Don’t Blow Up a Pipeline

The clock is ticking on averting the worst of climate disaster, raising the question for many if activists should turn to militant actions like industrial sabotage. But it’s not time to give up on democratic politics to save the planet.

Protesters blockading construction of National Grid’s North Brooklyn Pipeline in Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York, December 10, 2020. (Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images)

One of the most endearing things that Bernie Sanders does is read letters from people and respond to them on his YouTube channel. Judging from the letters’ content, many of his correspondents seem to be under the age of thirty, which only enhances the air of rumpled avuncularity that is so central to Bernie’s appeal. He’s America’s zeyde, gruff and cranky. But watching him, you never lose the sense that he spends nearly every waking moment doing what he can to ensure a better future for you and everyone else.

A few months ago, his team posted a video in which Bernie reads a letter confessing that it’s “hard to avoid doomerism.” Another letter writer asks, “Is it ever going to get any better? Should I maintain any will to live?” In his response, Bernie very compassionately recognizes the reasons why someone, particularly a younger person, would feel an overwhelming sense of despair at the state of the world. But drawing on the perspective afforded by eighty-one years of life, he reminds us that “people have faced enormous opposition and things change. Things get better . . . all we can continue to do is keep fighting.”

His latest video is a monologue on “the greatest threat facing our country and all of humanity,” the threat of climate change. Of all the problems and challenges facing our world, this one generates the deepest, most pervasive feelings of powerlessness and doom. July 3 was the hottest day ever recorded; we’ve gone from monitoring COVID-19 infection and death rates to monitoring the air quality index from seemingly endless wildfires.

Despite mountains of evidence, both scientific and experiential, telling us that our current relationship with the natural world is unsustainable, our political leaders are not moving nearly fast enough to mitigate its impact. “Instead of denying these obvious realities,” Bernie pleads, “instead of doing the bidding of oil, gas, and coal companies, instead of fomenting a new Cold War with China, members of Congress must develop an unprecedented sense of urgency about this global crisis.”

Given what we know about Congress, I would not begrudge someone for relating more to the sepulchral tones of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” than the rousing conclusion of his “Mask of Anarchy.” We may be many, and they may be few, but the few are succeeding all too well at turning the planet into a colossal wreck. Faced with the need for immediate, globally coordinated action, and the reality of institutions compromised by the very interests that need to be defeated, it’s understandable that some would seek the consolations of fatalism — or feel called to start taking more militant direct action.

The Swedish climate activist Andreas Malm asks in his influential book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, “When do we start physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy them with our own hands?” The crux of the matter is time and our lack of it, which according to Malm is “the one dimension that most distinctly sets this crisis apart” from all the others humanity has faced to date. “The onrush of catastrophe does have a temporality of its own,” Malm insists. “It imposes tight constraints on those who want to fight.”

Those time constraints, in Malm’s view, impose the need to “recognize revolutionary violence as an integral component” of the great popular struggles of the past, and to pragmatically accept the utility of violence in the climate struggle. Malm is quick to clarify that he is “in favor of destroying machines, property — not harming people.” What he advocates is sabotage, not terrorism, and he does not call for indiscriminate violence against any and all property.

Instead, Malm insists that the “art to be mastered . . . is that of controlled political violence.” This should be directed against targets like “SUVs of the richest whose tyres are deflated, a private jet airport or a cement factory,” actions which in his view offer “potential for others to join the fight.” Exemplary acts of direct action intended to inspire others to do the same: what Malm offers here is the old tactic of “propaganda of the deed” repurposed for the age of the climate crisis.

The United States is a uniquely violent society awash in firearms and other instruments of death, and a disproportionate number of them are owned by right-wing sociopaths. I am very skeptical that political violence, once unleashed, can be effectively corralled within these very specific limits. Political violence has a fundamentally interactive quality that Malm largely fails to account for, and under conditions of intense political contestation, it is all too easy to move from advocating violence against property to violence against people.

After all, if we are fighting to prevent a global climate catastrophe, then the use of any means necessary can be justified — and we can be sure that agents provocateurs would be all too happy to encourage activists to come to such conclusions. I fear that this would create a political environment conducive not to the further growth of climate protest and official responsiveness to its demands, but vigilante counter-mobilization and an official crackdown on popular movements and the Left.

Were it not for references to COVID-19 or Greta Thunberg, one might think that How to Blow Up a Pipeline was a polemic from the late 1990s global justice movement, which had its own debates over “diversity of tactics,” pacifism, and the black bloc. In that sense, it feels like a flashback to a time when the Left and the climate movement were weaker and more marginal, without any kind of real foothold in formal politics or public opinion. There is no meaningful consideration of strategies for winning political power and using it to avert climate catastrophe in the pamphlet.

