“We Will Behave Calmly and Carefully”: On the Perils of Strategic Pacifism at the End of the World

Book review of How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm

Andreas Malm, How to Blow Up a Pipeline (New York: Verso, 2021).

How to Blow Up a Pipeline. It’s a bold title. A title that sells books, certainly. And while (spoiler alert) we are not taught how to blow up a pipeline in this 160-page book, Andreas Malm does have some things to say that many climate activists might find explosive.

A Swedish eco-socialist, activist, and historian of our collective trajectory toward ecological collapse, Malm is perhaps best known for writing two weighty historical books called Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, and The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World. In an interview for the LA Review of Books, Malm describes how, after the summer of 2018, when Europe was swept with wave after wave of unprecedented extreme weather, he told his publisher: “I can’t really do this historical stuff any longer.” 1 He felt he needed to write something about right now, something that addressed the extreme emergency of the present moment. Enter: How to Blow up a Pipeline, a compact treatise on the climate movement’s fetishization of pacifism in the face of looming existential threat, and a plea to explore more of our options.

Malm is a powerful storyteller. Though he is largely an academic now, he has a long history of involvement in direct action protesting fossil fuel extraction. Throughout this book, he paints a moving picture of many vibrant mass interventions he has been right in the middle of, from mobilizations outside the first COP summit in 1995, to Extinction Rebellion actions in his hometown of Malmö, to numerous action encampments run by the German climate movement Ende Gelände. While many of the moments he illustrates are clearly cherished memories of his personal history as an activist, Malm’s dissatisfaction is palpable. Something is missing, and he’s ready to get to the bottom of it.

Confronting Lanchester’s Paradox

In 2007, journalist John Lanchester wrote an essay in the London Review of Books called “Warmer, Warmer.” The opening paragraph reads:

It is strange and striking that climate change activists have not committed any acts of terrorism. After all, terrorism is for the individual by far the modern world’s most effective form of political action, and climate change is an issue about which people feel just as strongly as about, say, animal rights. This is especially noticeable when you bear in mind the ease of things like blowing up petrol stations, or vandalising SUVs. In cities, SUVs are loathed by everyone except the people who drive them; and in a city the size of London, a few dozen people could in a short space of time make the ownership of these cars effectively impossible, just by running keys down the side of them, at a cost to the owner of several thousand pounds at a time. Say fifty people vandalising four cars each, every night for a month: six thousand trashed SUVs in a month and the Chelsea tractors would soon be disappearing from our streets. So why don’t these things happen? 2

Malm calls this “Lanchester’s paradox,” which can be summarized as follows: despite the magnitude of what’s at stake, the ubiquity of potential targets, the facility with which acts like this could be carried out, and the widespread knowledge of the problem, why have climate activists not yet turned to sabotage?

To answer this question, Malm explores how the contemporary climate justice movement came to be rigidly committed to the principles of strategic pacifism, which is the belief that transformative wins can only happen when activists commit to one central “action consensus”: that we will commit no violence of any kind, including damaging machines or infrastructure. Strategic pacifism differs from moral pacifism: the latter represents the belief that violence is wrong while the former argues that nonviolence wins.

Malm concedes that this historic commitment to non-violence in the climate justice world has many tactical advantages, both when it comes to recruitment and media representation. Indeed, as it relates to movement-building on a mass scale, there is a strong argument to be made for non-violence: it is the most accessible to the largest number of people. But, he asks: “Can we be sure that [this approach] will suffice against this enemy?” (24). In other words, while non-violence may be a necessary component of a good climate justice strategy, should it be the only component? Years down the road, when we look back at the current wave of climate activism, will we truly be able to say that we’d done all we could?

There are other options, Malm argues. He walks us through a brief historical survey to demonstrate that the idea that “only peaceful activists win” is patently false and ahistorical. “Strategic pacifism,” he says, “is sanitised history, bereft of realistic appraisals of what has happened and what hasn’t, what has worked and what has gone wrong: it is a guide of scant use for a movement with mighty obstacles” (61). He offers many examples—the abolition of slavery and the US civil rights movement, the suffragette movement, the end of apartheid in South Africa—where the wins were won through strategic collaboration between a nonviolent mass movement and a more confrontational radical flank.

