Violence can be a flimsy word—so broad as to be devoid of meaning. Some people consider it violent to cut apart a fence, deflate the tires of a fossil fuel–guzzling SUV, or light pipeline equipment on fire—all of which are strategies used by climate activists in recent years. But how does that violence square up against the violence of Exxon or Enbridge or any of the other companies that have a hand in perpetuating the climate crisis?
A more nuanced understanding of what violence is and does—and specifically, how property destruction can be effective—could move the conversation about climate change away from theory and further toward action. In the book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, published earlier this year, the Swedish scholar of human ecology Andreas Malm argues for the need for militancy in the face of a catastrophe. Climate activists practicing traditional nonviolent protest have used blockades, occupations, sit-ins, divestment, and school strikes to draw attention to the climate crisis—but “the ruling classes will not really be talked into action,” Malm writes. “They are not amenable to persuasion; the louder the sirens wail, the more material they rush to the fire, and so it is evident that change will have to be forced upon them.”
The stakes are life on earth. Malm advocates for a more destructive phase of action precisely because the alternative is so dire. Year after year, the impacts of climate change are intensifying, and therefore, climate activists need different strategies than the ones that have been tried for years and haven’t worked. All emissions must be brought to zero by 2050 in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Even with 1.5 degrees of warming, scientists found that nearly a billion people will be exposed to heat waves, hundreds of millions will cope with droughts, and coral reefs will suffer more frequent die-offs. And this instability will have ripple effects on food security, water security, and migration worldwide. Still, governments are lax and enabling, and corporations are not only going on as they have been, but actively exacerbating a lethal situation.
Malm’s prescription is direct: Climate activists should “damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.” The idea is that, by making it too financially risky to do business that harms the planet, activists will change minds when changing hearts hasn’t been enough.
Property destruction works. Malm points out that fruitful actions against slavery, Gandhi driving the British from India, the U.S. civil rights movement, actions against Apartheid, and the toppling of Hosni Mubarak on Tahrir Square all involved elements of militancy or violence.
In the early 20th century, after pressuring the British Parliament to give women the vote for decades without success, a group of Suffragettes smashed shop windows and torched letterboxes around London. Later, they set fire to empty buildings around the country. Eventually, this destruction demanded the results the women demanded.
In 2020, the protests after George Floyd’s murder included looting, arson, and the desecration of white supremacist monuments. These acts called attention to racist police brutality and racist inequality as a whole, and led to nationwide reforms and changes to policing in the U.S., among a host of other cultural and social responses echoing the message that Black Lives Matter. So what’s stopping people, on a broad scale, from destroying things in the name of climate justice? I wanted to test out Malm’s theory with activists who were involved in climate protests this year on the ground—it seemed like the best way to understand whether a new approach to “violence” was practical in reality.
The people I spoke with are in the middle of their own drastic pipeline fight. Line 3 is a pipeline expansion project in Minnesota that would bring 760,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from Alberta to the western tip of Lake Superior. The pipeline corridor proposed by Enbridge, a Canadian company, would replace an older line—threatening manoomin, a wild rice that grows in surrounding watersheds that is central to Anishinaabe culture, and violating the treaty rights of Indigenous nations in its path. The fossil fuel infrastructure would also lock in future greenhouse gas emissions.
Indigenous communities are often the first to experience the impacts of climate change, which can affect both land and cultural lifeways. For many, like Toka Yawakie, their future can be directly on the line. Yawakie is an Anishinaabe climate justice organizer who was appointed to Minnesota’s Environmental Quality Board as a citizen member in 2019. Line 3 is personal to him. “The climate crisis comes with the continued desecration of our Mother Earth and genocide of Indigenous peoples,” Yawakie wrote to me. “These assassinations continue to disproportionately affect Indigenous peoples at higher rates each year,” Yawakie said. “We are experiencing an intersectional humanitarian crisis that is on the rise.”
I asked Yawakie if he had ever considered deterring from the principles of nonviolence. His response was unwavering. “As an Indigenous man,” he wrote, “As an Indigenous man, I do not have the affordability to engage in any actions that are not inherently nonviolent without being subjected to force or treatment that would be excessive.”
The criminal justice system disproportionately targets people of color, and those without other intersecting layers of privilege may not want or be able to risk arrest. Yawakie said that he has been profiled by the police during a routine traffic stop, and that in Minneapolis, police brutality against his community is common.