Malm recognizes the possibility that “New politicians are voted into office” with a popular mandate to do what needs to be done to meet the crisis, and that the “movement should be given the chance to see this scenario through.” But he doesn’t seem to regard this as a likely prospect, instead exhorting his readers to directly enforce the prohibition on planet-destroying capital: “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.”

Malm effectively calls on us to protest harder, to shift from a strict commitment to nonviolent protest tactics to the use of physical force in defense of the planet.

The late democratic socialist Leo Panitch was fond of saying, “you can protest until hell freezes over, but without taking and transforming political power you will never change the world.” Malm recognizes this, after a fashion, in his book Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency when he calls for a contemporary moral equivalent of the Bolsheviks’ war communism — the emergency, authoritarian measures instituted during the Russian Civil War. Leaving the question of this analogy’s appeal aside, who is going to carry out such a program, and how are they going to win the power they would need to do it? His concept of ecological Leninism “leaps at any opportunity to wrest the state in this direction, break with business-as-usual as sharply as required and subject the regions of the economy working toward catastrophe to direct public control.”

So Malm jumps from smashing machines to a radical course of state-led ecological transformation, leaving a big politics-shaped hole in between and few suggestions on how to fill it besides vague injunctions to “raise consciousness in such spontaneous movements and reroute them against the drivers of catastrophe.”

Malm cannot be faulted for stressing the urgency with which we need to address the climate crisis. We simply must act now, and act boldly — he is, of course, entirely correct about this. Adam Tooze, in a sympathetic review of Malm’s work, is right to note that he “forces us to face a crucial question: what are the social democratic politics of emergency?”

Is it possible to reconcile the seemingly discontinuous temporalities of the climate crisis and democratic politics? I think we have to take the wager that it is, because there is little hope for freedom, solidarity, and justice in the twenty-first century otherwise.

Winning Power

Fortunately, democratic ecosocialists and other climate activists are taking that wager and acting on it. I live in New York, where the climate movement has won a number of high-profile victories against the power of fossil capital.

In 2021, the No Astoria NRG Plant Coalition successfully stopped a fossil fuel company from building a billion-dollar fracked gas plant in a part of Queens with very high asthma rates. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) climate organizers initiated and led the campaign on the ground, which not only stopped the construction of one particular project but signaled the end of new gas-fired plant construction in the state. This would not have been possible without the support of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the district in Congress and organized other members of the city’s congressional delegation to pressure the state to reject construction permits.

This spring, the Public Power NY coalition, a group of climate and community organizations often led on the ground by DSA activists passed the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA) in New York State over the combined opposition of fossil fuel companies and “green” capital. The law requires the New York Power Authority (NYPA) — a public agency established during the original New Deal era — to generate all of its electricity from renewables by 2030, empowers the NYPA to build and own new renewable energy projects, allows it to sell renewable-generated electricity to working-class New Yorkers at a lower rate than private energy companies, and has real “just transition” provisions for unionized energy workers affected by the phaseout of fossil fuels.

The BPRA is not The Revolution, but it is a transformative piece of legislation that provides a real public alternative to private energy companies and an institutional platform on which to keep building even more ambitious climate policy.

BPRA campaigners won the law by doing politics — but not politics as usual. They ripped up the standard playbook for moving legislation through Albany and wrote a new one that meets the urgency of the climate crisis. They employed a range of strategies and tactics, from blocking traffic in front of the state government’s Manhattan offices, to issue-based canvassing in neighborhoods around the state, to lobbying and organizing state legislators in support of the bill. Campaigners wanted to challenge the idea that New York State was a leader on climate policy when key legislators were actually dragging their feet at the behest of the fossil fuel interests who fund their campaigns, including the BPRA’s sponsor in the State Senate, Kevin Parker.

The campaign printed satirical five-foot-tall posters mimicking Venmo account histories that detailed the many thousands of dollars in campaign contributions that politicians like Parker, State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins received from fossil fuel interests. The officials hated it, but it got their attention and pressured them to show that they weren’t just carrying water for polluters. Advocacy groups typically approach legislators like Parker in the mode of the orphan boy Oliver Twist, meekly petitioning their supposed “champions” for just a bit more gruel, please. As such, it often takes many years and many legislative sessions to get a bill through the legislature and signed by the governor, often in a significantly watered-down form.

Instead of begging and pleading, the BPRA campaign took the bold and highly risky step of launching a primary election challenge against Senator Parker and a number of other Democratic Party incumbents.

