Careful Now

Should we blow up pipelines?

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 28th April 2023

There’s a fundamental principle that should apply to every conflict. Don’t urge others to do what you are not prepared to do yourself. How many wars would be fought if the presidents or prime ministers who declared them were obliged to lead their troops into battle?

I can see why How to Blow Up a Pipeline, the book by Andreas Malm which has inspired a new film with the same title, has captured imaginations. It offers a lively and persuasive retelling of the history of popular protest, showing how violence and sabotage have been essential components of most large and successful transformations, many of which have been mischaracterised by modern campaigners as entirely peaceful.

Malm shows how violence was a crucial component of the campaigns against slavery, imperial rule in India, apartheid and Britain’s poll tax, of the demand for women’s suffrage and even of the famously “peaceful” revolutions in Iran and Egypt. He argues that by ruling out violence and sabotage, those of us who seek to defend the habitable planet are fighting with our hands tied behind our backs. He urges us to develop a “radical flank”, prepared to demolish, burn, blow up or use “any other means necessary” against “CO2-emitting property”.

It’s essential that we know these histories. Malm forces us to confront questions of strategy and to justify or reject those we have chosen. No one can deny that current campaigns have failed: capital’s assaults on the living planet have only accelerated. Nor can we deny that, as he says, we have been too “placid and composed” or that the climate crisis is insufficiently politicised. Should we, as he urges, begin a campaign of violent attacks on the industrial economy? While his case is compelling, I feel something is missing.

Malm’s strongest comparisons are with the heroic struggles of women’s rights and civil rights activists, anti-slavery, independence, anti-apartheid and economic justice campaigners. These movements directly confronted massive powers. Their outcomes were, in most cases, binary. Either the British Raj persisted or it didn’t. Either women would get the vote or they wouldn’t. Either there was a poll tax or there wasn’t.

But the revolt against environmental collapse is a revolt against the entire system. To prevent the destruction of the habitable planet, every aspect of our economic lives has to change.

Malm reduces our task to “the struggle against fossil fuels”. But fossil fuels are just one of the drivers of climate breakdown, albeit the largest, and climate breakdown is just one aspect of Earth systems breakdown. You could take out all the obvious targets –pipelines, refineries, coalmines, planes, SUVs – and discover that we are still committed to extinction. For example, even if greenhouse gases from every other sector were eliminated today, by 2100 current models of food production alone would bust the entire carbon budget two or three times over, if we want to avoid more than 1.5C of global heating.

Soil degradation, freshwater depletion, ocean dysbiosis, habitat destruction, pesticides and other synthetic chemicals might each be comparable in scale and impact to climate breakdown. Only one Earth system may need to go down to take others with it, causing cascading collapse. In other words, in this struggle we are contesting not only fossil capital and the governments that support it. We are fighting against all capital and, perhaps, most of the people it employs.

Our demands are – and have to be – more complex than any that have gone before. While I believe that taking out pipelines, refineries, abattoirs, coal plants and SUVs is morally justified, do we really imagine we can bring down the Earth-eating machine this way? Can we really hope that government, industry, oligarchs and those they employ or influence will conclude, “Because we cannot tolerate the sabotage, we will surrender the economic system?” If you are holding a virtual gun to someone’s head, you need to know exactly what you are demanding and whether they can deliver it.

The world has not stood still while we ponder these questions. Governments and corporations are now equipped with greatly increased surveillance and detection powers. If sabotage escalates beyond the mild actions Malm has taken (letting down the tyres of SUVs with mung beans, helping to breach two fences), not many people will get away with it. Some will face decades in prison. Just last week, two climate campaigners in the UK were jailed for between two and three years merely for occupying a bridge. Are we comfortable with goading other people – mostly young people – to step over the brink?

In the US, we see the growing paramilitarisation of politics. It cannot be long before far-right militias there, already committed to armed vigilantism, evolve into death squads on the Colombian model. As soon as they perceive a violent threat to the capital they defend, they will respond with greater violence of their own. Fascism has been famously described asa counter-revolution against a revolution that never took place”. You don’t have to succeed in generating a new movement committed to a campaign of violence to create a monster much bigger than you are: a monster that will close down the last chance of saving Earth systems. If you are going to take a physical shot at capitalism, you had better not miss.

I cannot say that Malm is wrong, and that non-violent action is more likely to succeed. After all, none of us have been here before. But if you are pushing other people towards decades in prison while risking a backlash that would close down the last possibility of success, you need to be pretty confident that the strategy will work. I have no such confidence.

My own belief is that our best hope is to precipitate a social tipping: widening the concentric circles of those committed to systemic change until a critical threshold is reached, that flips the status quo. Observational and experimental evidence suggests the threshold is roughly 25% of the population. I find it hard to see how this could happen if we simultaneously engage in violent conflict with those we seek to swing. But I concede that our chances are diminishing, regardless of strategy.

In the meantime, I will support people who have already committed coherent and targeted acts of sabotage in defence of the living planet that do not endanger human life. But I won’t encourage anyone to do so, because I’m not prepared to do it myself. This, at least, is one clear line in a world where everything is blurred.