When Do We Start Blowing Stuff Up?

Andreas Malm asks in his book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, when do we start fighting against climate change with violence? He is quick to emphasize violence means property violence—destroying pipelines, private jets, private super yachts, letting air out of the tires of SUVs. He suggests peaceful protest has gotten us nowhere, that past movements emphasizing nonviolence only actually succeeded when a violent element arose.

He spends time taking us through some of those movements–the suffragettes, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the Indian movement for independence. Today being the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, let me give you a brief example of what Malm means.

He says that King’s adherence to nonviolence was getting the movement nowhere, that nothing would have changed if it hadn’t been for the violence threatened by groups like the Black Panthers. He even says King himself threatened violence. Malm quotes King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Instead of reading it as a fact, a warning of the reality of oppression and its consequences, Malm reads it as King threatening violence and suggests this threat helped push the movement forward. This is a complete misreading in my opinion, which then threw me into doubt about all of his other historical movement analyses. Malm is a well-known Swedish philosopher, and I’m sure not all of what he says about violence is wrong, but from my understanding, saying King himself threatened violence is wrong.

His argument does not rest there, however, he brings in experts who have studied movements:

In the words of Verity Burgmann, ‘the history of social movement activity suggests that reforms are more likely to be achieved when activists behave in extremist, even confrontational ways. Social movements rarely achieve everything they want, but they secure important partial victories’: when one wing, flanking the rising tide in the mainstream, prepares to blow the status quo sky-high.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline, page 50

He also quotes another study of democratic transitions that happened between 1980 and 2010. The researchers found while civilians began demanding change peacefully, in the end, dictators were not overthrown until people got violent and the civic order became so disrupted that the cost of ruling became too great (page 60).

Malm says nonviolent action should always be where movements start, but when it isn’t working, other tactics need to be pursued. He really lays into Extinction Rebellion for their insistence on nonviolence. And I wonder what he thinks about XR’s recent announcement of the group shifting away from nonviolent disruption altogether in order to draw out more people to protests and events where the goal is to be a huge crowd instead of a bunch of people planning on being arrested?

Is Malm right about violence? I don’t know. Nonviolence didn’t stop Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline. Nonviolence has not stopped Germany from leveling a couple villages so a gigantic coal mine can become even bigger. Nonviolence has not stopped wealthy people flying in their private planes. Even Kim Stanley Robinson in his book Ministry for the Future includes a black ops organization that blows stuff up; things don’t start changing in a significant way until the private jets start falling from the sky.

Violence is a tricky thing; once unleashed it is hard to stop. And how do you determine violence with good intentions from violence with bad intentions? For instance, in the United States, there have been a series of attacks on power relay stations. These attacks are not from environmentalists making a point about our fossil fueled power sources and trying to force a faster transition to renewable energy. These attacks are from far-right white supremacists who want to bring down the power grid, hoping the chaos will bring on civil war and the collapse of the government. Can we judge an activist who destroys fossil fuel infrastructure as morally just and a civil war fomenting white suprematist who destroys that same infrastructure as morally wrong? Do we argue self-defense for one and insurrection for the other? I suppose one can make a case, like how murder can be justified in certain circumstances. But it seems rather murky.

To be clear, Malm asserts there are exceptions on what property can be legitimately destroyed:

There is, however, one exception, one type of property destruction that approaches killing and maiming, namely that which hits material conditions for subsistence: poisoning someone’s groundwater, burning down a family’s last remaining grove of olive trees or, for that matter, firebombing a paddy field in an Indian peasant village because it emits methane would come close to a stab in the heart. At the other end of the spectrum is the blasting of a super yacht into smithereens.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline, page 103

So what do we do with the latest study published in Science detailing how Exxon knew all about climate change in the 1970s? What do we do about this year’s COP28 being held in Dubai and the UAE appointing the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company president of the proceedings?

