In a World on Fire, Is Nonviolence Still an Option?
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” John F. Kennedy, March 13, 1962
Over the past few years, advocates of nonviolence (such as myself) have been losing the debate in the climate movement. After decades of a well-funded and organized movement that has tried every nonviolent strategy, yet failed to pressure power structures away from the path of climate catastrophe, the promise of nonviolent success rests mainly on faith.
Adding to the lack of efficacy is a startling rise in draconian consequences for peaceful activism, including dozens of states that have proposed laws legalizing vehicular homicide of activists marching on a public street. As proponents of nonviolence are increasingly ridiculed as “peace police” and booed out of movement spaces, Kennedy’s warning grows more urgent.
These dynamics should ensure a warm welcome to Andreas Malm’s new book with the incendiary (but somewhat misleading) title How To Blow Up a Pipeline. It is not in fact a manual, but rather a treatise inviting the climate movement to widespread sabotage and property destruction, and it is surprisingly compelling. Malm avoids the grandiosity and testosterone that often saturate calls for violence, and instead offers a humble and nuanced case for how sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure and machinery might be “synergetic and complementary” to a movement largely centered around nonviolent mass mobilization. As a climate movement insider who protested outside COP1 in 1995, Malm has a balanced critique of the climate movement and sees great hope in groups like Germany’s Ende Gelände. But his primary critique is that the movement’s incredible and historically unprecedented commitment to nonviolence is no longer strategic.
Malm spends mercifully little time on the usual activist culture debate about what is or is not violent. Instead he takes a nuanced but common sense approach to the ethics of violence. He acknowledges that property destruction is violence, but says it’s “different in kind from the violence that hits a human (or an animal) in the face.” This is obvious to most people, and one of the refreshing things about Malm is that he doesn’t downplay the importance of navigating popular sentiment while engaging in drastic direct action. He repeatedly emphasizes the virtue of “collective self-discipline,” and he acknowledges the tricky tightrope between pushing the boundaries of public sentiment and a level of backlash that undermines the whole movement. He dismisses the “fever dreams” of Deep Green Resistance and their misanthropic ilk, and instead argues that “Intelligent sabotage … should be explainable and acceptable to enough numbers in some places, and if not today, then surely after a little more of this breakdown.”
Most climate movement leaders would agree with Malm’s unequivocal position that “It would be catastrophic for the movement if any part of it used terrorism.” But the most significant oversight of the book is that Malm offers no explanation of how to avoid association with a rogue act of violence against humans if a sizable portion of the movement were to abandon the commitment to nonviolence. At least in the American context, it seems profoundly irresponsible to discuss violence without discussing infiltration and provocateurs at the same time. The climate movement is awash in undercover private, federal, and local law enforcement agents trying to provoke acts that can credibly be claimed as terrorism precisely because they (or their employers) know how catastrophic it would be for the movement. Our best defense against them has been a culture morally and strategically committed to nonviolence, which serves to identify and isolate provocateurs. If the current bright line of nonviolence is dropped, an equally absolute line between property and life would have to be drawn clearly enough that provocateurs could not entice anyone to cross it.
The most important factor for Malm is that campaigns of property destruction be tied to class struggle. Malm, whose previous book Fossil Capital is an essential history of the connection between capitalism and fossil fuels, writes passionately about how the rich are both the drivers of the climate crisis and cruelly indifferent to its deadly consequences. His six-point analysis of why luxury emissions are the most strategic and symbolically important target is so compelling that it’s hard to read this book without daydreaming about sabotaging the private jets of the ultra-rich. Malm’s strongest criticism of existing climate activism is his argument that direct action group Extinction Rebellion willfully disregards class and race issues. He writes, “Look at it which way you will, from the angle of investment, production, or consumption, 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.”
One of Malm’s most important contributions in the book is not his case for violence but his argument for action of any sort.
Malm’s anti-capitalist lens provides a particularly enlightening contrast of American and French social receptivity to movement violence. He points out that American culture is far more accepting of deadly violence from guns or the state, but the French have a much higher tolerance for property destruction by social movements than the American public. He suggests that the difference is the absoluteness of capitalist dominance in the United States. Of course, this prizing of property over life is one of the root causes of the climate crisis and must be challenged as part of the culture change necessary for survival. That makes movement-based sabotage or violence riskier here, but perhaps more necessary. At the heart of Malm’s case is the way sabotage can have not just a direct but a symbolic impact on the work of culture change.
One of Malm’s most important contributions in the book is not his case for violence but his argument for action of any sort. His final chapter is a rebuttal of the naysayers of collective activism, such as Jonathan Franzen and Roy Scranton, and he is adamant that activism still makes sense no matter how late the stage of the climate crisis. This is a timely offering to climate action, as the “brief window to act” narrative has become a worn out trope that undermines the credibility of the climate movement and fundamentally misunderstands the current nature of the crisis. Malm argues that even if we have passed the point of preventing runaway climate disruption, action in defense of life only becomes more imperative as we move further down the long road of collapse. He emphatically states, “Until business-as-usual is a distant memory, as long as humans are around, resistance is the path to survival in all weathers; it didn’t become passé in 2009 and it won’t do so in 2029.”
For me personally, this is where Malm’s invitation might live, in the file marked “Don’t Give Up.” On those days when everything feels futile and hopeless, and our police state and sick society seem too powerful to even challenge, I can remind myself: There’s always sabotage …