Film Review

Blowing up pipelines won’t save the planet

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Sabotage may be exciting and personally satisfying … but it can’t defeat capital’s colossal power

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‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ is now showing on Netflix and other streaming services. This review is reposted, with permission, from Counterfire, August 22, 2023

by Feyzi Ismail 

No historical record exists that parallels the heatwaves across large parts of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas this summer. The UN’s Antonio Guterres recently declared our entry into the era of global boiling, speaking as the World Meteorological Organization confirmed that temperatures have never been higher, repeating warnings that climate change is the result of the burning of fossil fuels, but stopping short of criticizing those responsible. Some scientists suggest that the Earth has not been this hot for 120,000 years. Once again, Guterres called on politicians and governments to take action.

Andreas Malm’s manifesto was published by Verso Books in 2021. The film diminishes its strengths and accentuates its weaknesses.

Calling on those in power to act on the climate feels futile at this point. The ruling classes have driven us to where we are, despite knowing the consequences. In the words of Andreas Malm, author of the manifesto How to Blow Up a Pipeline that inspired the film, these classes will do nothing “of their own accord because of how enmeshed they are with the process of capital accumulation.” Guterres declared that there must be no more excuses on the part of politicians. In the preface to How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Malm warns that there must be no more excuses for passivity on the part of the climate movement.

Plainly, we have to take things into our own hands; the longer we wait for the politicians, the greater the devastation. What strategies should the climate movement adopt then, and what does militancy mean in a world on fire? We are none the wiser after watching Daniel Goldhaber’s adaptation of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which diminishes the strengths of Malm’s book and accentuates its weaknesses. The film portrays a group of eight disparate individuals who come together – ultimately in an implausibly seamless manner – to blow up an oil pipeline in a West Texas desert. Set over the span of several months, along with flashbacks narrating the experiences that led each of them to the present, they do what the book famously doesn’t do, which is show us how to blow up a pipeline.

But that is all the film essentially does, with the most exciting scene being the one in which the homemade bombs are detonated. This is no small feat, as the film describes the complexities of bomb-making, the meticulous planning involved in carrying out the action and, once they commit themselves to the project, the single-minded determination of the group. Curiously, they expect that global oil prices will rise as a result of the attack and the company will be forced to shut, at least temporarily. Of course, nothing of the sort could transpire with one act of sabotage, and presumably such infrastructure can be repaired immediately, given the potential loss of profit. The film shows the surprising ease with which bombing can be executed – the message being, based on the film’s uncritical sympathy for the book, why isn’t more of this happening given the scale of the crisis?


Members of the group are motivated to join for different reasons. Dwayne joins because a section of the pipeline is being built on his land, which belongs to his ancestors, and he and his young family are threatened with eviction. His knowledge of the area allows them to plan the attack in detail. Another, Theo, is involved because she suffers ill-health after exposure since childhood to toxic chemicals from fossil-fuel infrastructure near her home. She is diagnosed with cancer and dies shortly after the pipelines are destroyed. Her friend, and the main character driving the whole project is Xochitl, who, frustrated with the lack of urgency of divestment campaigns at her university, persuades Theo that sabotaging oil infrastructure is one of the most effective responses to climate injustice.

A critique of the liberal response to climate change runs throughout the film and forms the basis for the only serious discussion in the film about the ethics and strategic sense of sabotage, between Xochitl and Shawn, another group member who becomes convinced – more or less over the course of one evening – of the futility of reformist campaigns. But the choices become either awareness-raising or eco-terrorism. Malm, of course, rejects the terrorist label attached to these actions, but as Alyssa Battistoni has pointed out, ultimately what matters is how the state defines these actions. As with the film’s characters, Malm assumes that destroying property will put enough pressure on those in power to change course – the problem is the “comfort levels of climate activism” (p.123), and the lack of motivation on the part of activists. The moralism here is unhelpful for our task.

The popularity of the film shows that people are aware of the urgency of the crisis, but also crave ideas for addressing it. Malm has always railed against fatalism and argued against despair, and this is one of the great strengths of the book. He acknowledges that the film has more potential to reach mass audiences than the book, but this is where the intention of the film gets fuzzy: while both the filmmakers and Malm himself argue that they don’t necessarily want people to watch the film and then go out and blow up a pipeline – the point, rather, is to ignite a conversation about strategy – the focus on property destruction is presented as a strategic necessity, and one of the only options we have left.

The film avoids any debate about what a strategic response to the crisis might look like, including building mass movements, mobilizing the power of working-class agency or engaging in direct action that involves a collective beyond a few individuals. Its engagement with what a state response might look like is superficial and somewhat naïve: Rowan, one of the group who meets with the FBI as an informant, is able to convince them that only Xochitl and Theo are involved. In the real world, however, activists are facing increasingly harsher punishment and violence by the state, and actions undertaken by individuals – as opposed to mass actions – are particularly vulnerable to repression.

Sabotage substituting for strategy

The call to action on Instagram by Xochitl, after the pipelines are bombed, appears misplaced, even facile, and it’s unclear at whom the call is directed: perhaps a minority within the environmental movement, perhaps anyone who will listen. The final scene reveals that people have been moved, and a bomb is placed on a yacht in Miami, Florida. It portrays seriousness and urgency, which is alluring and much-needed, but the message is that such individual acts of sabotage, against other individuals – if you are in a position to afford the risks – are the most effective.