Yawakie noted that the increasing criminalization of peaceful, nonviolent protest means policing around the Line 3 protests has, in many cases, resulted in police brutality and extreme criminal charges. On July 29, Yawakie witnessed a direct action in which a group from the Giniw Collective, alongside non-Native allies, crossed a set of fences that enclosed the construction site, intending to occupy the site nonviolently. “As they crossed this first line of defense, Enbridge-financed law enforcement officers rushed in and began engaging with these unarmed land and water defenders by utilizing violence in the form of pepper spray, mace, and pepper and ‘less than lethal’ bullets,” Yawakie wrote in an email. He said that this was the first time that law enforcement had used these tactics against Line 3 protesters, “which called international attention to the brutal and inhumane police response to nonviolent action.” Twenty people were arrested.
The personal risks of destroying things are monumental because of the criminal justice system. In June, a 39-year-old white woman from Iowa, Jessica Rae Reznicek, was sentenced to eight years in federal prison for damaging the Dakota Access Pipeline using a cutting torch and fires near pipeline equipment. Her charge, “conspiracy to damage an energy facility,” was classified as terrorism. “The courts are saying that what she did is violence, but I don’t necessarily agree with that,” said Kai Parlett, a 19-year-old activist who traveled to Line 3 last summer. “Who did she hurt, aside from the pipeline company’s wallet?”
It’s not just a weird quirk of the law that environmentally-minded acts of property destruction are prosecuted more severely than other forms of domestic terror. In the 1990s, members of the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front were charged with conspiring to set fire to various properties associated with environmental destruction: animal slaughterhouses, timber mills, and a ski resort. According to FBI estimates, these two organizations were responsible for more than 600 criminal acts since 1996, which incurred damages greater than 43 million dollars. These losses were obviously massive, and the companies that endured them got angry, and got loud: In response to years of corporate lobbying from the forestry, fur, and other industries with a vested interest, the FBI made eco-focused property destruction its chief priority, and laws against property destruction became harsher and stricter in order to protect businesses.
As the climate crisis intensifies, so does the backlash that environmental activists face. In the last 20 years, international human rights group Global Witness has documented a surge in the number of murders and attacks on environmental activists; these murders disproportionately target Indigenous communities. In 2019 alone, 212 environmental activists were killed. When law enforcement is weaponized “under the guise of public safety to protect the extractive fossil fuel industry,” Yawakie wrote, the industry seeks “to increase profits for themselves and their shareholders at the expense of people directly impacted on the ground.” Violence, at this scale, also looks like additionally harming communities suffering most from anti-climate business initiatives, and the people trying to protect those communities, by weaponizing the legal system.
And “property destruction,” itself, is a legal term, mostly used to create and enforce laws. It refers to who owns something, and damages that occur to that object. Choosing to honor that language and the laws it’s used to uphold, said Ethan*, a 27-year-old activist arrested at Line 3 after using building materials to form a soft blockade against the police while other protesters allegedly locked themselves to equipment. He thinks legitimizing the term prioritizes the interests of people who have a stake in fossil fuel infrastructure remaining intact. “We can start to have more complex and more creative conversations when we refuse to talk about ourselves as activists the way that a criminal justice system talks about us and the way that the owners of fossil fuel infrastructure would talk about us,” Ethan said. “The destruction of property is not what is at stake here.”
Nonviolence is a practice. It is muscle-building. It is sometimes punching someone in the nose because that stops the harm in front of you.
Emma Schoenberg works at the Climate Disobedience Center and was part of the training and planning team during the Treaty People Gathering. “We exist in a pluralistic worldview of what nonviolence is,” she told me. “There is no tactically pure violent act and no tactically pure nonviolent act. We all drove in fossil fuel cars to the action that we were being nonviolent at.” In her view, “Nonviolence is a practice. It is muscle-building. It is sometimes punching someone in the nose because that stops the harm in front of you.”
Time, as with all things climate, is of the essence. Urgency differentiates this question from simply a theoretical matter of language or philosophy that we have endless hours and days to debate. The present is already dangerous. The climate is already changing, and has already changed. The past year’s droughts and floods and wildfires make that abundantly obvious.
“The onrush of catastrophe,” according to Malm, “imposes tight constraints on those who want to fight.” He urges readers to prioritize people over profit at the simplest level. “Rich people cannot have the right to combust others to death,” Malm writes. Stated even more directly, unless people give a clear signal to companies that their investments in climate infrastructure are vulnerable to destruction, “Property will cost us the earth.”
Malm is right. Shunning all violent acts will only prolong the worst. No new fossil fuel infrastructure can be created, and we need, as a society, to dismantle what we already have. Whether to target that infrastructure for destruction is an individual choice, and one that can only be made at a person-by-person level. Even when destroying things works, the risk for Indigenous people is often too great to do this, and that’s because of increased criminalization of protests. But in order to have the maximum impact, both nationally and internationally, protesters who are able need to consider property destruction as a tactic. In order to rebuild, some destruction of the old normal is necessary.
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