Based on a book of the same name, Daniel Goldhaber’s 2022 film poses the question: is it time to move beyond civil disobedience in the climate movement?
Kwame Ture, a civil rights activist, writer and pan-Africanist, once remarked that “in order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.” In the 2022 film How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a group of eight environmental activists are united in their belief in this idea expressed by Ture and decide to blow up an oil pipeline in West Texas.
The film is exciting and tense throughout and often shows a vulnerable side to the protagonists, making it easy for the viewer to sympathise with their cause. Beyond their belief in the need to embrace more direct, destructive action, some of the group’s members even have a personal motivation for carrying out the sabotage: Xochitl’s mother dies during a heat wave; Theo has terminal cancer as a result of growing up near an oil refinery; and Dwayne has his home seized by an oil company.
The film is based on a book of the same name written by Andreas Malm, a Swedish author and professor of human ecology, in which he argues that the climate movement should not restrict itself to non-violent tactics but should embrace “sabotage” and the deliberate targeting of polluting infrastructure. Malm also explains how successful social movements throughout history have demonstrated that disruptive and potentially violent action is often necessary to transform society. Movements that fought for varied goals such as women’s suffrage, civil rights, LGBTQ+ liberation and decolonisation have all proven that the violence of oppression necessitates an equally forceful resistance.
The climate crisis is a destructive and violent problem facing planet Earth, not just in the case of hurricanes, heatwaves, droughts and wildfires that threaten lives around the world but also with regard to those polluting industries responsible for issues such as violence against women and military conflict. Furthermore, governments have shown time and time again their willingness to use violence in response to protests that challenge extractive practices threatening the planet.
In March 2023, protestors marching against the construction of a reservoir that would allow businesses to monopolise water supplies in the French town of Sainte Soline were attacked by the police who used grenades, considered “weapons of war“, which left one activist, Serge, in a coma for a month. In the words of journalist and author Natasha Lennard, “the problem we face, then, is not so much that of necessary violence as it is one of impossible nonviolence“.
The argument could therefore be made that the climate movement has reached a point where the violence of the current system must be countered by any means necessary.
However, while Malm’s book criticises pacifism within the climate movement and makes the case for the use of sabotage, the film makes a much less convincing argument. The group does, indeed, successfully blow up an oil pipeline, and Xochitl and Theo take the fall for it, hoping to send a message to the world about the urgency of the climate crisis. They believe that by blowing up the pipeline they might inspire further action and open people’s eyes to the need for a new approach to climate activism. Yet their actions are entirely disconnected from any broader political movement, and by the end of the film, the characters have all gone their separate ways and returned to their everyday lives.
In this sense, the film misses an important point made by Malm, which is that any kind of sabotage or disruptive action should be rooted in a mass movement rather than isolated groups of people carrying out random acts.
This form of sabotage not sufficiently connected to a mass movement has been seen before, notably in the case of the Weather Underground, a far-left militant organisation active between 1969 and 1977 that, in their opposition to the Vietnam War, rejected the pacifism of the broader student anti-war movement of the time and directly targeted symbols of government power with explosives. The group espoused an explicitly anti-imperialist and anti-racist worldview and even issued a Declaration of War against the U.S. government, but the organisation was often criticised for its approach, even by those who may have agreed with its ideology.
Fred Hampton, chair of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who was murdered in his home by the FBI in 1969, criticised the Weather Underground as “opportunistic, individualistic, chauvinistic”, adding that “we think these people may be sincere, but they’re misguided”.
The Black Panther Party shared many of the Weather Underground’s political views and also understood the limits of non-violence; they often had violent confrontations with the police. However, the Black Panthers were also deeply concerned with building a revolutionary movement from the ground up and were actively involved in creating political change in local communities. The Party created several programmes to help disadvantaged people, including a children’s breakfast programme, a free housing cooperative programme, a free clothing programme and free health clinics.
