A radical antidote to climate despair

In a burning world, How To Blow Up a Pipeline argues peaceful protest is not enough.

Environmentalists demonstrate at the Hambach lignite open pit mine near Elsdorf, western Germany
Environmentalists demonstrate at the Hambach lignite open pit mine near Elsdorf, western Germany, on November 5, 2017, during a protest against fossil-based energies like coal [File: Sascha Schuermann/AFP]

Fossil fuels are a time bomb, and humans are entitled to stop them. That is the argument of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a book by Andreas Malm calling for activist groups like Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion to adopt radical tactics against the fossil fuel industry, including property damage. As COP27 enters its second week, greenwashing is rife, protest is limited, and fossil fuel emissions are still rising. After over a quarter-century of UN-sponsored talking, Malm argues it is time for people to take action into their own hands.

In this episode: 

  • Andreas Malm, author of How to Blow Up a Pipeline and professor at Lund University

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Full episode transcript:

This transcript was created using AI. It’s been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions, our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net. 

Halla Mohieddeen: Another year. Another climate conference. Another slew of dire warnings.

Antonio Guterres: We are on a highway to climate hell, with our foot still on the accelerator.

Al Gore: The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Climate change is the apartheid of our times.”

Halla Mohieddeen: Yet emissions are still rising, and of the nearly 200 countries that pledged to improve their emissions targets last year, before this COP only 24 countries had actually done it.

Now, this year’s COP features even more oil and gas lobbyists than the year before. What’s hardly featuring is protest. This year, the restrictions in Egypt are tight.

Newsreel: Approved demonstrations are only allowed during working hours and in a specific purpose built area.

Halla Mohieddeen: As despair over climate breakdown grows, activists are increasingly turning to civil disobedience, and some people are calling for destruction – including Andreas Malm, author of the book, How to Blow up a Pipeline.

Andreas Malm: If you are locked in a house on fire, you have a right to break some windows to get out.

Halla Mohieddeen: I’m Halla Mohieddeen and this is The Take.


Protesters: What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now! If we don’t get it, shut it down. If we don’t get it, shut it down. If we don’t get it, shut it down. Woo woo.

Protester: We have tried with marches, we have tried with petitions. They have not listened to us. This has to be the next step, and we need to take opportunity of the very small window that we have.

Environmentalists march past a giant bucket-wheel excavator of the Hambach lignite open pit mine near Elsdorf, western Germany, on November 5, 2017, during a protest against fossil-based energies like coal.
Environmentalists march past a giant bucket-wheel excavator of the Hambach lignite open pit mine near Elsdorf, western Germany, on November 5, 2017, during a protest against fossil-based energies like coal. [Sascha Schuermann/AFP]


Halla Mohieddeen: Whether it’s taking on petrol stations, paintings, or private planes, direct action has drawn more attention than any COP. So I’m talking to Andreas Malm to understand what’s become a new front for climate activism. He’s written multiple books on the climate crisis, and he’s a professor of human ecology at Lund University in Sweden.

Halla Mohieddeen: Let’s cut to the chase then. Your book is called How to Blow Up a Pipeline. What is it about? I mean, is it an instruction manual?

Andreas Malm: No, it’s not, and that’s probably the most common criticism I’ve received. It doesn’t actually teach us how to blow up a pipeline. No, the title is somewhat metaphorical and perhaps a little bit provocative. It’s about what tactics the climate movement should use, and if perhaps the time has come to consider more militant forms of action than what we’ve used so far, including sabotage and property destruction.

Halla Mohieddeen: Well, before we talk about blowing up pipelines, let’s talk about COP. You protested at the very first COP back in 1995. Fast forward to today, we are being told that we’re nowhere near where we need to be to avoid destruction on a scale humans have never known. Do you think these COPs are just a waste of time then?

Andreas Malm: Well, yeah, that’s what they’ve been so far. That’s what they’ve proved to be, because emissions have just continued to rise and COPs have done nothing to limit them. So yes, it’s fundamentally a way to sustain an illusion, but it’s hard to envision any kind of agreement about this in another context in the United Nations. What needs to be changed fundamentally is the balance of forces worldwide, between the vested interests of business as usual and all of us who want to change this catastrophic trajectory that we’re on.


