The Importance of Andreas Malm’s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” (Verso 2021)

In my last blog post I found myself having to acknowledge that I believe that, while the covid-19 pandemic may mask the fact, we are now moving towards a situation of major social conflict in the UK. This is being activated by what, in 2019, the Danish and Swedish intelligences services referred to as the growing likelihood of ‘climate terrorism’, a likelihood that may well grow following the abject failure of governments to address the climate crisis. My reason for reading Malm’s book (something triggered by two recent articles in the London Review of Books), has been to give myself a better sense of the conditions that are leading to that conflict in the hope of better understanding and facing them.

Perhaps the two most striking aspects of the book are as follows. Firstly, the degree to which it confirms that the elite that determines the global status quo of ‘business-as-usual’ has continued, despite all scientific evidence, to increase investment in the very materials and processes destroying the conditions for life on this planet. That elite, aided and abetted  it must be said by major civic institutions like the universities, are clearly determined to milk every last ounce of profit from the toxic global situation regardless of the consequences.

The second aspect is the light the book throws on what I can only call the intellectual dishonesty that underlies the insistence on strict non-violence by those orchestrating movements like Climate Rebellion. (Of which Malm has a good number of apt and pertinent criticisms, particularly with regard to its official statement supporting the group who tried to stop the London Underground at Canning Town). His analysis of historical protest, whether with regard to the abolition of slavery, the Suffragette Movement in the UK, the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, the ANC’s struggle against apartheid in South Africa, or popular uprisings in the Middle East, demonstrates just how far from the historical truth any claim to the superiority of absolute non-violent protest really is. Real change in the past came through popular movements willing to use a combination of non-violent protest and targeted violence – for the most part against property and those directly involved in the repression of protest. 

For me perhaps the most telling of Malm’s arguments for the necessity of a degree of violence in certain circumstances is his account of the actions of the sixty-five year old Mohammed Rafiq, which took place in Norway in August 2019. Rafiq single-handedly disarmed a young man who had entered the mosque with two shotguns and a pistol and had started to shoot into the prayer room. By resorting to a considerable degree of physical violence, Rafiq was able to disarm the young man and prevent a massacre of the kind that took place in Christchurch, killing fifty-one people. In my view the politics of business-as-usual has been, and continues to be, responsible for the death, chronic suffering and destitution of countless more people, not to mention the genocide of whole species of more-than-human beings. Surely only the most fanatical pacifist would object to Rafiq’s actions and it is increasingly clear that, if we genuinely wish to address the mounting levels of death, destitution and environmental destruction caused by business-as-usual, we will need to pay attention to Mohammed Rafiq’s example.

That said, Malm is very clear as to the kind of reaction those prepared to adopt forms of vandalism against the property of those perpetuating the climate crisis equivalent to Rafiq’s action. He quotes Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer, a fossil fuel billionaire and supporter of Donald Trump, as saying that those who are willing to take that step should be ‘removed from the gene pool’. A view that is, I suspect, indicative of the violence the advocates and beneficiaries of ‘business-as-usual’ will happily resort to. The Bill to outlaw disruptive protest proposed by the British Government and referred to in my previous post is, I believe, a first step to legitimising that view.

A certain proportion of Malm’s book is concerned with demonstrating, using examples ranging from letting down the tires of SUVs to blowing up oil pipelines, appropriate forms of vandalism; for example with the former aimed at drawing attention to ‘luxury’ carbon emissions and the latter at disrupting corporation and State enterprises. Importantly, he also makes very clear the distinction between vandalism against property and violence against persons, between what does and does not constitute terrorism, and why we may need, in extremis, to consider the possibility of non-terroristic vandalism to draw attention to the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ of ongoing planetary destruction. He is also very clear indeed as to the disastrous consequences of ‘climate terrorism’ for the whole environmental movement. Given the growing levels of anger and frustration in the UK population, at present largely but not entirely Covid-related, that is an all-important aspect of his position.

One of my concerns in reading this book has been to try and understand why there is such resistance among climate activists to the limited and strategic use of vandalism. Here again, Malm has useful things to say. He understands that far more people are willing to participate in non-violent resistance than will sign up for any kind of violent insurgency, while also pointing out that this is linked to individuals’ considerations around issues of property ownership, race, class and nationality. While he does touch on issues around commitment to non-violence based in the presuppositions of religious or spiritual belief, he does not dwell on this. 

However, I have recently reread the essays in the Nobel-prize-winning poet, essayist and diplomate Octavio Paz’s In Light of India. There he makes some very important and relevant distinctions between the underlying Western political ethos inherited from Christianity and those of the Indian subcontinent. This is significant because Buddhism has been an important influence on the commitment to absolute non-violence with regard to environmental protest. Arguably, however, it might be said that the focus of Buddhist thinking is at odds with what Paz refers to as the goal of political action as understood in the West, namely that of ‘making the world habitable’. Buddhist notions of enlightenment are predicated, after all, on it being ‘a solitary experience’, on the actions of an individual. (A position that might be seen, from a Western perspective, as aligning it, in spiritual form, to the culture of possessive individualism). In raising this possibility of an underlying and unacknowledged convergence, I intend no disrespect to Buddhists or to the positive value of Buddhist influence on environmental protest. I wish only to suggest to readers that we need to be very clear about how presuppositions that may inflect our understanding may flow from a position that sees the world and the self as ultimately empty illusion, and a human being’s highest goal as absolute liberation from both world and self. Being aware of such presuppositions should at the very least remind us that there should be no monopoly by any mindset on how best to conduct our opposition to the increasing toxicity of business-as-usual.

That said, I would also want to keep in mind the example of the 67-year-old Thich Quang Duc who, on June 11, 1963, became one of many Buddhist monks and nuns who have used self-immolation over the centuries for political purposes. (This form of extreme protest is not, however, restricted to Buddhists and examples can also be found across the West and Near East). Significantly, in the Buddhist tradition self-immolation is not regarded as contrary to a commitment to non-violence. 

An account of Thich Quang Duc’s act of protest on a Vietnamese Buddhist web site makes it very clear that he did not immolate himself because he had lost hope in the prospect of change. Rather he is seen as someone very courageous, as hopeful in his aspiration for future good, through sacrificing himself for the sake of others. His aim was not to incite the death of those who oppressed Buddhism in Vietnam, but to facilitate a change of heart that would lead to the secession of intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination. I refer to all this only to remind myself, and readers, of two points. Firstly, that what constitutes non-violence can and should be understood differently in different contexts. Secondly, that we are all, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, always ‘both more and less than the categories that name and divide us’, as the philosopher Geraldine Finn puts it, and that we need to act accordingly.