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The case for a more radical climate movement

Author Andreas Malm on the failures of climate activism and the need for escalation.

Protesters carry down an urban street a huge model of the earth with flames at its base.
Protesters march to demand aggressive policies towards fighting climate change at a Fridays for Future march on September 24, 2021 in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

Has the climate movement failed?

It’s hard to look at the world at this moment and not conclude that the answer is yes. Despite all the activism, despite all the protests, despite all the warnings, the world is still in many ways hostage to the fossil fuel industry.

A new book by Andreas Malm, a professor of human ecology at Sweden’s Lund University, asks a simple but perplexing question: Given the stakes, why hasn’t the global climate movement become far more radical than it is?

It’s a fair question. If we as a species were serious, if we really believed what we already know about climate change, we would be doing everything humanly possible to shift course. And yet we’re not. Even the most ambitious policy proposals on the table, with little chance of passing, are scarcely sufficient. This is the starting point of Malm’s book, and if you follow his logic it leads to some conclusions you may find uncomfortable.

He says it bluntly: We should “[d]amage 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 investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.” For Malm, we have a choice: Destroy the property that’s destroying the planet, or sacrifice the Earth on the altar of that property.

Malm’s book — it’s titled How to Blow Up a Pipeline — is obviously meant to provoke. But embedded in the provocation is a morally serious challenge to how we think about, and act on, the crisis humanity faces. And to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how I feel about it. For instance, I think his summons to violence vastly overstates our ability to “control” such violence once it’s unleashed. I’m also less confident in the strategic utility of violence (even if it’s limited to the destruction of property, as Malm recommends) considering the enormous blowback that might result from it.

I reached out to him for this week’s episode of Vox Conversations to talk about how we got here, why he says it’s time to escalate, and the problems — both obvious and subtle — with such a radical approach.

Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation and some additional material from a follow-up exchange over email. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

In some ways I feel like I’m part of the problem. I know the situation we’re in, and I continue to live my life as though I don’t.

Or maybe, to be more fair to myself and people like me, I live as though I am powerless, as though a begrudging acceptance is the only option. I put my bottles in the recycling bin and I roll it out to the street every Friday, but it all feels so pointless. But maybe that’s just the story I’m telling myself because it’s better to be impotent than morally culpable.

Andreas Malm

Yeah. But this is part of the cognitive or psychological or fundamentally political problem here, that people see themselves as responsible for the situation and feel that “the level of action that I need to be on is recycling bottles” and things like that. I don’t know you as a person, but I suspect you’re not a CEO of an oil or gas or coal company. You’re not one of those people who profit from the continued destruction of this planet. I suspect you’re not one of the hyper-rich, either, who engage in extreme luxury emissions in the consumption sphere.

We shouldn’t imagine ourselves being all of us responsible for this mess. The responsibility is heavily concentrated in a particular segment of people, namely those who make the actual investment decisions about what energy sources to exploit or not. The level of action that we as individuals need to engage in is in collective action, together with others, against the interests sustaining the production of fossil fuels.

Sean Illing

Well, you do something that strikes me as very important in this book. You frame the climate crisis as fundamentally a political economy problem. It’s not a science problem. It’s not a knowledge problem. We know everything we need to know to do what we know we need to do, but we’re stuck where we’re stuck because certain interests are invested in keeping us there.

Is it too simple to say that what you think we really have is a capitalism problem?

Andreas Malm

No, that’s not too simple. It’s what it is. That’s exactly what it is.

Sean Illing

I’ll just quote you here and let you expound on it. You say, “The historical victory of capital and the ruination of the planet are one and the same thing.” Is that an indictment of capitalism as such, or is it an indictment of this manifestation of capitalism? Or do you think the internal logic of capitalism was destined to lead us to this place in any case?

Andreas Malm

I would lean toward the latter. Let me just take one example. A country that’s not so often discussed in this context is France. The single largest company in France is Total [TotalEnergies SE], which is one of the major oil and gas companies in the world, currently constructing what will be the world’s longest heated oil pipeline in Tanzania and Uganda. They just signed a contract with Iraq for a massive expansion of the oil and gas infrastructure there. They want to go into the Arctic to get even more fossil gas.

