Environment

The Limits of Peaceful Protest in a World That Is Burning

In a provocative new book, climate scholar Andreas Malm argues that environmental activists must escalate their tactics beyond peaceful protest.
Phoebe Hurst
London, GB
February 5, 2021, 9:15am
Protesters throw statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matte​r protest last year (left), and young climate strikers in 2019
Protesters throw a statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest last year (left), and young climate strikers in 2019. Photos: Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images and Chris Bethell 

Two weeks ago, Storm Christoph lashed torrential rain over Wales and the north west of England. Rivers burst their banks and entire streets were engulfed by water, as thousands were ordered to evacuate their homes. A PA photo showed a woman in her front room, thigh-high in dirty water, sifting through sodden possessions. WalesOnline reported that a body had been recovered from the River Taff. Boris Johnson said the government was working to ensure the UK is “totally prepared” for future flooding. 

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What these news reports and press statements did not do, however, was link the extreme weather devastating parts of Britain with the climate crisis. And this, says climate scholar Andreas Malm, is a fatal mistake.

“These weather disasters are fundamentally political events, because they were the product of fossil fuel combustion,” he says. “But when they happen, they are almost never politicised in the sense that there is a discussion of the drivers of these things.”

Instead, Malm wants us to link environmental disasters like flooding – or last year’s bushfires in Australia – with the oil and gas production that releases carbon dioxide into the air to cause global heating and freak weather. After that, he wants us to get angry. 

“Imagine you had a group of people doing something analogous to what people did in Minneapolis,” he says, referring to the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd last year. “Imagine they went into a coal mine – Australia is the world's largest coal exporter, and the government there is overseeing continuous expansion of the coal industry – and dismantled it.”

Sabotage in the name of saving the planet is the crux of Malm’s explosively titled new book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire. Published this month, the book draws on Malm’s previous research into capitalism and ecological destruction to argue that the climate movement must escalate its tactics beyond peaceful protest. In order for fossil fuel extraction to stop, it claims, we must accept that property destruction and violence are necessary. Did Malm have any fears about publishing such a provocative work?

“Maybe it’s because of the kind of comrades I’m close to, but the ones I've discussed the book with have not tried to discourage or dissuade me,” says Malm, who, as well as teaching at Lund University in his native Sweden, has reported from coal mines occupied by the German civil disobedience group Ende Gelände. “Rather, the general sense I’ve had from people within the moment is that the time has come to raise the question: when do we take the next step?”

Much of How to Blow Up a Pipeline grapples with how little progress the environmental movement has made in the decades since its inception. After countless peaceful protests, letters to politicians and dissemination of vegan curry recipes, governments continue to burn coal, build highways and bailout the aviation industry.

The book opens with Malm’s account of a demonstration outside the COP1 UN climate summit in Berlin, complete with acoustic guitars and banners calling for an end to emissions. It happened in 1995, but the scene could just as easily describe a student climate protest two years ago. Malm argues that the climate movement’s commitment to “strategic pacifism” – the idea that violence is bad in all settings, with history showing that success belongs to the peaceful – is not only incorrect, but marks it out from almost every other political movement. He makes comparisons to women’s suffrage, the anti-apartheid movement and the abolition of slavery, which was not “abolished by conscientious white people gently disassembling the institution”, but rather the violent revolts of enslaved Africans and the American Civil War – one of the bloodiest conflicts in US history. 

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“To make a difference here, you need to amass some kind of social muscle and counter-power,” says Malm. “And that means not thinking only in terms of, ‘We have to open the eyes of the politicians to the science,’ but rather, ‘We have to try to make it less profitable for investors to continue backing fossil fuel infrastructure.’ And one component of that could be to simply destroy this property.”

As such, the book includes a detailed description of how to deflate SUV tyres (the trick is to unscrew the valve and insert a piece of gravel “the size of a boiled couscous grain”), and on our Zoom call Malm talks animatedly about England’s 1842 general strike, which saw miners and factory workers destroy property to protest poor pay. He points again to last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which, although almost universally peaceful, did cause some damage to buildings and statues. Counter to the strategic pacifist’s argument, he says this did not alienate people from the cause of protesting racial injustice. Indeed, a June 2020 poll showed that American public support of Black Lives Matter actually increased shortly after the protests. 

Protesters at an Extinction Rebellion protest in London in 2019. Photo: Chris Bethell

Protesters at an Extinction Rebellion protest in London in 2019. Photo: Chris Bethell

“I would say that what the BLM movement succeeded in in 2020 – that the climate movement has never so far succeeded in – is to have a productive, dynamic dialectic between those modes of activism,” Malm says. “On the one hand, the broad, peaceful mass rallies in the streets, and on the other hand, the more confrontational and radical flag.”

While most would agree with Malm that climate collapse demands decisive and immediate action, violent forms of protest present issues. People of colour, and in particular Black people, face greater risk of abuse from police, making militant action a far more dangerous prospect for them compared to white protesters. This same point has been raised about Extinction Rebellion, whose early tactic of mass arrest was criticised for alienating ethnic minority groups.

“I would never argue that we should cancel any kind of nonviolent activism,” says Malm. “We should continue with that. I just think we should supplement it with something. This doesn't mean that everyone who's interested in climate politics needs to go out and learn to sabotage SUVs or coal mines or smash windows, because that would be a very stupid thing to suggest. But those who are angriest and those who have the least to lose might be more prone to this kind of activism than others.”

How to Blow Up a Pipeline makes a strong case for looking beyond non-violent activism, but it’s one that may not sit well with all parts of the environmental movement – given its long-held commitment to peaceful protest. Just last week, activists protesting HS2 in a tunnel under Euston Square Gardens in central London spoke proudly of “non-violent direct action”. However, Malm clearly feels that the seriousness of the climate crisis makes it a stand worth taking. 

“This is a crisis that really requires all hands on deck,” he says. “We shouldn't lock ourselves up in the academic bubble.”