Halla Mohieddeen: Now, Andreas, you spend a fair amount of time discussing groups like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future, which have been considered pretty radical. But you say these groups actually have a quite limited view of civil disobedience.

Andreas Malm: Yes. Well, the idea that was very prominent back in 2019, and to an extent still is in the climate movement, that you can change society only by using absolutely peaceful methods.

Halla Mohieddeen: This is Roger Hallam, a UK co-founder of the Extinction Rebellion climate movement, also known as XR.

Roger Hallam: It’s not like, not saying the people that use violence are bad or good. That’s neither here nor there. What we’re saying is it doesn’t work, right?

Andreas Malm: That idea rests on a very skewed reading, I would say misreading, of the historical evidence about how social movements tend to work and what makes them successful.

Halla Mohieddeen: Just to be clear, what is it that you’re advocating for? And perhaps also, what are you not advocating for? Because to criticise a group like Extinction Rebellion for only having peaceful means could sound like you’re advocating violence.

Andreas Malm: The point is not so much to criticise what XR has done, but to question the doctrine that the only thing that the climate movement can ever do is absolutely peaceful civil disobedience. I am advocating for going beyond that, into destroying the machines that are destroying this planet, as a matter of self defence, and even more, defence of other people. I’m against any idea of the climate movement using violence against individuals – say, I don’t know, assassinating fossil fuel executives or something like that. And I don’t know anyone in the climate movement who is actually even considering that. The discussion is, should we diversify into targeting the machines, the dead things, the inanimate objects that are the cause of the destruction of this planet.

Halla Mohieddeen: Well, we’ve also seen groups like Just Stop Oil in the UK take a step in that direction. They’re known right now for throwing various substances at different works of art, but earlier this year, they were also smashing petrol stations.

Just Stop Oil protester: We went to petrol stations and smashed up petrol pumps and destroyed the machines that are destroying us.

Halla Mohieddeen: Now, it is fair to say that that tactic hasn’t won them many fans among people you’d think they’d want to win over. So how are these tactics supposed to mobilise people and endear people to your cause?

Andreas Malm: Well, I am sceptical, or I would even say I’m critical of the idea of throwing substances on works of art as a tactic for promoting the climate cause. Perhaps doing it once with that Van Gogh painting was a way of drawing attention to the cause of Just Stop Oil, and it did that pretty successfully. But if you continuously, repeatedly target something, you send the signal that you’re against that, as if the climate movement were against art.

A car drives through the open-cast lignite mine of German energy giant RWE in Garzweiler, western Germany, on January 17, 2022.
A car drives through the open-cast lignite mine of German energy giant RWE in Garzweiler, western Germany, on January 17, 2022. [Ina Fassbender/AFP]


Halla Mohieddeen: But there are, Andreas says, other forms of action, like one the day before COP, at the international airport in Amsterdam.

Newsreel: Climate protestors block private jets from leaving Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. 

Andreas Malm: Hundreds of climate activists dressed in white suits breached the perimeters to the runways and blocked private jets and bicycled around the cops to draw attention to the fact that these private jets cause luxury emissions, that is emissions that do not fulfil any human need.

Halla Mohieddeen: More than 200 activists were arrested.


Protester: We need to start cutting down emissions, which means flying less. We need to tackle the ones that we absolutely don’t need, the most unnecessary ones.

Andreas Malm: It pinpointed a source of the trouble that has to be closed down. And it did so in a perfectly disciplined fashion, targeting the luxury emissions of ultra-rich people. And that’s what we need more of.

Halla Mohieddeen: I see your point, but there is always, even with an action like this – and I find it very funny watching people on bicycles riding around private jets, there is a lot of sympathy for that –

Andreas Malm: Yes.

Halla Mohieddeen: – but if you’re a commuter trying to get a plane somewhere else and you have a delay, that impacts ordinary people who would probably agree with you. Similarly, when people glue themselves to motorways and ambulances can’t get to hospitals, those actions are impacting everyday people who will find themselves disinclined to support your wider cause. Is that not a concern?

