When climate despair spills over into righteous violence, can that ever be right?

27 04 2023 | 08:35Natasha Walter

The new film How to Blow Up a Pipeline raises loudly the question that many protesters are asking quietly: what happens when peaceful climate protest fails? In its sympathetic depiction of a group of climate activists who set out to blow up a huge oil pipeline with homemade explosives, it gives the same answer in fiction that Andreas Malm’s 2021 book of the same name gave in nonfiction: sabotage.

Its UK release could hardly be more timely. As thousands prepare to gather for Extinction Rebellion’s new wave of peaceful protests this weekend, there is a sense of desperation in the air. So much has already been tried – so many marches and choirs, sit-downs and stunts, assemblies and pickets. Yes, we will gather again. Yes, we will paint more placards. Yes, we will sing more songs.

But what happens when the crowds disperse? If the government continues to talk about expanding oil, gas and coal use rather than investing in home insulation; if it continues to pursue the mantra of growth at all costs, even the cost of a stable climate and resilient ecosystems; if all those people who are going out on the streets to call for change see no shift in the direction of travel, what will they do?

What is surprising about Daniel Goldhaber’s film is just how unsurprising it makes the journey of disappointed activists from peaceful campaigning into militancy. Each of the activists in this story starts out on a different path, yet while they may be impelled by rage, love, personal grievance or political conviction, the structure of the film makes their bomb-making retreat in the desert feel like an inevitable destination.Malm’s book, too, made a persuasive argument for the use of sabotage in the climate movement. His view is that while nonviolent protest is often assumed to be the key to success, history teaches that it needs to be embedded in a movement that is prepared to use violence, at least against property, to be effective. He cites various examples, including the women’s suffrage movement, to argue that the peacemakers will not inherit the Earth.

The film feels close at hand, too, because sporadic sabotage against fossil fuel interests is already with us. The recent documentary film, Finite, mainly explored the stories of protesters putting their bodies on the line to protect forests and ponds, but also touched on activists who secretly destroyed equipment at a German coalmine.

Goldhaber’s film was prepared through careful research into those who have taken similar actions, including Jessica Reznicek, who faces an eight-year prison sentence for vandalising the Dakota Access pipeline. Even Extinction Rebellion and related groups in the UK have used very limited, always accountable, destruction of property, such as cracked bank windows or petrol pump screens, while the Tyre Extinguishers secretly sabotage SUVs in cities.It’s hardly unreasonable, then, to suggest that much wider use of much greater violence by much less accountable individuals against much bigger targets could be on its way. But however carefully planned and executed, such a path would be unlikely to turn out to be as straightforward as it is sometimes imagined. If we are to take lessons from the past, we should be honest – history teaches us little that is clear and nothing that is certain about the right direction for the current movement.However much we admire the suffragettes, we shouldn’t forget that their militancy did cause genuine suffering, including injury and deaths of bystanders. For that cause, the end – the simple advance of women’s suffrage – is often seen to justify the means.

The ends of this movement are so much more complex. The most inspiring activists today are not only saying that we should no longer put carbon into the atmosphere; they are also saying that we should build a better world, in which compassionate and regenerative solutions are centred, rather than selfish and destructive ones. That surely makes it even more essential that the behaviour modelled by activists is in line with their desired outcomes.

If there were to be a turn to large-scale sabotage now, the gap between activists and the rest of society would widen. In a world dominated by divisive online debate, we might see any chance of reasoned discussion disappear into those gaps. At a time when activists who throw soup on a glass screen or block a motorway are already called terrorists and murderers on social media, how would the makers of bombs be seen, and how could their arguments be heard?

Even though some of those taking to the streets this weekend may be dogged by a creeping sense of despair, in fact hope has not yet run out for the creative and complicated movement that exists today. Rather than embracing more divisive actions, the activists’ greatest potential still lies in strengthening connections. There is so much energy in the tactics being embraced by the climate movement right now, as activists expand circles of solidarity, working with ever wider networks of organisations and individuals and challenging fossil fuel interests through every peaceful means, from trespass to law to divestment.

While there is still so much to do on so many fronts, more violence against property is far from inevitable. The work in hand is still more about building good things than destroying bad things. If we all come together to do that work – and there is work for everyone – there may never be a need for it




cover photo: Forrest Goodluck in How To Blow Up A Pipeline, which ‘gives the same answer in fiction that Andreas Malm’s 2021 book of the same name gave in nonfiction: sabotage’. Photograph: PR