“What Does Effective Activism Look Like?”

Even if companies and governments will not be convinced to do what is right solely through peaceful protest, Malm insists that this is not the end of the story: there is always more we can do.

There’s no time like the dog days of summer for reading, watching, and listening to the archives of what you already know you enjoy. Recently, I was digging through the archives of a person I admire—Jia Tolentino, staff writer at the New Yorker and one of the most popular millennial authors of the era, best known for her reporting on feminism, youth culture, and the Internet—and found a podcast on which she had been a guest. On this episode of “All Ears with Abigail Disney” from September 2021, Tolentino recommended a book by Andreas Malm called How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire. Despite being an overall fan of Tolentino’s writing, one of my qualms with her is that she often ascribes the root of societal evils to global capitalism and leaves it at that, without offering her own solutions; yet, I’ve come to realize that one of her strengths lies in pointing her readers towards bigger thinkers and problem solvers than herself. She did precisely this with her recommendation of How to Blow Up a Pipeline.

Though I discovered the book through Tolentino, it would have already been familiar to anyone who keeps up with publications by Verso Books, a leftist publishing house headquartered in London. How to Blow Up a Pipeline was published in 2021 and is one of Malm’s five books published by Verso. Malm is a Swedish activist, author, and professor who teaches human ecology at Lund University. His other nonfiction books on global capitalism and fossil fuel infrastructure include Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (2016), Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century (2020), and White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism (2021). How to Blow Up A Pipeline is a slim text—my copy clocks in at just under two hundred pages—but its pages are packed with information and a compelling, even radicalizing, argument about the future of climate activism.

Malm begins the book by providing a brief history of climate activism, which he divides into three waves. He argues that the large-scale climate activism in Europe spilled over into the U.S. in the mid-to-late 2010s, as evidenced by the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline, and culminated in the September 2019 climate strikes (which occurred globally). However, the swelling power of this movement abruptly halted when the COVID-19 pandemic caused worldwide lockdowns. In this book, then, Malm intends to redirect the thinking around climate activism as the world reemerges from lockdown.

Given increasing investment in fossil fuels, and the failure of the Green New Deal in the U.S., how does Malm suggest that we propel climate activism to the height of effectiveness? Put simply, he advocates an escalation of tactics in response to the escalation of the climate crisis. He points to social movements in the past—the suffragettes in Britain, civil rights in the U.S. for black Americans, a variety of countries toppling dictatorships—and insists that climate activism, which has almost exclusively been nonviolent, needs to adopt more extreme strategies, primarily the destruction of property (not violence against human beings). He argues that historically, these other movements were successful because their radical, occasionally violent wings encouraged the government to negotiate with the centrist wings of the movements in order to avoid further societal collapse, and that climate activism ought to follow suit. Malm does not ask that the climate justice movement completely abandon its nonviolent bent; rather, he believes that it must add other methods to its arsenal to accomplish its goals.

Reading this text, I was reminded of Sarah Schulman’s 2021 nonfiction book, Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993. Schulman’s book is different in that it is an oral history (and much longer than Malm’s!), and Malm’s is more of a political manifesto, but both concern themselves with how tactical maneuvers can make a social movement successful. In Let the Record Show, Schulman outlines the many strategies ACT UP used to achieve the demands of the AIDS movement in New York, and how ACT UP was largely successful through this matching of method to specific goals. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, though not in direct conversation with Let the Record Show, seeks to apply the lessons from ACT UP, specifically that of property destruction, in order to increase climate activism’s effectiveness. Both texts prove extraordinarily useful to those of us on the left as we watch the counterculture wane and international politics lurch rightwards.

Aside from climate justice, what relevance does How to Blow Up A Pipeline hold to other social movements in the U.S.? The Black Lives Matter protests saw the most looting and destruction of property that Americans had witnessed in a protest in a long time. It’s difficult to accurately assess if this was helpful or a hindrance to the movement; certainly, many Democrats like Eric Adams, mayor of New York City, have campaigned successfully by appealing to the police and “law and order”, but it’s also true that “antiracism” has become a bedrock buzzword in thousands of companies and organizations nationwide. Culturally, there has been a major shift in the way we think about racism following the Black Lives Matter movement. Perhaps Malm also offers us a framework to think about women’s rights and feminism in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade as well; indeed, many of the examples Malm gives of effective violent protest are from the suffragette movement in Britain. Even if companies and governments will not be convinced to do what is right solely through peaceful protest, Malm insists that this is not the end of the story: there is always more we can do.



Kena Chavva

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