DSA member David Alexis did not defeat Parker, but his campaign mobilized hundreds of volunteers (myself included) and thousands of voters in the district and succeeded in turning the election into a referendum on Parker’s climate record. Under serious pressure from the Alexis campaign, Parker moved the bill in 2022, allowing it to pass the Senate for the first time. Activists then made thousands of phone calls to State Assembly members urging them to move it through that chamber, but Assembly Leader Carl Heastie decided not to bring it up for a vote at the time.

While Alexis was challenging Parker in Brooklyn, DSA member Sarahana Shrestha pulled off a stunning upset in the state’s Hudson Valley, where she knocked off longtime incumbent Kevin Cahill on the strength of her bold climate agenda. She made climate change and the BPRA her main campaign issues and won on them, which is something that even many climate advocacy groups thought was not possible.

These and other primary campaigns changed the political terrain in the state legislature and moved key interests, particularly the labor unions whose members are affected by the bill, from opposition to support. The campaigns challenged politicians in ways that they never experienced before and forced them to respond, giving people the sense that there was a viable pathway to actually doing something meaningful about the climate.

Unlike many other examples of climate policy, the BPRA is not particularly complex. It does not rely on carbon taxes, cap-and-trade schemes, or other measures that are difficult to explain to voters and excite nobody but policy wonks. Because the bill was based on a radical vision of our state government directly building and providing renewable energy to the people more cheaply and efficiently than the private sector, it was inspiring and gave campaign organizers something compelling to talk to people about. In short, it changed the mood around climate politics from doom and despair to faith in our ability to shape our collective fate.

The federal Inflation Reduction Act was crucial to the bill’s passage as well, namely its “direct pay” language that gives federal money to public agencies to build renewable energy — a provision that likely would not have been in the bill if Green New Dealers in Congress hadn’t fought for it. Representative Jamaal Bowman led a crucial effort to organize New York’s congressional delegation to put pressure on Governor Kathy Hochul to support the BPRA and sign it upon passage.

As one campaign organizer put it in an interview with DSA’s Socialist Forum,

For most of my political life I’ve identified as anarchist, and I still mostly identify that way. . . . ‘Just transition’ is all over the literature, but what does it look like? Well, we finally have an example we can point to, and I’m extremely proud to have been a part of it. And it was won through electoral, you know, who knew?

The campaign showed that so many of the stale dichotomies pitting political action against disruptive protests and other “outside” strategies simply do not need to apply. It also calls into question Malm’s contention that political violence by a militant minority can generate a “radical flank effect” making legislative action more likely. The BPRA passed without a single act of sabotage or property destruction. By focusing their energies directly on the targets that need to be pushed into action, BPRA campaigners avoided this trap and gave people the sense that their participation — whether it involved marching and blocking traffic, or canvassing for DSA primary candidates and flooding legislators’ offices with phone calls — could actually make a difference.

Malm argues for targeting the rich and their property as a means of spurring state-led climate action. But it may be more effective to simply target the politicians themselves by making the thing they fear the most — being voted out of office — a real threat if they don’t act now on climate change.

For all his advocacy of sabotage, Malm actually does recognize the centrality of political action in the fight against climate catastrophe, if only in passing. In Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, he concedes, “Nothing could have been better for the planet than Jeremy Corbyn becoming the prime minister of the UK in 2019 and Bernie Sanders winning the presidency of the United States in 2020. Had they been in charge of the two classic citadels of the capitalist core, there would have been some real opportunities to turn the present crisis and the others in the pipeline into ruptures with business-as-usual.”

He is certainly correct to insist that reformist governments would have to make “despotic inroads,” as Marx and Engels put it, on fossil capital’s property rights, instead of shying away from this as so many social democratic governments have done before. But absent the election of governments resolutely committed to doing what has to be done to mitigate, much less reverse, the climate crisis, there seems to be little prospect of success — regardless of how much sabotage or disruption climate activists cause. So let’s get on with the task at hand.

Campaigns similar to that around the BPRA may not unfold the same way or with the same level of success in other places. New York’s state government is not dominated by fossil fuel interests the way some others are (our worst enemies here are the real estate and financial industries). The chances of getting this kind of legislation through both houses of Congress and signed into law by a president is, at the moment at least, a rather daunting prospect.

Still, the BPRA campaign’s success holds out the hope that the climate crisis can still be met through bold initiatives in democratic politics, and that extremely risky forays into political violence can be avoided. Bernie is right: other people and other movements have faced enormous opposition and long odds, and things still changed. We have no choice but to keep fighting, and to stay on the path that has produced meaningful results in less time than many of us expected.