Would it be possible, then, for the climate justice movement to intervene in the machine room of capitalism? How could a grassroots movement ever become an “investment risk” serious enough to push big polluters to take drastic action?
Walter Benjamin famously described revolution as humanity’s attempt to “activate the emergency brake” in the locomotive of history. His words, written amid the turmoil of World War II, still ring true in times of climate crisis and runaway ecological breakdown.
The train of history seems to have accelerated faster than ever, approaching a variety of planetary limits at great speed. How then do we apply the brake?
Andreas Malm’s timely new book, provocatively titled How to Blow Up a Pipeline, has stirred much needed debate about the best strategy to stop the train. Malm teaches political ecology at the University of Lund (Sweden) and is well known as the author of Fossil Capital and The Progress of this Storm.
Malm delivers the essay in his usual lucid and fiery style, passionately criticising those who believe that time has already run out and that the best option for humanity is to simply start preparing for impending apocalypse. For Malm, this climate fatalism - championed by authors such as Roy Scranton (“Learning to Die in the Anthropocene”) - is a kind of privileged self-pity that can only be afforded by first-class passengers in the Global North.
Large corporations, too, cannot be trusted to act decisively on climate change. Their interest in keeping the train running is simply too big, even at the cost of everyone’s livelihood. As the book shows, there is little incentive to abandon oil fields and other forms of fossil infrastructure (which are often associated with large investments in the first place) in an economic system that primarily valorises profit.
Many large oil corporations (both private and state-owned) are planning to significantly expand their production capacities in the coming years, despite the fact that exploitation of existing oil sources would catapult the world climate north of two degrees centigrade of warming.
The passengers' best chance, then, lies in a public movement that forces states to act responsibly and to set strict limits to the excesses of fossil-fueled capitalism – the climate justice movement. The essay sketches the three waves through which this young movement has already moved: from its very beginnings in the 1990s through the mobilisations around the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, up to the large, more recent demonstrations and climate strikes led by movements such as Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion.
In many ways, these successive waves of activism have succeeded in sensitising the public on the catastrophic impact of climate change. They also helped build up the pressure on international climate negotiators that eventually led to the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015, as well as successive commitments by national and regional governments.
Yet, even the largest climate strikes have had rather little impact on global greenhouse gas emissions, which keep skyrocketing. In other words, the passengers on the train are now better informed than ever and are in agreement that something ought to be done, but the train accelerates nonetheless.
The climate movement has not been able to successfully stop the train’s engine - the daily business of planetary destruction for the sake of private profit. Even on days of large climate strikes, big polluters are able to conduct their toxic business undeterred.
Would it be possible, then, for the climate justice movement to intervene in the machine room of capitalism? How could a grassroots movement ever become an “investment risk” serious enough to push big polluters to take drastic action? Certainly, this would require revisiting some fundamental strategic and moral questions.
Malm’s book recounts the touching story of two Catholic workers, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, who face to up to 110 years in prison for burning small holes into the Dakota Access Pipeline, stalling the construction of the controversial project by many months.
Reznicek and Montoya, like many within the climate movement, had spent years campaigning against the dangerous and untimely pipeline project. Hundreds of petitions, lawsuits, protests and even the large indigenous-lead resistance around Standing Rock had been to no avail, with the pipeline approved by Donald Trump in 2017.
Faced with a project as destructive as the pipeline, sabotage was the only remaining option. No lives were harmed in Reznicek and Montoya’s actions, but their methods abandoned any commitment to the idea that certain boundaries - such as the sanctity of property - ought to be preserved in order to maintain popular support.
Malm calls this position “strategic non-violence”. In his book he offers a detailed reading of the history of social movements, revealing that Reznicek and Montoya are far from alone in trespassing the boundaries of non-violence in the struggle for climate justice.
In fact, most social mass movements that achieved significant social changes throughout the past centuries have increased the stakes by taking up more radical strategies. As Malm shows, this certainly applies to the suffragette movement in Britain, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa or the civil rights movement in the Unted States.
In this instance, the book is specifically read as a reply to the founders of Extinction Rebellion, who have used precisely these examples to make a case for their strategic pacifism. At the same time, the readers are cautioned that embracing a theory of the radical flank does not mean condoning actionism for its own sake. The book spares no criticism of notorious environmental groups such as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), which widely acted in isolation and lacked sufficient grounding in a mass movement.
As the essay argues, the situation is different for today’s climate justice movement, which has shown great patience in making its case and which has already brought millions of people out onto the streets. Malm argues that the vanguard of the coming climate justice revolution may be found in climate camps which channels public support into experimenting with more radical forms of action, such as the yearly occupation of coal mines by the Ende Gelaende coalition in Germany.
Unfortunately, however, the book only briefly glosses the fact that socio-ecological struggles in the Global South have developed a sophisticated repertoire of radical strategies for targeting fossil fuel infrastructure.
Situated at the nexus of colonialism, capitalism and ecology, these struggles point to a very different lineage of movements, from apartheid South Africa to India’s coal belt, from Egypt to the Niger Delta in Nigeria.
Malm is certainly not the first author to attest a demise of revolutionary politics in the Global South. But events such as the shutting down of oil pumps and highways by Indian farmers in recent protests, and ongoing Indigenous anti-pipeline and land rights protests around the world, are important reminders that we have much to learn from global histories of struggle.
In the end, this reminder only confirms the book’s main provocation, which is likely to haunt many of us in the coming decade: after years of inconclusive negotiations, when is it finally time to seize the machine room?
Elias Köenig is a philosophy student at the Free University of Berlin. His research is in non-Western environmental philosophy.