Now, this company cannot continue to exist as such. It cannot continue in this fashion, if we’re going to have a planet where we can live without going up in flames. I think that company should be taken over by the state in France. It should be socialized, nationalized, and forced to quit fossil fuel production and do something else, such as cleaning up the atmosphere instead of polluting it even more.

Is that compatible with the continued capitalist status quo in France, or would that challenge to such an important part of the capitalist class in France set in motion a process that leads beyond the capitalists present in that country? I don’t know. It’s certainly not on the table, because [French President Emmanuel] Macron is backing this company on all fronts; so will [far-right leader Marine] Le Pen if she were to become president. That’s the kind of change we need, but it’s not in the cards anywhere, really.

Sean Illing

I want to be as clear as possible about what you’re asking climate activists and citizens in general to consider. You argue that the ruling classes simply will not do what’s necessary. You argue the movement should, and I’ll quote now, “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 investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.”

Now, I think that’s about as clear as any statement could possibly be. So let me just ask: Why do you think going in this direction will succeed where other nonviolent approaches have failed?

Andreas Malm

Well, to begin with, I don’t know that it would succeed. It’s not like I have a crystal ball where I’ve seen that we’ll win if we start doing this. But I think that the situation is so dire, so extreme, that we have to experiment, have to try. What we tried so far has only taken us so far. It’s given us limited success, but we still haven’t managed to dent the curves and bring emissions down and start the transition.

I mean, after a summer like this, and after all the disasters that keep raining down on us, it strikes me as paradoxical that people let these machines, these properties that are destroying the planet, continue to operate without going into the facilities and shutting them down and wrecking them.

I do think that the past experiences of social struggles suggests that if you’re fighting a very powerful enemy, you need to engage in tactics that can impose costs on that enemy. This usually includes forms of property destruction and confrontation with the ruling order that goes beyond absolutely peaceful civil disobedience. I don’t know of any relevant analogy or a parallel struggle in the past that has succeeded without an element of more militant methods. I don’t see how we can imagine that we will win this fight while staying as gentle and kind and polite as we have in the climate movement so far.

Sean Illing

Are you advocating terrorism?

Andreas Malm

Some people would call it that, but that’s not a definition of terrorism that I find justifiable. If the word “terrorism” is going to have any kind of meaning, it’s the indiscriminate killing of civilians for the purpose of instilling fear. That’s very far from what I advocate.

Sean Illing

Certainly the indiscriminate killing of civilians is terrorism, but I would tweak that definition a bit to say that the ultimate point of terrorism isn’t to instill fear but to provoke a political response, and that’s definitely what we’re talking about here.

Andreas Malm

If you advocate the destruction of property, and in this case property that is at the very core of the problem, property that contributes to people’s death from climate catastrophes, if you advocate putting these machines out of business, I don’t see how that can fall under a reasonable definition of what terrorism is. Some people will call it terrorism, just like some people would call the BLM protesters terrorists last year, but that’s another problem.

Sean Illing

So you do seem to draw a moral distinction between property sabotage and violence [against humans].

Andreas Malm

Some people say that, including the Catholic workers that I write about in the book, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, who systematically destroyed property along the Dakota Access pipeline when it was being constructed. They come from a particular radical Catholic tradition where they see this as falling under the definition of nonviolence. So they would destroy a lot of equipment, burn it, blow it up, and classify that as nonviolence.

I myself have no problem with that logic. But most philosophers, as far as I can tell, would say that this is a form of violence because the owners of these things perceive themselves to be harmed, their interests being harmed, even though their own bodies are not being harmed. Therefore, the argument would be that this is a kind of violence. But all philosophers that I’m aware of see this as a form of violence qualitatively different from actually targeting the bodies of the people in question.

There is a difference, for example, between slashing a tire and slashing the lungs of the owner of the car. These are two completely different types of violence, and the distinction between them is clear. But I also think it’s hard to dispute the general perception that if people go marching down a street and smash all the windows in the shops, what they’re doing is nonviolent. That’s not how people see it. A riot is generally perceived as a violent thing even if it doesn’t harm a human being.

In my book, I accept that philosophical definition and the commonsense use of the term here that property destruction is a form of violence. But it’s a lesser form of violence, qualitatively different from harming human beings.

