Book Reviews Reviews

Sabotage, Survival, and SUVs: An Interview with Andreas Malm

On January 22, I met with Andreas Malm over Zoom to discuss his book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which was recently made available in the US by Verso books. We discussed the unique challenges faced by the movement against climate change, the history and power of strategic violence, and what the future might hold for those taking up the fight against fossil fuels.

Sarah Swackhamer: Hello! My name is Sarah, and I’m here on behalf of Houston Review of Books today with Andreas Malm to talk about his newest book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World On Fire. So, welcome, Andreas!

Andreas Malm: Thank you so much Sarah!

SS: Thank you! So just to provide our listeners with a little brief biography, Andreas Malm is a lecturer of human ecology at Lund University. He is the author of The Progress of This Storm and Fossil Capital, as well as Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. He has a forthcoming book about the impact of the far right on the climate crisis called White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Dangers of Fossil Fascism. And today, as I said, he’s here with us to have a conversation about his most recent book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline. I know, as you’ve said in some other interviews, this book is not actually an instructional manual on how to blow up a pipeline. So for our audience who might not have read the book yet, how would you describe it, what’s your elevator pitch?

AM: My elevator pitch… Well, it’s a book that asks the question, when do we in the climate movement and our allies step up and escalate and take the next step beyond absolutely peaceful and gentle and fairly timid disobedience, into things like property destruction and sabotage. And it’s an argument against what I consider to be a pretty dogmatic pacifism that has become predominant in the climate movement in Europe, it’s primarily articulated by Extinction Rebellion, but clearly you find it in the US as well with very important climate intellectuals and activists like Bill McKibben espousing a very strict rejection of anything like property destruction or anything that can be defined as violent in any sense. And I argue that the time has come to ask if we in the climate movement really should abstain from these other types of tactics, that I would say have proved quite useful in social movements. And the one big social movement that has really been shaking things up since I wrote my book is obviously the Movement for Black Lives in the US, where, as in so many other cases, property destruction and partly millitant confrontation with the police forces have been an integral part of the movement from the first days after the murder of George Floyd. We should perhaps go into that in more detail in some other context in here, but I think that the lesson from BLM in 2020 is that a social movement needs to have a diversity of tactics, where the overwhelming majority of the participants will stay completely peaceful, but there will be a radical flank that is prepared to go a step further. Something like that. 

SS: Right, and I’m glad you brought up the Movement for Black Lives, which is definitely something I’d like to talk about a little bit later within the interview, in the context of your book. But before we get into my questions about the book, I wanted to start off with something a little bit more personal, if that’s okay. You’re currently talking to us from parental leave; so congratulations on the birth of your child!

AM: Thank you. 

SS: And I would like to ask, how do you think that your experience of family and parenthood has impacted or even motivated your engagement with the climate justice movement, both as an academic and as an activist?

AM: To be honest, I’m not sure it has had that big of an impact, because my oldest child is now six years old, but I’ve been active in the climate movement for far longer than that. So, although my kind of activism nowadays is –  I’m not an organizer in any way, I join actions when I can, apart from that I’m more of an armchair activist these days, writing things, and being a teacher, and stuff like that. But having kids, of course, increases your awareness of how thoroughly, how fundamentally, and how much for the worse the planet is changing, and you always carry that insight with you when you’re with children. Enjoying the snow, for instance, which is becoming increasingly rare in our part of Sweden. But I don’t think it has changed me that very much, to be honest. 

SS: Alright, so moving on to some questions I have about the first section of your book. 

AM: Yeah. 

