International climate diplomacy is hopeless, the author of How to Blow Up a Pipeline has said, as the film adaptation of the radical environmentalist book is released.
As activists around the world take increasingly desperate actions against destructive projects, Andreas Malm told the Guardian he had not “a shred of hope” elites were prepared to take the urgent action needed to avert catastrophic climate change.
“If we let the dominant classes take care of this problem, they’re going to drive at top speed into absolute inferno,” Malm said. “Nothing suggests that they have any capacity of doing anything else of their own accord because of how enmeshed they are with the process of capital accumulation.
“And the Cops [Conference of the parties climate summits] are the ultimate proof of this. Yes, there’s more intention to them, but the Cops themselves have degenerated into kind of an annual theatre for pretending that we’re doing something about global warming while, in fact, we’re just letting fuel be poured on the fire.”
Published at the beginning of 2021, How to Blow Up a Pipeline sent shock waves through the climate movement, less than a year after the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns brought an abrupt end to its biggest ever mass mobilisation.
From 2018 onwards, Extinction Rebellion and the climate strike movement brought tens of thousands on to the streets. But even as public opinion swung behind their calls for radical change, emissions and investments in fossil fuels continued to grow.
The problem, said Malm, was their absolute commitment to non-violent civil disobedience – the most stringent rule of XR, in particular – which left fossil capital nothing to fear from public opinion in bourgeois states where “capitalist property has the status of the ultimate sacred realm”.
Instead of disruptive protests and mass rallies, Malm called for a campaign of sabotage of fossil fuel infrastructure, to break the taboo against targeting property. Or, he contended in one of the book’s epigrams, “property will cost us the earth”.
“I think the reason for the sort of success of the book is not that the book itself has such amazing qualities,” Malm told the Guardian. “It’s because it happened to come out precisely at the moment when the climate movement was starting to think along these lines.”
Since its publication, experiments have begun, starting gently and becoming ever more radical. Over the past year, across Europe and North America, in a campaign directly inspired by Malm, climate activists have gone on night-time raids in their cities’ wealthier districts, pushing lentils into the tyre valves of SUVs to deflate them by morning.
Since then, things have accelerated. In Cambridge, England, clandestine activists have graffitied and smashed the windows of buildings linked to fossil fuel extraction companies. In Hampshire, others sabotaged the site of construction of a new pipeline to siphon jet fuel from Portsmouth to London’s airports.
In Lutzerath, Germany, protesters in overalls recently fought riot police trying to clear a condemned village for the expansion of an opencast mine, which was needed to supply the dirty coal to keep power stations burning to feed industries starved of energy from embargoed Russian coal.
But the most exciting development in environmental protest, says Malm, has been in France, where activists under the banner of Les Soulèvements de la Terre have begun sabotage campaigns against environmentally destructive targets. Last month, thousands fought with police in Sainte-Soline in western France, in an attempt to sabotage a new mega-project to harvest groundwater for industrial agriculture.
“The scale of that clash and protest puts everything else in the shade when it comes to radical tactics in the UK or Germany or anything like that,” Malm said. “It’s so many people doing so radical things.”
But Malm does not believe a new cycle of climate activism has begun. “My maybe too optimistic take on that would be that we are in between waves, in between cycles, because at no point since 2019 have we yet come back to the numbers and the scale of activity that we saw in that year,” he said.
The movement’s suspension of activities during Covid was “in retrospect a mistake … a political error”, said Malm. “Since then, there’s been an attempt to kind of regain the momentum. But that attempt hasn’t worked. We haven’t come anywhere near to the momentum that we had in late 2019.
“What has happened since then is that you’ve had a diversification of the movement, and in a sense kind of fragmentation, with the UK being one case with XR continuing to produce these offshoots, Insulate Britain, Just Stop Oil, these various groups more or less masterminded by Roger Hallam.
“And it’s similar in Germany, where you have the Last Generation playing a sort of analogous role, and, you know, different groups of committed activists trying out different kinds of tactics.”
Any new cycle would have to match the numbers of 2019 – but it would also have to contain a new more radical edge, said Malm. “And what’s going on right now is that you have an accumulation of experience, where people in the movement are learning how to do things in a more radical way. And sort of, you know, building up a bank of skills and thoughts about more militant kinds of tactics.”
Just Stop Oil initially appeared to promise the kind of new approach Malm had argued for. When they began their campaign in spring last year, supporters told the Guardian they intended to move from civil disobedience, the kinds of disruptive protests carried out by XR and its offshoot Insulate Britain, and into “civil resistance”.
“What that means is stopping pointing out what the government should or shouldn’t be doing [and instead] actively stopping the government doing what they shouldn’t be,” they said, in a direct echo of Malm’s rhetoric – rhetoric he, in turn, had directly quoted from no less radical a figure than Ulrike Meinhof: “Protest is when I say I don’t like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don’t like.”
The campaign had begun with an audacious effort to paralyse the supply of fossil fuels to south-east England. But Malm was critical of an apparent turn since then towards symbolic protest, of a kind exemplified by protesters hurling tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the National Gallery in London, and most recently by an action in which an activist threw orange powder paint on a snooker table.
Now in France, Les Soulèvements de la Terre have developed the tactic of the climate camp first invented in the UK and fully elaborated in Germany with Ende Gelände, the German movement against coalmining, and combined it with the longstanding Gallic tradition of political struggle and confrontation.
“Les Soulèvements de la Terre really has as its tactical agenda to engage in sabotage,” said Malm. “That was the purpose of this action, that they wanted to sabotage this water reservoir, which they have done on previous occasions,” he said.
“So yeah, that’s a sign of these ideas catching on; I do not take any personal credit for it whatsoever. It grows organically out of the concrete political situation on the ground, and of course, a very deep French tradition – I mean, the very word sabotage comes from French.”
The popularity of his book catapulted Malm, an associate professor of human ecology at the University of Lund in Sweden, to movement stardom.
He is as surprised as anyone that such radical ideas have become mainstream. The very fact of the funding, filming and release of the How to Blow Up a Pipeline movie, a tense and tightly made thriller, suggests a radical change in public attitudes towards potentially violent activism.
“Things have shifted, in the sense that, if you know something about the climate crisis, you know that the situation is extremely dire,” he said. “And that gives you a kind of sympathy for the idea that some people might want to take things into their own hands, or at least a measure of understanding of the frustration. And that, I mean, that’s feeling is going mainstream. And I think this is what the film is showing as well.
“Clearly, not everyone is blowing up pipelines – I don’t know if anyone is doing it. But the idea that the big crime is to build a pipeline, and not potentially blow it up – that idea has a very broad appeal.”