Sean Illing

I wonder if you think there’s a point at which the crisis is so immense, and the threat to human lives in the future is so great, that we’d have to reevaluate the limits of violence in the present. Personally, I don’t think that logic is morally justifiable and I’m not even sure there’s reason to think more violence would be effective in the first place, but I wanted to at least ask.

Andreas Malm

The struggle against fossil fuel production would not need killings, nor would such acts benefit the cause — no matter how catastrophic the future risks might be. So I do think respect for this line is essential. That said, I am not a pacifist in the sense that I rule out the taking of lives in all contexts, on moral or strategic grounds; in retrospect, I fully support the Northern side in the US Civil War and the struggle of anti-fascist partisans in Europe, to take only two obvious examples.

But I don’t see the moral calculus changing in this fashion, partly because I don’t see how hurting people — as human bodies — in the present could even hypothetically save future lives.

Sean Illing

It’s more or less a truism in the literature on civil disobedience and nonviolence that protest movements succeed or fail on the basis of mass participation, and that the easiest way to deter mass participation is to turn to violence. You have a lot of issues with that argument. What do you think that misses? What do you think is wrong about that?

Andreas Malm

Virtually all the historical cases that are advanced in favor of this argument show the opposite. But we don’t need to get bogged down in the distant past; we can just look at what happened in the US in 2020.

After the murder of George Floyd, people rioted in Minneapolis, and three days after the murder they stormed the police station in the Third Precinct and burned it and completely gutted it. That, as far as I can tell, at least, served as a catalyst for people to engage in BLM protests on a scale never seen before. Of course, the overwhelming majority of demonstrations were peaceful, but the element of property destruction cannot be discounted as counterproductive.

I think that, to the contrary, what the storming of that police station signaled to people is that the systematic violence perpetrated by police forces against African Americans is not our fate. It’s not a law of nature, something that we just have to resign ourselves to. It’s something that we can physically disrupt and put an end to. That inspired people to engage in activism on a scale never seen before in US history. It was, as far as I know, the largest social movement in American history, if you count by the number of people on the streets.

The climate movement needs something similar, because people tend to perceive fossil fuel infrastructure as a fact of nature, something beyond our control, something that we cannot put a stop to. Therefore, those disasters that are destroying our lives are something that we can just try to live with, to adapt to as best as we can.

What people tend to forget also is that the disasters that we saw this summer all over the globe, that’s not what global heating is going to look like. I mean, people experience these things and say, “Aha, this is the new normal.” But there is no baseline in global warming. It gets worse all the time. The longer you continue with CO2 emissions, the more you add to what’s already accumulated in the atmosphere, the worse it will be. Every taste of global warming is always a foretaste, which means that 10 years down the road, what happened this summer might look extremely benevolent.

Sean Illing

Even in the case of the BLM protests last summer, I don’t think burning down police precincts helped the movement. The movement would have accomplished what it accomplished without that. I think that risked turning public opinion against it. But I don’t think it succeeded because of that. I think it was unhelpful, to put it mildly.

I wonder how concerned you are about unleashing these sorts of forces. I mean, in the book you call it the “fine art of controlled political violence.” But I don’t think political violence can be controlled, at least not reliably — especially when the ends, in this case our actual survival, are so extreme.

How much does that worry you?

Andreas Malm

No, of course, of course. There are all sorts of pitfalls and dangers and risks, and we’re so late in the day that no path forward is risk-free. If you just continue with business as usual, that entails an enormous amount of risk.

Peaceful civil disobedience as an exclusive tactic for the climate movement has the risk of inefficacy. Escalation of the kind that I advocate has the risk of unleashing political forces and violence that cannot be controlled. Yes, that risk exists. I do think that political violence can be controlled. I find it hard to endorse the idea that as soon as you engage in any kind of violence, it will automatically spiral beyond control into some kind of, I don’t know, vendetta or violence orgy or something like that.

Again, the George Floyd uprising last year is a case in point, because I think that there was collective discipline about the level of violence that the radical edge of that movement engaged in.

There was a general realization that if the movement oversteps that boundary, that very important limit, and starts killing people, the backlash will be tremendous. There are many other cases where you have militant movements deciding that, “We’re engaging in this specific kind of violence. We’re not going to harm individuals, we’re not going to kill people, but we’re going to harm property,” and have successfully maintained that limit and that boundary. I don’t think that’s impossible.

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