Fighting for the Earth

One morning in early 2011, 75-year-old grandmother Hayastan Shakarian left her house in the village of Armazi, Georgia, armed with just a shovel. She was on the hunt for valuable metals – copper, in particular – hoping to scavenge unused wire and sell it for scrap.

On finding some subterranean cables near a railway track, the pensioner diligently set to work. Little did she know, however, that she was hacking through a crucial piece of infrastructure: a fibre optic cable bringing internet to the entire neighbouring country of Armenia. She would unwittingly leave the population of that neighbouring country – more than three million Armenians – staring at blank screens. They were without internet access for twelve hours, with whole swathes of Georgia and Azerbaijan also hit with a blackout.

“I have no idea what the internet is,” she said afterwards.

Infrastructure – by definition – has a tendency to fade into the background. It is akin to a hammer, to take an example famously elaborated by the philosopher Martin Heidegger. When engaged in the act of construction, we use a hammer without theorising, without much thought as to its provenance or its functioning. We use it skilfully and it becomes an extension of us. He called this state of invisibility ‘readiness-to-hand’.

When the hammer breaks, however, when the handle snaps, the head comes flying off, or it otherwise fails to function, it becomes resolutely ‘present-at-hand’. It loses its transparency and we become all-too-aware of how it emerges into the foreground.

The way of life which so many in the overdeveloped countries have become accustomed to – with stable electricity grids, food delivered ‘just-in-time’ from across the globe to the shelves of a nearby supermarket, living transfixed by glowing screens for work, relaxation, or numbed distraction – is more vulnerable than we would probably imagine. Spellbound, we move from large screen to small and back again, seamlessly connected by wireless internet, unaware that it could fade at any moment. It is ready-to-hand.

However, the dense web of technological prostheses which we wrap ourselves in turns out to be vulnerable to disruption, when you know where to look. And even when you don’t look, as the case of the Georgian grandmother Hayastan Shakarian showed.

Albeit maintaining his focus firmly on shutting down fossil fuel infrastructure, calculating and exploiting this sort of vulnerability is at the core of the Andreas Malm’s new book How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2021, Verso). The Marxist historian draws inspiration from recent waves of climate activism (think of the millions mobilised by Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion) but argues for the necessity of stepping up the climate movement’s militancy: moving beyond colourful protests and civil disobedience, towards targeted property destruction.

Malm is dismayed by the line these movements refuse to cross – their ideological pacifism. A brief historical review shows how the dominance of this philosophy in the climate movement, as Malm puts it, ‘is sanitised history, bereft of realistic appraisals of what has happened and what hasn’t, what has worked and what has gone wrong: it is a guide of scant use for a movement with mighty obstacles.’ Taking aim at the inaccurate and partial use of social science by Extinction Rebellion, he instead highlights the diversity of tactics – peaceful and less so – which have played an important part in successful historical struggles, from the suffragettes and the US civil rights movement, to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Indeed, the reader is told, ‘Pacifism has perhaps never existed as a real thing. What exists is the ability, or not, to distinguish between forms of violence.’

At this ecological eleventh hour, Malm proposes that it is high time to take inspiration from such historical successes and ratchet up activist tactics. He draws contemporary inspiration from struggles such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and direct action against the Dakota Access Pipeline. His proposal? ‘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.’

‘We are the investment risk’, is the famous slogan from the German movement Ende Gelände, from which Malm also takes encouragement. But, he says, “the risk clearly needs to be higher than one or two days of interrupted production per year.”

On the one hand, this is a visceral, powerful book, containing an urgent call to fight for the planet. Malm is surely right that greater thought must be put into the efficacy of environmental protest tactics. This was highlighted, for example, in the embarrassing debacle in London in October 2019, when XR activists occupied a London Underground train during rush hour, provoking a violent clash with working class Londoners who pointed out that they were blocking public transport – hardly the sharp edge of fossil capital. However, there are worrying absences in Malm’s own visions of the tumultuous social change to come, three of which I would like to highlight here.

1) The first relates to renewable energy which, as is common in this type of literature, acts as a deus ex machina for the urban industrial way of life. Malm envisions the state – in a vague ‘dynamic relation’ to the radical infrastructural disruption described above – as the only agent of change capable of ‘ramming through’ the necessary transition. While it is easy to fantasise about the state abolishing SUVs (a target of Malm’s activism in an earlier life, and continued subject of his ire in the book), has he really considered the consequences and cascading disruptions the end of fossil fuels would bring? It would seem not: the way Malm glosses over this point indicates a failure to acknowledge the true extent that fossil infrastructure threads through so many lives of the global North and, increasingly, the South. Instead, he pins his hopes on a smooth, rapid – perhaps even magical – state-led civilisational transition to so-called renewable energies.