In the film, the characters are clearly passionate about environmentalism, but aside from some vague anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist statements, it seems that their actions are not guided by any concrete ideology. Furthermore, they’re not part of any political organisations, and they don’t even really discuss the climate crisis and its connection to racial, class and gender-based inequality.
The Black Panther Party, active from 1966 to 1982, was explicitly socialist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and supported the liberation of women and LGBTQ+ people (David Fenton/Getty Images)
Climate action, and indeed any form of political action, involves much more than a one-time event, it requires constant work across broad sections of society and is based on revolutionary politics aimed at transforming ways of living in order to create a more equitable society, one in harmony with nature. It’s going to take much more than blowing up one pipeline to bring about change.
Another area in which the film doesn’t match the rational but also radical standards of Malm’s book is in its portrayal of the police and the FBI, who come across as rather ineffective and easily fooled by the protagonists. In reality, the police are often much more of a threat to activists of any kind, and the FBI has even used social media to target vulnerable people and encourage them to carry out bombings, at times even providing the explosives for them.
In the UK, undercover police officers have infiltrated over 1,000 different political groups since 1968 and are undoubtedly still doing so today. In Barcelona, the city where I live, several cases have been uncovered in the past few years of the police infiltrating activist circles and spying on them from within.
The film, on the other hand, seems to suggest that having a police informant within an activist group could actually be a useful way to feed false information to the police and ultimately outmanoeuvre them. In truth, having informants around a radical group could be extremely dangerous and activists should take great care when it comes to their interactions with the police.
It could also be argued that by potentially encouraging radical left-wing activists to attempt to make their own explosives, the film is irresponsible and could cause someone to seriously injure themselves or worse. The film’s website even contains a “Take Action” page that encourages people to “act outside of the system” and displays a map of oil and gas pipelines in the U.S. Presumably, the film’s creators are suggesting that people should try to blow these pipelines up, something that, again, seems dangerous. To return to the Weather Underground for a moment, in March 1970, three of their members were killed when a bomb they were making accidentally detonated, demonstrating how dangerous these activities can be.
A screenshot from the film’s official website (https://howtoblowupapipeline.film/)
Ultimately, it is the film’s portrayal of the group making their own explosives and the suggestion on the film’s website that others should do the same that is concerning; the film’s core message that the climate movement should take up the targeted destruction of polluting infrastructure remains a potent one. Eco-sabotage can allow the climate movement to send a message to those in power that cling onto fossil fuels and the profits they generate. However, this form of action must be done in a safe way, and it’s important to note the danger that climate activists put themselves in when taking part in destructive resistance.
In 2017, Ruby Montoya and Jessica Renzicek carried out multiple acts of sabotage against the then-under-construction Dakota Access Pipeline and were sentenced to 8 years in prison. Just like the film’s protagonists say will happen to them, these two women were labelled terrorists for their brave efforts to stop the construction of the pipeline. Their actions delayed the pipeline’s construction for months and although it was eventually finished, Montoya and Renzicek demonstrated that the industries responsible for the climate crisis are vulnerable and a larger-scale, forceful opposition to their murderous practises could have an even more emphatic effect.
“Sabotage means to push back, pull out or break off the fangs of Capitalism”— W.D. Haywood
One important message the film presents is the need for people from diverse backgrounds to unite for climate action. The need for cooperation and solidarity across social divisions was also something that Fred Hampton fought for when, in 1969, the Black Panthers united with the Young Patriots, a left-wing group of mostly white Southerners, and the Young Lords, a street gang from Chicago, to form a Rainbow Coalition in opposition to racism, police brutality and capitalist oppression. In the “era of global boiling“, an anti-capitalist, anti-racist and feminist revolutionary climate movement should also embrace a variety of approaches, ranging from non-violence to destructive sabotage. However, any progressive movement aiming to transform society will always be opposed by the ruling classes, which is why, as Malm points out in his book, we need a strong, united movement working together for our collective futures.