SS: This section, you talk a lot about learning from past struggles, and here you start unpacking ideas of pacifism and nonviolence, sort of deconstructing this mythology of a sort that we’ve created around them. And as you mentioned earlier, you cite XR, and talk about how they did their own sort of analysis of the history of social movements and concluded for themselves that nonviolence and strategic pacifism are the ways to get what you want, essentially. But you kind of go on to complicate this idea by looking at the same movements and pointing out the ways that most of them actually did use violence, either directly or indirectly. And I would definitely consider myself as something of an amateur when it comes to history – so I was quite surprised by many of the examples you provided. Like the suffragette movement: I was quite surprised to find it was a lot more violent than I had thought, with you even citing a quote from Emmaline Pankhurst, saying that “to be militant in some form, or other, is a moral obligation.” And I found this quite striking and powerful in the context of your argument. But you also show how many pacifist perspectives kind of have this continued ignorance and silencing of things like this, as nonviolence kind of becomes a fetish that is disconnected from historical fact. So, I’m very curious to know how you think it is that we got to this point where we are so disconnected from historical truth, where people like me can be so surprised by the facts that you present; so, why do you think we have this selective memory when it comes to violence and insurrection of the past? 

AM: Fundamentally because social movements, socialist movements, and antiracist movements, and feminist movements, and the broader working class, are today much weaker – with exceptions that I will come to soon – but generally much weaker than they were up until the 1980s when really the decline of working class politics and associated progressive movements set in for real. In the 1970s, this very selective memory was impossible to maintain because then radical, including militant, social movements were very much alive. But in 2019 when the climate movement reached its historical peak so far, the legacy of decades – even centuries – of radical social struggle had to a large extent fallen into – how shall I put it – been forgotten, more or less. At that point, it was possible for intellectuals in the climate movement to make an argument that many found convincing, namely that all important analogies for the climate struggle, such as the suffragette movement that you mentioned, the civil rights movement in the US, the movement against slavery in the US, anticolonial movements, movements against dictatorships that have been successful, all of it, according to this sweeping narrative, were successful because it was based on nonviolence. And it’s very easy to show that this is not true, it’s not an accurate picture of what actually happened in any of those cases. And it also has to do with the specifics of the climate movement because that movement, which I identify with myself, and particularly the European climate movement because I live in Europe – Northern Europe – that movement still is predominantly of a – I mean, the leadership at least, in the movement, is still predominantly from a white middle class background. And a white middle class background that hasn’t so far gone beyond its class standpoint, if you see what I mean. There are other very vibrant social movements in the Global North in our historical moment that have another approach to these issues, including BLM and the Yellow Vests in France, which was one of the more important social movements in Europe over the past years. So I wouldn’t say that this strategic pacifism is dominant in all social movements, clearly not, not even in the Global North, but it has become very dominant in the climate movement. 

SS: And, just touching on that a little bit more, as you say within the climate movement we have this specific tendency towards nonviolence that kind of outstrips that of other movements. And within this section of your book, you start to talk about the fact that, as you say, “the historical victory of capital and the ruination of the planet are one and the same thing.” So tying this idea of private property to the destruction of the environment. How do you think that makes action, and particularly violent action, within the climate movement, something that’s challenging or complicated compared with other movements? 

AM: Ah, yeah. I’m not exactly sure how to think about this. But – you mean my argument that the capitalist victory or class power and the destruction of the planet are one and the same thing – yeah. The climate movement is departing from a point of weakness, in many respects. Partly because in the Global North, there is no self-evident subject of the climate struggle in the sense that the self-evident subject of the struggle against racist police brutality in the US is African American people, or that the spontaneously formed subject of class struggle in European history was the working class, and more particularly the industrial working class or that the obvious subject of the struggle against the occupation of Palestine is the Palstinian people. The climate movement in Europe has spent years or even decades trying to fill that vacuum with a subject that has yet to solidify and be formed into a concrete social force, if you see what I mean – a collective body of some kind. But that also has to do precisely with the fact that the moment we live in is one characterized by absolute victory of the neoliberal version of capitalism, as against all historical challengers, ranging from the communist movement to social democracy, there is very little of anything of that left in Europe – speaking from my own horizon – and that means that it is very difficult to overcome the constraints of this historical moment and try to find social muscle to combat the enormously powerful interests in sustaining business as usual. I don’t know if that makes sense, but something along those lines. 