In making the case for sabotage, Malm argues that appealing to the reason of the ruling classes, who have known about the crisis for decades and nevertheless continue down the path of ruin for all, is pointless because capitalist expansion makes no consideration for either rationality or morality. Capitalists are forced to compete, invest, and expand infinitely. The question posed to us is, at what point do we escalate? A good question, but what do we mean by escalate? Malm means “physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy[ing] them with our own hands” (p.9). Establishing a disincentive to invest, he contends, will force the hand of the state into retiring fossil-fuel infrastructure.

Malm does argue that “the main way forward” is bigger and bolder mass actions (p.24) within the climate movement, and in particular the actions of groups like Germany’s Ende Gelände, known for occupying coal mines. But far more needs to be elucidated about how exactly sabotage could work with mass mobilization. Praising the suffragettes for their militant tactics – smashing windows, torching letterboxes, and fighting with the police – he argues that “such deeds went hand in hand with mass mobilization” (p.41). He neglects a well-known fundamental division in suffragette political history, however, between those who saw the vote as an end in itself, who were essentially middle and upper-class women, and those who were organizing working-class women and men for social change beyond the vote. The respective politics and class position of each influenced their choice of tactics.

The individual acts of violence on display in the film are arguably alienating to a mass working-class audience. Some of the film’s characters are working class – Alisha works as a cleaner and Michael, the bombmaker, works at a supermarket – but the film provides us with no insights into the potential or possibilities of class-conscious activity. There is no sense of collectivity apart from the group going underground together. Following the bombing, the group predictably falls apart. Taking its cue from the book, class struggle is largely absent from the narrative, and class only operates at the level of identities.

Malm rightly attacks the climate movement’s strategic pacifism – the notion that violence never leads to progress in social-justice terms – both for being counterproductive on the strategic front, but also for a selective reading of history. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan have elevated this reading to the level of theory, on which Extinction Rebellion in particular has based its philosophy. Instead, Malm argues that sabotage as a mere tactic should be included in our arsenal of resistance: during the civil-rights movement, while non-violent civil disobedience worked better than the alternatives at certain historical moments, the lines between violence and non-violence were always blurred. Given that reality, the strategic intervention that Malm wants us to consider is the radical flank.

The radical flank effect is the idea that the real threat for the ruling classes is being confronted with forces so extreme that it makes the mainstream of the movement appear a lesser evil. If non-violent actions work seamlessly with violent actions in the same movement, then demands can be shifted to the left: next to the Black Panthers, the civil-rights leaders inciting people to break the law “came to look reasonable and restrained” (p.50). We are taken through the actions of a range of historical actors, from the ANC to the poll-tax rioters; Hezbollah and the Nepali Maoists also get a mention. While it is true that “the demise of revolutionary politics” (p.61) since the neoliberal assault is real, what Malm really wants to defend is the radical flank over the mass movement.

The conclusions are that sabotage is radical and militant, and that the priority of a movement of millions must be to “damage and destroy CO2-emitting devices” (p.67), forcing states to retire the stock. This would not only challenge the sanctity of capitalist property but ensure that any transition is executed on the scale required. While it is true that the state must direct the transition, we first need control of the state. Malm downplays the elimination of the Black Panthers by the state. But he also underestimates the extent to which the ideas of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were closer to each other towards the end of their lives, particularly around the importance of class. The other tradition of militancy – that of working-class organization – is cast aside in favor of sabotage, without which business as usual will continue. The problem isn’t that people view property as sacred, as Malm suggests. The real question before us is what will threaten ruling-class power?

Strategy on a boiling planet

Precisely because the climate and ecological crisis is structural and systemic, because addressing it means overturning the social relations that have caused the crisis in the first place, the strategy must not only involve the mass of the population, but accord with the capacities of the mass of the population. Sabotage is not a tactic that will be embraced by the majority, and so it cannot be the starting point for any effective strategy. There is no conversation between the characters in the film about the need for mass organizing, despite the fact that Malm sufficiently criticizes the “ecotage” of groups such as Earth Liberation Front and associated organizations operating in the 1980s and 1990s for their ideological misanthropy, and for not acting “in a dynamic relation to a mass movement” (p.155). But Malm avoids a critique of the middle-class nature of the climate movement in the Global North and its antagonism towards working-class politics, which is beginning to be articulated lucidly elsewhere. Mass mobilization combined with strikes and stoppages at scale are not seriously considered as part of the repertoire of militant action.

Yet a class perspective around such strategic questions is essential if we accept that the working class not only has an interest in transforming capitalist social relations but is the primary agent that possesses the capacity to do so. Building working-class power in the workplaces and in the streets is indeed the only strategy that has any chance of defeating the colossal power of capital.

Malm has also argued that sabotage is not a panacea. Rather, the climate movement should experiment and “try more radical things,” expecting no guarantees that these would work. But if the stakes are so high, why not start with what has worked in the past? Working-class revolutions in history did at least start to transform social relations, and Malm is no stranger to this history. Without a clear vision of the political implications of our strategy, the waters are muddied, and we end up with the Tire Extinguishers, who have taken the contents of the book quite literally, dismantling fossil capital one SUV at a time.

One can debate the aesthetic of the film, which leaves much to be desired, and whether the characters are redeemable, or indeed sexy, which Ariela Barer, one of the co-authors of the script, maintains is important. Goldhaber says he wanted the project to feel responsible, while remaining authentic, but he uses his artistic license to reflect a political sensibility devoid of working-class history. Then again, the book ultimately tempers an exploration of the potential of class struggle and the mass movement. When the context could scarcely be more urgent, and there is an opportunity to engage a mass audience with a message, platforms must not be wasted. How to Blow Up a Pipeline could have been an opportunity to engage the climate movement and beyond from the left, but fails to convince.