As Malm says,

After the past three decades, there can be no doubt that the ruling classes are constitutionally incapable of responding to the catastrophe in any other way than by expediting it; of their own accord, under their inner compulsion, they can do nothing but burn their way to the end.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline, page 8

The World Economic Forum meeting started today in Davos. These are the wealthy people, businesses, countries, meeting to talk about how to continue to expand their wealth. Oh yes, climate change is on the agenda, but it’s a safe bet they are trying to figure out how to make money off it. The theme of their meeting is “Cooperation in a Fragmented World,” which makes me laugh since the wealthy are quite united, and they are the ones who have caused much of the so-called fragmentation. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, the black ops group held the bigwigs at the Davos conference hostage for a week until they agreed to meet certain demands. Is this the sort of thing the rest of us need to resort to in order to stop humanity from hurtling off the edge of a cliff?

Malm says yes. But I’m wondering what would happen if we came up with the global equivalent of the Montgomery bus boycott? It would not be the same everywhere because, for example, while everyone in the U.S. refusing to buy factory farmed meat would have a huge impact, it would not have any impact in a place like Bangladesh, the least meat consuming country in the world. Their boycott would look different. Hard to organize something like that for sure, but not impossible. What would happen if we refuse, as much as we possibly can, to play the capitalist game? We really don’t have much to lose since we are losing anyway.

And that’s part of Malm’s reasoning for violence too. He is provocative, and while I don’t particularly agree with his argument, I do appreciate him making it because it has urged me to think more deeply. If I refuse to resort to violence, am I being a climate fatalist because it’s “easier, at least for some, 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” (page 143)? “The end of everything” is rather vague. Is everything civilization as we know it in 2023? If so, yeah, I am reconciled to the end of everything. Is everything the end of humanity? No, I’m not reconciled to that. Even qualifying everything with “one holds dear” leaves it wide open. But the point of Malm, I believe, is to think about the question, “At what point do we escalate?” (page 8).

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29 thoughts on “When Do We Start Blowing Stuff Up?

  1. Oh, I’m glad you read this, Stefanie! I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it, and mostly I agree with you.

    I read Malm’s analysis of the Civil Rights movement differently, though. I don’t think he meant that King was threatening to use violence himself or to condone it in his movement, but that the existence of Black Power, the Black Panthers and violence in US cities enabled King to position himself as the moderate alternative. Histories of the Civil Rights movement usually emphasise the non-violent protests and King’s speeches, but the threat of riots and even violent revolution struck real fear into the hearts of the establishment and forced them to listen and agree to King’s more moderate demands. I think Malm’s point is simply that the Civil Rights movement and other historical movements deployed a more diverse set of tactics than is often acknowledged, and having a more radical wing is one way to force policymakers to pay attention to the moderate, mainstream environmental movement, rather than simply ignoring us as they are now.

    But I do agree with you that it’s murky territory, both morally and tactically, and in some cases, violence can backfire and set a cause back. Like you, I’m not fully convinced that blowing up pipelines is the way to go, but if we continue on the current trajectory, I can see a time in the future when there will be no alternative.

    I just hope that non-violent movements can somehow achieve more progress so that it won’t come to that. I agree, a global boycott could work – and another nonviolent option is a global strike. Take inspiration from the kids doing school strikes, have all the adults coming out in solidarity across the world every single Friday in all kinds of industries and sectors. And gradually increase the number of days if the powers that be don’t pay attention. Withdraw our labour and/or our consumption on a mass scale, and I think things could suddenly change very quickly! We have a lot of power collectively if we can just learn how to harness it.

    1. Thanks for your insights Andrew! What you say makes much more sense, but it still felt to me a little like he was saying King was not so much threatening violence, but suggesting that he was keeping the lid on it but he wouldn’t;t be able to keep doing that unless things began to change. Does that make sense?

      Oh yes, a global strike I think would be great. If only all the various groups could somehow connect up and work together to make it happen. Or maybe it would be more like Friday for the Future that starts off small and gradually gains momentum? And what sort of strike would it be? Hmmm…

  2. In my latest letter, I mention that you will likely find more thoughts on this question in Babel. (or I meant to write that, somehow) I *REALLY* think you are going to like Kuang’s book.

  3. I’ve just read someone reviewing Bernadine Evaristo’s Manifesto, in which Evaristo says “The rebel without has become the negotiator within, who understands that we need to sit at the table where the decisions are made, and that enrolling people in conversations is ultimately more effective than shouting at them (satisfying as that can sometimes be).”I think this feeds into this discussion?