Other reviews claim that Malm is saying we should turn away from nonviolent struggle entirely, that only the destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure via a vanguardist sub-movement will solve the problem of climate change. 3 I feel that this is a misrepresentation of his work. Malm is not advocating that we halt or even de-prioritize peaceful mass mobilization. This mode, he says, should always (where possible) be our first resort, because “the festive atmosphere in a square taken over by protesters has more to speak for it and less to scare people away than a mayhem of stone-throwing” (115). But Malm asks: shouldn’t a peaceful mass mobilization have “appendages”? Essentially, he is calling for a diversity of tactics. He is calling for us to be suspicious of tactical conformity.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline revolves around two central questions: 1) Does the climate justice movement possess a radical flank? and 2) Is the “disruptive commotion” that is needed to alter the course of climate change possible without one? That is, can we win without sabotage? From Malm’s perspective, the answer to both questions is no. No, there is not yet a radical flank, and no, we can’t win without one. I’m not a climate activist—my home is in the mining justice movement, which is adjacent but distinct—so I can’t speak to his assessment of whether there is militant activism in the climate movement. But a few things in Malm’s analysis stood out to me as important to anti-capitalist and environmental justice movements more broadly.

Whose Infrastructure?

One of the most evocative stories that Malm tells is about a 2007 project of small-scale targeted disarmament in Östermalm, a wealthy neighbourhood in Stockholm, Sweden. In the middle of the night, for weeks, a group of activists would quietly and systematically render up to 200 SUVs unusable by releasing the air from their tires. Activists left leaflets on the SUV windshields saying: “We have deflated one or more of the tyres on your SUV. Don’t take it personally. It’s your SUV we dislike.” Members of this night-time brigade shared knowledge widely of how exactly to deflate an SUV’s tires without risking the safety of human beings, as a way of mobilizing others to the project. Wealthy people across Stockholm fumed. One counterforce blog popped up, threatening to deflate the lungs of these activists, stating: “The air in my tyres is private property—deflation is an assault on democracy” (83). Sales of Volvo SUVs dropped by 27% in the second half of 2007, when they had been steadily rising in the first half of the year. Lanchester would have been proud.

In telling this story, Malm begins to lay out some thoughts on what we must consider in introducing sabotage to the climate movement’s activist toolkit. Sabotage doesn’t have to be literally explosive. It “can be done softly, even gingerly” (79). What matters most is the choice of target. Malm argues that, for some reason, targeting the physical infrastructure of the rich is an underexplored strategy. Many critiques have been made against the liberal effort to save the world by “greening” the consumption practices of everyday people. But he points to a distinction made by Henry Shue between luxury and subsistence emissions. Poor people generate subsistence emissions because no other alternative exists. Luxury emissions, such as those created by yachts, private planes, multiple mansions, helicopters, and other such extravagances, are generated for no reason other than to flaunt wealth and create ease for the rich on the backs of the poor. Malm understands why activists might be hesitant to engage in property destruction when it comes to infrastructure that, when damaged, could seriously impact the lives of the working class. But, seriously: why has nobody started destroying luxury yachts?

Whose Despair? Whose Violence?

Malm concludes his book with a short chapter on the present trend of “climate fatalism,” wherein some—most publicly, Roy Scranton and Jonathan Franzen—maintain that we are past the point of no return when it comes to climate change, and that we should simply accept our fate. While slightly disconnected thematically from the rest of the book, I found this chapter quite moving. In it, Malm examines the privileged despair of bourgeois thinkers who realize that “they are the problem,” feel bad, and then feel better by deciding there is nothing to be done. He then contrasts this with the particular kind of vanguardist nihilism displayed in works like Deep Green Resistance, which rejects the possibility of mobilizing the masses around ecological issues and encourages people to stop trying, instead focusing on building small groups of “reliable” militants. We must go down neither of these paths, Malm argues. While the possibility of winning at a mass scale is by no means certain, we must hold on to the idea that it is possible.

As an ageing millennial who has been entangled in social movements since I was just a little older than many of the so-called Thunberg generation, climate despair hits me a little differently than I imagine it might for those just awakening to the injustices of our time. I’ve done my share of reckoning with the end of the world as we know it. Given what I know about how capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism work, it’s no surprise to me that the ruling class has fought tooth and nail against every climate change prevention measure that could potentially re-configure the current balance of power and wealth. It’s no surprise to me that we haven’t won yet.

