Andreas Malm, How to Blow Up a Pipeline

 It’s hardly the Anarchist’s Cookbook, that amazing and inspiring trove of forbidden knowledge that circulated as a kind of samizdat all around the world for so many years before the internet. Naturally, you have to expect that a mass-market paperback entitled How to Blow Up a Pipeline isn’t going to offer practical instruction about blowing up pipelines.

But I’m guessing I’m not the only person disappointed, almost viscerally so, that Andreas Malm offers only the barest clues about direct action in How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire.

Still, if you’re in the market for a discussion of the ideology behind direct action, you could do much worse than this book.

In essence, Malm’s thesis is that nonviolent action has only worked in very limited circumstances, and that tales of nonviolent success are only ever mythic, rigged to obscure the precise methods that led to social change.

In many ways Malm’s go-to example are the suffragettes, who in Britain didn’t simply write letters and stand holding signs: they burned mailboxes and buildings, smashed windows and streetlights, and “setting upon statues and paintings with hammers and axes” (p.41). When one considers the amount of power behind the fossil-fuel industry, and the sociopolitical realms arrayed in its defense, how can one seriously expect success from actions LESS violent than those of the suffragettes?

The green world and clear views of Canada’s west coast: view from Mt. Tolmie toward the Olympic Peninsula, during the 2020 wildfire season

(I love, incidentally, Malm’s catty quotation of literary scholar and would-be eco-guru Timothy Morton, with something of an explication afterward: “OMG, I am the destruction. I’m part of it and I’m in it and I’m on it. It’s an aesthetic experience, I’m inside it, I’m involved, I’m implicated” (qtd., p.151). When I hear academics start talking Morton at conferences, I regret it, and I look for alternative paths that might let these goodhearted people exceed the shallow flash that Morton excels at. It’s always a relief to find a fellow traveller, and in this respect, absolutely I’m on Malm’s side.)

Anyway, Malm’s overall argument is that decades of nonviolent action, particularly strategic pacifism, have only allowed the fossil-fuel industry to build society in its preferred image. Enough Gandhi, he says at the book’s end, or at least enough of the mythic “Gandhi”: Malm proposes that the time must be coming soon for someone who understands Frantz Fanon, who wrote in The Wretched of the Earth that violence can at times be a “cleansing force.”

Am I on Malm’s side in this respect, as I am when he writes about relative fatalists like Timothy Morton? Certainly I share Malm’s reading of past allegedly nonviolent movements, whose violence against persons and property has generally been suppressed in subsequent myth-making. On the other hand, I really respect Chris Turner and Rebecca Solnit, both of whom have focused in their recent work on hope, not despair, on positive systemic change rather than the breaking of social structures.

Maybe it’s as simple as saying that I might be the wrong reader for Malm at this point. His historical examples and his philosophizing is exactly what I’ve been trained to obsess over and dwell on. While I’ve enjoyed his book (and enjoyed thinking about the book throughout the three-plus weeks since first finishing it), How to Blow Up a Pipeline hasn’t equipped me in the least to actually blow up a pipeline. Indeed, it’s given me everything I need to remain intellectually disengaged from direct action, thus leaving the risks and dangers to everyone else.

Maybe the subtitle should have had the word “why” inserted, as in Learning WHY to Fight in a World on Fire. The thing is, I already know why the fight needs to be joined by all of us. What I need is to figure out the right roles for me to play in the struggle, and Malm didn’t help me personally with that.

Let me be clear: I won’t be blowing up any pipelines anytime soon.

But reading Malm, it’s hard to imagine a future where pipelines don’t start getting blown up, pierced, or otherwise obstructed.

It’s a worthwhile read, as long as you know what you’re getting into.

(Cross-posted from my Substack: long story.)


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