Andreas Malm: Yeah, of course it is, but we have to remember that airports are generally not frequented by working class people. I mean, there’s very few forms of consumption, so heavily disproportionately used by rich people as flying.

Halla Mohieddeen: But working class people –

Andreas Malm: When it comes to commuting in cars, working class people commuting in cars, that presents a real problem. And we have seen that playing out over on highways in the past year. That is a real tactical problem, and perhaps we should do something that more immediately targets the actors and the sources behind the problems, such as company headquarters, new installations for fossil fuel extraction, or indeed luxury emissions.

Halla Mohieddeen: Okay. Let’s head back to the book. There is one action you describe as a positive example, and this was back in 2016.


Halla Mohieddeen: Thousands of activists, including yourself, broke into a power station in Germany known as Schwarze Pumpe or black pump. Let’s start with the basics. This was about coal, yes? Why is coal so important to the climate debate in Germany?

Andreas Malm: Germany is the world’s largest producer of lignite coal, or brown coal, and this is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. That is the fossil fuel that produces most CO2 emissions in the process of combustion. And it still makes up a very significant chunk of the energy mix in Germany.

Newsreel: The German government promotes renewable energy, but its fallback plan is still brown coal.

Newsreel: Almost a third of the country’s energy still comes from coal. 

Andreas Malm: And it can’t go on like this. Germany has to rid itself of brown coal. Bizarrely, what’s happening right now is that it’s increasing its reliance on lignite coal, to the extent that RWE, the big German energy company, recently tore down wind turbines to make place for one of its expanding lignite coal mines. I mean, how absurd can it get in 2022?

Halla Mohieddeen: It’s surprising to hear that they’re the biggest producers of this lignite coal, but a lot of the fight was from this group Ende Gelende, which translates to something like “end of the line” in German.


Andreas Malm: So Ende Gelende is a climate movement in Germany that has since 2015 struggled against these mines and conducted an absolutely remarkable series of mass actions where people have gone into these mines and shut them down.

Halla Mohieddeen: Back in 2016, there was a debate about whether brown coal sites in Germany would be phased out, or even shut down, but the investment kept coming in.


Andreas Malm: The decision of the climate movement in Germany was to try to establish itself as what was referred to as the investment risk. So, to signal to these investors that if you keep pouring your money into fossil fuel installations – of which we can have no more – then you should take into account that you might very well lose your fixed capital because we might go into those sites and destroy it.

Policemen encircle environmentalists who managed to enter the Hambach lignite open pit mine near Elsdorf, western Germany, on November 5, 2017, during a protest against fossil-based energies like coal. according to the organisers.
Policemen encircle environmentalists who managed to enter the Hambach lignite open pit mine near Elsdorf, western Germany, on November 5, 2017, during a protest against fossil-based energies like coal. according to the organisers. [Sascha Schuermann/AFP]


Halla Mohieddeen: In May that year, activists with Ende Gelende occupied the area near Schwarze Pumpe for two days.

Protester: So we’re here physically stopping the transporting of coal between a coal mine and a coal power plant.

Protester: The scientific fact behind climate change says that we must keep 80% of fossil fuels in the ground, and we cannot keep mining this coal.

Halla Mohieddeen: Breaking into the power station, though, wasn’t part of the plan. More on that, after the break.


Halla Mohieddeen: Andreas describes the break-in at the power station as spontaneous: a couple of hundred people who’d been camped out nearby to protest tore down some fences. According to the book, they streamed past security guards, who were too surprised to do anything, and then he says they basically just wandered around the power station and sprayed some spray paint, in awe of the fact that they had managed to get in. The break-in forced a mass reduction of the station’s electricity production for a full day. The CEO called it an act of massive criminal violence.

Andreas Malm: When you have a mass action and you take over one of these installations and shut it down, even if it’s just temporarily, you realise that this fossil fuel infrastructure is not a force of nature. It’s not just a feature of the physical landscape that we can’t do anything about. It’s not like it’s a mountain range, or the moon, or something like that. It’s actually amenable to disruption. And the key here really is to break that sense of powerlessness and paralysis. The illusion that this infrastructure is our destiny and it just keeps on expanding and we can’t do anything about it – no, we can actually go into those sites and shut them down. And realising that, you get over your despair and you get a little bit of a hope and a sense that it is actually possible to take these sources of death and destruction down.