    1. Oh yes, definitely feeds the conversation! Though you and I will not get a seat at the table with the rich folk so the question becomes, how do we engage them in that conversation when they completely ignore us? It’s tough one.

  4. Oh, oh! So many comments. Okay. For, I think, 12 semesters I taught The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and in it he argues that the March on Washington was a farce. Why? It started out as a grassroots movement, The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Everyone forgets that last part, “jobs and freedom,” because the whole event became a big come-together, Kumbaya event. As the movement gained momentum, some white leaders got involved and basically removed the teeth from the event. And, as a result, even though we often point to the March as a huge achievement, nothing changed in government. It wasn’t until the public saw videos of police assaulting Black citizens that the public got upset. To be fair, the citizens who were assaulted had been trained by groups like SNCC, who worked with King, to be nonviolent and take abuse without reacting. Malcolm X saw this as a negative, to just stand there and take it. He’s got that famous photo of him looking out the window and holding an assault weapon. However, I’ve never seen any evidence of him being violent (after he got out of prison), but he did talk about it fearlessly.

    Stefanie, I really, really, really think you would love the novel Dietland by Sarai Walker. It actually discusses this topic in relation to sexism and the diet industry, and it’s amazing. I’ve read it three times.

    1. Thanks for the info on Malcolm Melanie! Really interesting. I also find it interesting these days how King has been “white washed” and all his truly radical stances have been quietly ignored. I read John Lewis’s graphic biographies and he talks a lot about how they trained for nonviolence. Regarding the public seeing video of the police assault, it reminds me of Standing Rock. All those indigenous folks peacefully camped out for months but it wasn’t until the police started getting violent and assaulting them and we got to see the video that most people started to care about the keystone pipeline.

      Thanks for the book rec! I put it on my library list marked high priority 🙂

      1. You are so welcome! Another small note: I hadn’t noticed this myself, but when someone pointed out that all the photos of Dr. King are in black in white during a time of color photography, it lulls us into a sense of “this was the LONG AGO past.” The photos are B&W because they were published in newspapers, but there are colorized versions.

        1. Woah Melanie, I never noticed the b&w photo thing and since you mentioned it I have seen it a lot. A color photo of King is not common. So interesting!

  5. I know that in the UK where the suffragettes were very violent they actually delayed women getting the vote by years. The government didn’t want it to look like the suffragettes had won through violence. If they had stuck to the tactics of the non-violent suffragists women would have got the vote sooner. I think when it comes to business though hitting them in the pocket is the way to go.

    1. Interesting about the UK suffragettes Katrina because Malm talks about them and uses them as an example of how property violence worked! Clearly the situation is not as clearcut as Malm asserts. I agree that hitting the rich in the pocket is the way to go. That will definitely get their attention.

  6. I love your “murky” analysis. It’s just too murky for me to ever take part in myself. Even “good” violence – just say we decided that blowing up a power station for what we climate people agree is a “good reason”, what about the risk of collateral damage? Of getting it wrong and some innocent person being killed or maimed. (Too often you see cases of things not going the way they were planned because you never can be sure that what you think is the situation IS the situation, or that people will do exactly what you think they will.) I don’t have the right to sacrifise someone else’s life for a cause I believe in. I just can’t do it. And then, more confusing, is my feeling that no matter how right I believe I am, what right have I to impose my views on others who don’t agree with me. I find this really hard. In my mindset, my worldview, I am right. I can prove it, right, with science, etc. But does that give me the right to force my views on others? It is frustrating though when you know the majority agree with you, but government won’t act effectively.

    That said, like you, I agree that having someone like Malm ask these hard questions is good.

    1. Thanks WG! And you are right regarding the potential for collateral damage. Even just focusing on property destruction as Malm suggests can cause physical harm to innocent bystanders, not to mention the one causing the destruction if something goes wrong or the police show up and start shooting. Violence of any sort seems like a dangerous precedent to me.

