrastructure for delivery of those fuels from under the ground, grew by 6% -- year on year. The fire reignited itself anew".

The tenet of argument then moves on to strategic pacifism, a stance popular among climate activists, which suggests "violence committed by social movements always takes them further from their goal". Malm argues this to be ahistorical and goes on to review the world histories of sabotage in lengthy measure. From slavery abolition, to suffragette's movement, to Gandhian ahimsa, and to apartheid South Africa, Malm argues that the civic actions associated with these historic events were inseparable from obstruction, force and property destruction. He asks provocatively "would slavery have ended without the slaves and their allies fighting back?", and muses Emmeline Pankhurst's dictum "To be militant in some form, or other, is a moral obligation" and questions whether climate activists should take a step further to include physical force. Throughout the book, however, Malm is careful to highlight that sabotage should avoid taking life, and he believes that if destroying fences is an act of violence, it is violence of the sweetest kind.

Part Two of the manifesto deals with the actuality of how to blow the pipelines. Again, Malm offers history of global activisms. He writes: "In part of Kurdistan under Turkish control and in Chechnya, Assam and Colombia, where leftist guerillas had pierced a key pipeline so frequently that it became known as 'the flute'. " In South Africa, the white state set up the company Sasol to be its energy producer in the 1960s. During the freedom struggle in 1980s, MK (Umkhonto weSizwe), an armed wing of the African National Congress, targeted Sasol. In June 1980, its militants cut holes in the security fences of two hydrogenation facilities and planted mines in their tanks. Its operation lasted three days, the smoke fume could be seen far in the sky. It "shattered the myth of white invulnerability … Sasol was a symbol of power".

Likewise, during 1936, when the Palestinians rose in a strike as a symbol of anti-colonialism, their action also revolved around a pipeline. Throughout a three-year-uprising, Palestinian militants set the pipeline on fire, "bands of five or six would dig into the soil, expose the pipe, break it and throw in flaming rags wrapped around stones". The British colonisers were forced to close the line time and again. Over in Nigeria, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta launched a series of guerrilla attacks against oil corporations in late 2005, after their non-violent movement had been stymied by the business-as-usual approach of the corporates. In India, the Naxalites bombarded transportations of fuel and operated a no-go zone, prohibiting investors to pursue new investments, "shaving off one-fourth of the country's coal output".

The last part of the manifesto sees Malm argue passionately about climate fatalism -- the approach that inscribes climate crisis as predetermined and therefore inevitable, and as a consequence, we therefore should accept that our lives are already doomed. Rebutting against those who write in this stance, such as Roy Scranton and Jonathan Franzen, Malm argues that it may be too late to avert climate crisis, but it is far from too late to ameliorate suffering. What activists should do is enforce the prohibition and damage the infrastructure of new CO2-emitting devices. "Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, and blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed." Malm also evinces that climate fatalists tend to be energy consumers or hamburger flippers who reside luxuriously in the Global North so they take the stance not to resist -- learn to fall gracefully instead of action, in other words.

How To Blow Up A Pipeline may not be a book for everyone. To accept violence -- whether it takes a form of life or not -- is a serious moral and ethical philosophical issue that probably needs further debate and discussion, something of which a manifesto of some 160 pages may not be able to do justice. However, the passion, the historical research, and the plea to fight in order to maintain life shouldn't be overlooked. They have an understated elegance. It is as Malm writes convincingly that "as long as humans are around, resistance is the path to survival in all weathers". Read, and keep the book on your shelf, because the storm is yet to subside.

  • How To Blow Up A Pipeline: Learning To Fight In A World On Fire
  • Andreas Malm
  • London: Verso
  • 161pp
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