SS: No, it definitely makes sense. And I think that really speaks to the unique challenges of the climate movement because it’s opposing so much more than just fossil fuels, it’s what those fossil fuels represent and empower, which you talk about a lot within the book. And something else that you just mentioned that we had spoken of at the beginning of the interview was kind of the whiteness of the climate movement in Europe, and kind of juxtaposing that with the diversity of the Movement for Black Lives, both in the people fighting for them and for the tactics that are used. And also, as I mentioned earlier, I understand you have a forthcoming book White Skin, Black Fuel that is kind of more directly addressing this impact of white supremacy and far-right politics on the climate movement. And I think those dynamics that you’re speaking of within that book are really important to acknowledge when we talk about climate change, and I want to take a moment to put them in conversation with the topics you bring up in How to Blow Up a Pipeline. I think many people within the climate movement have this unhealthy tendency to collapse the struggles of climate change – kind of placing everyone under the same banner by saying, listen, we all breathe the same air, so this is all of our problem, right. And I appreciate that in your book you kind of challenge that idea both in your examination of the unequal impacts of climate change and your criticism of XR specifically and their tactics that are often quite blind to race and racism. To extend those ideas a little bit, when we think about this willingness to get arrested or to put ourselves at risk for that, we certainly need to acknowledge that privilege and power plays a role; and when we think about intergenerational injustice – as you do in the book through Greta Thunberg – we must also think about the injustices that have been faced by indigenous people and people of color with respect to the environment, certainly. So that’s something that I was thinking about a lot while reading your book, and I’m not sure how much are able to talk about your new book but I wanted to ask – 

AM: No, I’m very happy to talk about it. 

SS: Perfect! So I wanted to ask specifically, as you’ve been working on that book, which is so explicitly about racism and white privilege, how if at all has your perspective on the interplay of these things with the ideas you talk about in How to Blow Up a Pipeline changed or deepened?

AM: Let me just start by responding to some of the tactical questions at stake here – and you are entirely correct in pointing out that the idea of us in the climate movement almost begging to be arrested – that’s been the strategy of the XR – and banking on it, counting on being arrested, and doing nothing to evade arrest, that’s not a strategy that’s embraced by all the climate movement, far from it, the one that I have worked with mostly, the movement against coal mining in Germany, Ende Gelände, has had a completely different approach to the police. But this is one that has been used by XR and I believe climate groups in the US as well. And many, in 2019, pointed out that this approach to the police was impossible for racialized people in Europe who would never trust the police to treat them with any kind of respect. And therefore there was a lot of critique from people of color in the UK in particular against XR. And I believe that after the experience of 2020 with BLM, that approach to the police is stone dead. If or when XR resumes its activities after the pandemic on a wide scale, and I hope they do, they won’t be able to love the police and ask to be arrested as they did in 2019 unless they really want to set themselves apart as a completely white movement. And I think there is some revision and rethinking going on in XR because the critics of that tactic in 2019 were so completely vindicated by what happened in 2020. And the sort of love for the police that XR displayed, as in giving flowers to the police and telling the police “we’re doing this for you as well, we’re all breathing the same air and living on the same planet” and things like that, it won’t work in the long run. And that approach just has to be ditched if we want the climate movement in Europe to get a little bit of color and not stay inside a guild of white middle class people. 