  7. I’ve been reading David French’s How to Survive a Plague, about the AIDS crisis, and it’s been interesting and heartbreaking how many different tactics were being tried by so many different people, and it often felt like it was getting them nowhere. But of course the truth is that progress was made, as we now have effective treatments for HIV-positive folks, and PrEP to prevent people from contracting it in the first place; i.e., HIV/AIDS wasn’t a death sentence forever. As discouraging and slow as progress was, and as many people died because of governmental inaction, it was still good to remind myself that there isn’t one answer to these hard questions. I don’t have to reach consensus with Malm, and he doesn’t have to reach consensus with Martin Luther King Jr. We are all working for a better world in the ways that we can, and none of us knows which thing will truly move the needle. Not Malm, and certainly not me.

    (me, writing a book: What is the answer to this vast, important question? Well, it depends.
    all my readers: goddammit.)

  8. I tend towards the “violence is never the answer” theory, myself, but then I thought of spanking. I never spanked my children in the sense of putting a child over my knee and spanking them as a punishment, but I wasn’t consistently non-violent because I occasionally spanked a diapered bottom when a child was about to run into the street or did something dangerous after being told not to. It seemed less of a punishment than a behavioral enforcement. But we’re not in the parental role when it comes to others, so I’m not sure that performing the societal equivalent of spanking (drawing attention to bad behavior) to correct the course of societal behavior when it comes to climate change, is the right idea. But I can see his point!

    1. Laurie, your comment made me think about being in grade school and one or two students misbehaving before the class was supposed to go to lunch or whatever and the teacher saying that we could not go until the misbehaving student(s) did what they were supposed to do. I wonder if societal shaming would be a useful tool? We’d have to refuse to glamorize the rich and their private jets and yachts and lifestyles and start talking about how shameful their consumption is. Could we do it as a society? Not sure, but it might be something to try to work towards.

  9. When I see a mention of Davos now, I think of that Kim Stanley Robinson situation, and maybe that’s an answer in itself–there’s a rhetorical violence in causing people to associate names with nefarious-ness.

  10. I can understand the frustration underlying calls for using violence, but I think what history shows over and over is that violence escalates into worse violence and turns into a vicious cycle. And I very much agree with you and Elizabeth, Malm is really misreading what Dr. King said.

    I think the way forward is for grassroots organizations across the world to work together, and as individuals, as you say, to not participate in the capitalist game as much as possible and advocate for that. That’s what will ultimately really hurt.

    1. Exactly Julé! There’s a reason for the saying “an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” I agree with you regarding everyone working together across the world. It is hard to coordinate and everyone has an opinion, but it’s got to be possible. I mean look at the kids organizing Friday for Future, they are everywhere!

  11. I just don’t feel that Malm is right on his historical data. Many movements have done just fine with no violence and no threats to escalate. King most certainly did NOT threaten, no matter how you want to read that quote from jail. He had plenty of opportunity and resisted even to the point of letting large swaths of his coalition break away.

    I also don’t agree that we can’t hurt the Davos set without violence… or even kidnapping. In fact, it would be better to strike/boycott/hit them in the market than it would to destroy things. As Laila says above, they’ll just buy new stuff. That’s not going to stop anything. It would likely just pass all the hurt on to us.

    I would like to blow up things that I don’t want in the world, but I will never act on that impulse. I don’t know all the consequences, and what I can predict is never the result that I’d like to see.

    But then… I’m sort of a radical ‘harm none’ sort… so maybe my opinions on the subject aren’t relevant. & if you want to slash SUV tires, I fully support your choice. 🙂

    1. Thanks for confirming regarding King Elizabeth! And I agree, there have been plenty of nonviolent success stories. It felt like Malm was picking and choosing and leaving out a whole bunch of stuff. I agree that the way to affect the Davos set is by hitting them in the wallet, so to speak. Sadly, they control so much that we need on the daily, but still, even so, we can hurt them if we had the collective will. I’m with you on the harm none. I am kind of happy XR has decided to focus on mass mobilization because numbers do matter. If a politician sees 10 people protesting on the news they are easy to dismiss, if they see 10,000 that’s not so easy to ignore.

  12. Won’t the rich just keep buying new jets and yachts, thereby exacerbating the problem? Who knows. People can change, but the pace is usually glacial. That’s the problem. Interesting questions to ponder.

    1. You make a very good point Laila! They have the money to just keep buying stuff, not to mention insurance on the stuff, and the power to make sure anyone who is caught will never leave jail for the rest of their life.

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