For someone portraying themselves as a kind of hard climate realist, this level of wishful thinking is alarming. Perhaps Malm is blinded by the useful – albeit all-too-clean – distinction the book uses between luxury and subsistence emissions (“states should attack luxury emissions with axes – not because they necessarily make up the bulk of the total, but because of the position they hold”). The former refers to the superfluity of SUVs and private jets used by a small global elite, for instance, while the latter are those emissions engaged in by the working class for survival. You can rightly start by attacking the former, as Malm recommends, but you will eventually come up against the issue that an entire way of life has been built in a way which earns it the title ‘the imperial mode of living’. In the face of this mundane ecocide, renewables remain a stubbornly marginal source of global energy.

Furthermore, Malm’s hoped-for renewable revolution sidesteps the reality that new sources of energy in recent centuries have led to ‘energy additions’, not ‘energy transitions’. Indeed, the discovery of oil didn’t displace the use of coal, but merely compounded it, and the same is happening with renewables today. While renewable energy may be zero emission (at least, if we plead ignorance to the emissions from its mining, manufacture, transport and installation), it is also more minerally intense than fossil fuels. Every 1 kWh of renewable energy requires ten times more metals than fossil fuels. This is no argument in favour of fossil fuels, but rather an argument for truly considering the implications of our choices in full depth. As the authors of one recent paper noted, ‘Renewable energy can mitigate some environmental impacts, but only at the expense of exacerbating others.’

2) A second blind spot in the book is Malm’s divisive and dismissive treatment activist movements from decades past. The reader waits and waits for an acknowledgement that Malm is of course reinventing the wheel – after all, monkeywrenching has a decades-old history among radical Western environmentalists articulating themselves as ‘the earth defending itself’. When he does finally decide to acknowledge this, with mention of Earth First! and the ELF, Malm dismisses the experiences of all these earlier pioneers with an insulting wave of his hand: Such experiences are irrelevant, the reader is informed, because these activists were deep ecologists and anarchists, not potential foot soldiers for Malm’s statist project of ecological Leninism.

Deep ecology, we learn, is ‘a deeply reactionary type of ecology, which locates the source of the malaise in human civilisation as such, zooms in on overpopulation and prescribes the contraction of humanity to a fraction of its current size as the remedy.’ Malm goes on to make the absurd claim that deep ecology ‘wants to wage war against civilisation and indeed humanity as such’. This is an inadequate parody of what a large corpus of decades of deep ecological thought really stands for. Ecomodernist trots have had half a century to put such a stunted understanding right, and yet it clearly serves their ideological purposes more to pretend that deep ecologists are mere vulgar misanthropes.

In 1973, in his essay “The shallow and the deep, a long-range ecology movement,” Arne Naess laid out a complex and egalitarian social vision premised on wide-ranging ecological principles which would go on to inspire millions with respect and moral regard for the non-human. If others went down some suspect paths – and certain figures undoubtedly did – that is no reason to write off the entire project. For a Marxist, of all people, to take such an uncharitable approach seems particularly inappropriate. Rather than caricatures and straw men, perhaps we should pay more attention to the colourful and active life which Naess led, engaging in risky and important collective struggles on more than one occasion. Beyond his work in the Norwegian resistance during World War II, saving students who were due to be shipped to concentration camps, Naess would put his body on the line once more in 1970. He chained himself to rocks at the majestic Mardalsfossen waterfall, alongside 300 others, and refused to come down until plans to build a dam were scrapped. The hard-fought campaign was successful.

Any and all such earlier activism – no matter how successful – is written off by Malm as achieving ‘little if anything…[having] no lasting gains to show for them.’ He is furthermore derisive of such activism because it is ‘not performed in a dynamic relation to a mass movement, but largely in a void.’ Choosing to be dismissive of important threads of activist history, then, it seems that actions only count as successful for this author when they involve saving human structures.

3) The final flaw in How to blow up a pipeline worth noting here arises when Malm constructs his plea for greater activism in contrast to people who he describes as ‘climate fatalists’, such as Roy Scranton and Jonathan Franzen. For these detestable types, he says, it is easier ‘to imagine learning to die than learning to fight, to reconcile oneself to the end of everything one holds dear than to consider some militant resistance.’ Based on caricature and partial readings, this appears to be another false dichotomy, another wedge which simply doesn’t need to be driven any deeper.

You don’t need to agree with every word from Franzen et al. to argue that the distinctive tenor of the latest flourishing of climate activism – from which Malm draws inspiration and wishes more from – in some ways springs from the vital spaces which these supposed fatalists have opened. Rather than paralysis, perhaps the depth of their acknowledgement of the death drive of contemporary civilisation leads in turn to a deeper activism. It is no surprise that the tone and rhetoric of Extinction Rebellion, for instance, has been so distant from earlier climate activism – the quantitative, carbon-based focus of the likes of 350.org, say – and that this has been much of its strength.

Prospects are grim, and time and power would appear to be against us. In his haste, Malm clearly wishes to belligerently divide and conquer. But perhaps we need to slow down further still. After all, patience, dialogue and respect would be a better place to set out for the long road ahead. The division isn’t fatalists against activists, but life against death – and you wouldn’t have climate activism without the new movements putting the reality of death (whether of other species or an entire way of life) and grief back where it belongs. This is not a project of ‘stopping’ climate change, but of salvaging what is left of our wonderful living earth.

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