Now, as for this other book, White Skin, Black Fuel, that’s a much more massive book than this How to Blow Up a Pipeline pamphlet or short brief intervention, and it’s one that I haven’t written myself, but together with the Zetkin Collective, which is a group of 20 scholars, students, activists looking on the political ecologies of the far right. And what we’ve done is we’ve looked at 13 countries in Europe plus the US and Brazil. And the dominant theme or trend that we’ve studied here is for the far right, in country after country – so it’s not only the US, it’s not only the Republicans or even Donald Trump, it’s in country after country – denies the climate crisis, its very existence, and chauvinistically defends and advances fossil fuel combustion. So, the key country in Europe, because it’s by far the largest emitter and it’s the powerhouse of the European economy, is Germany. And there you have the first successful far-right party since 1945, doubling the AFD – the Alternative For Germany – doubling down on climate denial and even redefining itself in late 2019 as not primarily a party against immigration but one against climate politics. But these things obviously go hand in hand. So we have a lot of different interpretations and speculations and hypotheses in that book, but the key trend – and I think this very much goes to the far right in the US as well, and in Brazil and in most of Europe – is for the far right to be the most aggressive and the staunchest defender of business as usual. And our argument at one point in the book, we spend quite a lot of time on this, is that there is a historical root going back into the 19th century where the production of modern racism and the large-scale combustion of fossil fuels became interlaced. And that the far right is the contemporary manifestation of this interweaving of race and energy that you can see throughout the history of the expansion of the fossil economy from Britain and outwards in the world in the 19th century and beyond. But there is a lot more to say about this clearly. But I should say, to get back to the tactical issue, this book – White Skin, Black Fuel – doesn’t deal in any elaborate fashion with the climate movement and what needs to be done, but we say towards the end that it’s absolutely critical to combine – to find a way to fuse – the climate struggle and the antifascist and antiracist struggles because in every key European country – and I think this holds in the US as well and Brazil as well – progress on the climate front requires the defeat of the far right. There is no way that we can make progress on the climate front without pushing back the forces of white supremacy and organized racism. And I stress this, because I think this is a key point: this is not an American problem exclusively. We see exactly the same trends in Europe. 

SS: Great, thank you so much for giving a little preview of that. It sounds really interesting, I’m very excited to read it when it comes out. And speaking a little more of what you just brought up, of kind of this sinister perpetuation of business as usual; I want to return to the second section of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, where you talk about “Breaking the Spell,” and more specifically how we can use strategic violence within the climate movement to create change. And in this section, you share an anecdote about your own history of committing acts of sabotage, specifically when you helped to deflate the tires of SUVs in the wealthy neighborhood of Östermalm in Stockholm. So, I’m specifically interested here in the way you narrate those experiences because you talk about kind of doing that sabotage “gingerly,” “tenderly,” and “softly.” And these are not necessarily terms that most of us would typically associate with violence and vandalism, right? So why do you think that the idea of “gentle sabotage” is important, or what is unique to you about that idea?

AM: Sabotage can take so many different forms, and I’m not even sure that what we did could be classified as sabotage. It’s almost like a prank. What we did – although we did it systematically and on a large scale – was that we inserted pieces of gravel into the valves of SUVs in rich neighborhoods and thereby deflated the tires, and that meant that the owners of the SUVs would have to fill up their tires to be able to drive wherever they wanted to drive, but the cars were not damaged, they weren’t destroyed or anything like that. They were just temporarily disabled. I don’t even know if that counts as sabotage. But it’s sabotage at the very softest end of the spectrum. And then you have other kinds of sabotage: for instance, the kind of sabotage that was employed by the Catholic Workers that I described – Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya – where they actually did destroy equipment, set it on fire, and destroyed the Dakota Access Pipeline while it was under construction. Which is more of a high profile form of sabotage and more destructive to the material property. But again – not to any human life in any sense. They didn’t do any harm to any human body and were obviously extremely careful about not doing that, and I think that’s an important principle to abide by when you consider and potentially execute sabotage or property destruction targeted against fossil fuel infrastructure. So, insofar as I advocate violence in my book, it’s violence against property and it’s classified as violence only following the majority position among philosophers that this falls under the definition of violence. There are some people who would say – including those Catholic Workers – that destroying things doesn’t even count as violence because no human is harmed. But most philosophers would say that if you storm a police station and burn it down, that counts as a form of violence by definition, which I would say is a completely legitimate and defensible form of violence in the context of the BLM protests for instance. The equivalent for the climate movement would be to go into a power plant or coal mine or some other installation of absolutely unjustifiable fossil fuel production and combustion and take it out of operation by some kind of physical damage to that property. And I actually think it’s a matter of time before we will see that happen. Because we know that the crisis of global heating will get worse, there’s no way that it won’t. Even if all emissions were to stop tomorrow, which is quite an unlikely prospect, we’d see the after-effects of the emissions already made. And the more likely scenario that we face is that with continued emissions in the years ahead, we will see even more impacts from the climate emergency and they will be worse. And sooner or later, people will react with greater fury than what we did in 2019. The alternative to that fury is resignation and despair, and I hope that won’t be the outcome. 