What does keep me up at night, however, is the idea of activists giving up. I hate the idea that we might collectively resign ourselves to the fact of our sure demise before we exhaust all possible strategies. Lanchester’s paradox grips me, just as it does Malm. I, too, would like to know what is stopping us from pursuing tactics outside of strategic pacifism when there are so many options available to us. I, too, want to know: will the fetishization of nonviolence be the end of us?

This question of “why” is ultimately where I think How to Blow Up a Pipeline falls short in its analysis. While Malm does a beautiful job of illustrating the fact of Lanchester’s paradox, and the tactical argument for a radical flank in the climate justice movement, I wish he had spent more time exploring why things are the way they are in our environmental justice movements today. We are back to the question of luxury yachts, and why they haven’t been blown up yet. What is blocking us from militancy? What is keeping us stuck in strategic pacifism?

Malm does nod to a few theories. Can we simply blame things on the widespread demise of revolutionary politics? Is it possible that Americans, specifically, are less likely to riot than the French because the United States is more enveloped by capitalism and thus more organized by an already-violent social formation? Or is it simply that most successful social movements in recent history stemmed from a feeling of ¡Ya basta!, or “enough is enough”? Can we generate the collective militancy we need around a problem that isn’t yet as bad as it will eventually be?

It may be that any mass movement for climate justice will err on the side of centrism due to the range of people involved. If this is the case, then the question of a radical flank is both the explanation and the solution. Fundamentally, the issue here is one of class consciousness. The problem is a general unwillingness to recognize the extremely wealthy as the enemy. Malm says: “It is the rich that drive the emergency, and a climate movement that does not want to eat the rich, with all the hunger of those who struggle to put food on the table, will never hit home” (127). In this equation, the radical flank that Malm argues we need right now is simply “those who dare to speak the name of the enemy” (128). If this is the case, then I don’t need to hear Jonathan Franzen’s take on climate change. Jonathan Franzen is not on my side.

While I am not intimately familiar with the inner workings of the climate justice movement, I have a feeling that Malm is probably missing some activism in his survey of what is out there. While he takes a global view on the impacts of climate change, and on the legacy of militant activism from which we should learn, most of the climate organizing that he covers is European and North American. This is not the full picture. We can also take support from existing work on the question of violence, specifically the question of how violence is defined, by whom, and to what end, which has a long history led by thinkers like Fanon, Mbembe, Gelderloos, Agamben, and others. Malm doesn’t really delve into this conversation, which was an understandable sidestep if the ultimate goal was a short book like this one. But it seems to me that if the problem of strategic pacifism in the climate justice movement is driven by a refusal to acknowledge structural antagonisms, along class lines but also imperial and racial ones, then it’s important to question the definition of violence itself, and this has been done before.

The Extinction Rebellion Action Consensus states that “non-violence is essential” to their campaign but acknowledges that “using non-violence is a privilege that is not available to everybody.” 4 Malm says: “Pacifism has perhaps never existed as a real thing. What exists is the ability, or not, to distinguish between forms of violence” (128).

What will help us get to these understandings of violence? It’s hard for me to believe that the only thing stopping people from turning to sabotage is the absence of a well-written book with a provocative title and a compelling argument. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a beautifully painted portrait of a problem, but it doesn’t offer us a way out. Something is blocking us from escalating our tactics, and until we figure out what that is, we will remain married to a theory of change that limits us in profound ways. The mainstream climate justice movement needs to learn discernment. It needs to learn to tell the difference between the violence of individuals and the violence of the state, of the wealthy, and of corporations. It must abandon its conflation of property damage with violence against living beings. The climate movement needs to decide: whose violence matters more to us, and what is violence, anyway? Then, perhaps, we can begin to talk about what to do with those luxury yachts. *

  1. Wen Stephenson, “No Safe Options: A Conversation with Andreas Malm,” Los Angeles Review of Books, January 5, 2021. ↩︎
  2. John Lanchester, “Warmer, Warmer,” London Review of Books 29, no. 6 (2009) ↩︎
  3. Benjamin Kunkel, “The Climate Case for Property Destruction: Andreas Malm’s ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ Urges Activists to Turn to Tougher Tactics,” The New Republic, May 26, 2021,; Scott W. Stern, “Sabotage Can Be Done Softly: On Andreas Malm’s ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline,’” LA Review of Books, January 5, 2021, ↩︎
  4. Extinction Rebellion. (n.d.). Action Consensus. ↩︎