Halla Mohieddeen: And we’re likely to see more actions like it. As of this year, Andreas says Ende Gelende is now formally taking up property destruction as a tactic.

Andreas Malm: This year, Ende Gelende for the first time endorsed sabotage in its official documents and did indeed conduct an action of sabotage against the construction of a gas pipeline in Wilhelmshaven, in western Germany, in the middle of August, which I think is exactly the right thing to do.

Halla Mohieddeen: Well, even now two women who vandalised a pipeline in the US are now in federal prison on domestic terrorism charges. Do you expect a terrorist label to come into play more?

Andreas Malm: Of course, of course. It’s what people who fight entrenched power interests are always called, isn’t it? If terrorism, if that word means anything, it means the killing of civilians, and more precisely the indiscriminate killing of civilians for political purposes. These two women, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, didn’t kill anyone and they didn’t harm anyone. Nothing whatsoever was done against any human body. So, to call them terrorists is just bizarre. If there is any violence being perpetrated here, it’s by the companies, because we know that climate change kills. This is in line with the ABC of the climate science, that to now take up fossil fuels out of the ground and set them on fire means killing people. I wouldn’t call that terrorism, I don’t think it’s an analytically useful term for designating that, but I definitely would call it violence. It’s violence perpetrated in the full awareness of the consequences.

Halla Mohieddeen: Okay. I’m here in Glasgow talking to you. We’re both in Europe, where people this winter are going to be cutting back in every way they can just to save on heat and save on money. Do you think the tactics, perhaps more radical tactics, that we might see from the climate justice movement might in some way cause even more pain to ordinary people?

Andreas Malm: One of the most enraging aspects of this energy crisis is that while working class people are being squeezed because of high energy prices, the oil and gas companies are swimming in the largest profits that they have ever had. The companies whose very business model is to destroy this planet are having more money to do so than ever before. So, the combined political demand here should be to take these profits away from these companies and use them to bankroll – which they could easily do several times over because these profits are so large – to use them to bankroll the transition away from fossil fuels to renewables, which are across the board far cheaper. That would not only help stabilise the climate and minimise the damage, but also protect working class people from this kind of crunch and squeeze that we see playing out right now.


Halla Mohieddeen: Andreas, just as a final question, let’s say that you win us all over. You’re probably not wrong that the climate movement is going to get more radical the worse things get. Let’s say these tactics take off. How could sabotage ever be enough to force the level of action that needs to happen? What do you say to someone who’s maybe watching COP and just in despair, thinking that the climate’s too far gone and even this would never be enough?

Andreas Malm: No, I don’t think it’s ever going to be enough. Sabotage on its own is not going to solve the climate problem. It needs to be one component in a repertoire of action that will have to include everything, from petitions, to court cases, to electoral campaigns, to lobbying, marching in the streets, still, occupying squares, but also a more militant confrontation with the order bent on burning our planet. If you sit and look at what’s happening at COP and you draw the conclusion that, okay, the world is doomed. We’re all just condemned to die very soon. I’m giving up on everything. Yeah, I would understand that reaction, but I think it’s a mistake. There is still a lot of damage to minimise and avoid. We can’t just give up on this planet while it all burns to the ground. I don’t think that’s a morally defensible position.

Halla Mohieddeen: Do you have hope?

Andreas Malm: Well, that depends on what you mean by hope. I’m not under any illusion that what we want and need is likely to happen, but you don’t become a political activist because you think that what you struggle for is likely. You throw yourself into struggle because you feel that the train is rushing towards the precipice and you need to stop it. In the end, catastrophic global heating is the likely outcome of current conditions in the world, but it’s not the only possible outcome. Which means that, yes, there is still hope that if we build up sufficient striking force, we can stop this train or jump off it in time.

Episode credits:

This episode was produced by Alexandra Locke with Negin Owliaei, Chloe K. Li, and our host Halla Mohieddeen. It was fact-checked by Ruby Zaman. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Our engagement producers are Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.

Source: Al Jazeera