SS: Right, and you talk about this a lot, actually, in the final section of your book, which is called “Fighting Despair,” where you kind of come to terms with this idea of “climate fatalism” that other academics and intellectuals have proposed. And so my final question is kind of concerning that idea and your refutation of it; so you talk about the importance of imagination of hope when we’re confronting and moving past fatalism, and you bring up the idea that the idea that the fight is never lost as long as we are here living in the world and suffering the consequences of climate change. And in fact as climate change becomes more urgent, the capacity to fight back against it only becomes more dire and more urgent as well. This is an idea that really resonated with me and that I think is really important to leave us with as readers. So I just wanted to ask you, how are you able to maintain hope and imagination and find the motivation to continue on with your efforts when – as you say – things can seem quite overwhelming and even hopeless when it comes to fighting climate change?

AM: Well, for me the best antidote to despair is collective action. So when I go to climate camps, and do actions with Ende Gelände or similar groups, that’s when I get an injection to keep going, and that injection lasts for some time, or the effect of it lasts for some time, and then you’re back to your isolation, and following the latest news and scientific reports, and it’s very easy to relapse into something like despair. But you need to take regular injections – as frequently as possible – of collective action to stay sane and to see that we can actually change things. This doesn’t have to be collective action related to the climate only, to repeat myself, because the climate movement was completely on hold in 2020 due to how it dealt with the pandemic. It’s been in paralysis since the pandemic broke out, which is very tragic, because all the momentum we had built up in 2019 was completely lost and eradicated. But the big movement that shook 2020 up was BLM, and the original eruption that really broke the paralysis there as I viewed it from my horizon was the uprising in Minneapolis that included the storming of the police station in the 3rd precinct. And that really showed that the police in the US, with its systematic violence, is not a force beyond our influence – we can actually go in and take over police property and break it up and destroy it! Systematic police violence isn’t a natural fate that we just have to resign ourselves to. And I think this is why the very radical and militant actions in Minneapolis early on catalyzed the largest social movement in US history on some counts with anything from 15 to 25 million people participating in demonstrations. Now, what the climate movement needs is a similar moment that breaks the paralysis. Because if there’s any question that induces despair and paralysis in people it’s the climate question, with the feeling that fossil fuel infrastructure is something that just happens, it’s beyond our influence, beyond our control, it’s our fate. And the natural reaction to that is just despair and passivity and anxiety and fear about the future and all.The only way to break that paralysis as I see it is to try to take over fossil fuel infrastructure and shut it down. This doesn’t have to be done violently, we know that from movements like Ende Gelände and from, of course, all the indigenous protests in North America that have closed pipelines not the least in Canada in 2020. These are the kinds of action that give us hope that we can actually overcome the inertia of fossil fuel infrastructure by taking it into our own hands and shutting it down. Yeah, I see that as the main alternative to despair. 

SS: Yeah, and what you said reminds me of something that I heard from an indigenous activist who I heard speak a few years ago, and she said that “taking action isn’t just about saving the planet but also a way of saving ourselves,” which I think is really powerful and really important, so thank you for sharing that, and thank you for being with us today; that was my last question. 

AM: Thank you so much, Sarah. 
SS: We’ve been speaking with Andreas Malm, you can buy his new book, How to Blow up a Pipeline, from Verso Books.

Sarah Swackhamer is an undergraduate student from Rice University studying English and Environmental Studies. 

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