How to blow up a pipeline

In partnership withVerso
How to blow up a pipeline
In the year that it became a feature film, here we extract Malm’s iconic call to action, in the hope it may inspire you to take some in 2024.

On the last day of the negotiations, we geared up for our most daring action yet. We had been camping out in a shabby gymnasium in the eastern part of the city for a week. My friends and I had arrived there on a decrepit bus – on the road, in the middle of the night, the exhaust pipe fell off – but when we spread out on the yard of the sports centre we felt the rush of entering an alternative world: a place where business-as-usual had been suspended. A communal kitchen served vegan food. Assemblies were open to anyone with something to say. During one workshop, a man from Bangladesh outlined the devastating consequences of rising sea levels for his country; at another, delegates from small island states came to voice their distress as well as their support. My friends and I secured an audience with our environmental minister and urged her to ratchet up ambitions. The science, after all, had been clear for a long time by now.

One day we poured out of subway stations and onto a busy junction in the middle of the city and blocked the traffic with banners calling for emissions to be slashed. Activists played guitars and violins while others danced; some juggled; some handed out sunflower seeds to irate motorists. We had no intention of confronting the police or anyone else; we’d rather get arrested than throw a bottle or stone. The next day, we flooded a thoroughfare with an elaborate street theatre. Dressed up as trees, flowers and animals, we laid down on the tarmac to be run over by a vehicle built of cardboard and wood to symbolise business-as-usual. Striding through the flattened crowd, protesters in UN delegate costumes carried signs saying ‘Blah-Blah-Blah’ and did nothing.

And now it was the final day of the negotiations. Hired buses drove all 500 of us close to the venue. On signal, we marched to the building and tried to prevent the delegates from leaving by locking ourselves to the gates with chains and lying down on the ground, all the while chanting: ‘No more blah-blah-blah . . . Action now! No more blah blah-blah . . . Action now!’

This happened in 1995. The scene was COP1, the very first in the annual series of UN climate summits, in Berlin. The delegates snuck out through a backdoor. Since then, total annual CO2 emissions in the world have grown by some 60 per cent. In the year of that summit, the combustion of fossil fuels pumped more than six gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere; in 2018, the figure passed ten. In the twenty-five years after the delegates left, more carbon was released from underground stocks than in the seventy-five years before they met.

Since COP1, the US has set off a boom in fossil fuel extraction, once again becoming the world’s top producer of oil and gas; home to the largest network of pipelines, it has added upwards of 800,000 miles, multiplying and elongating the high-pressure hoses for dousing fuel on the fire. Germany has continued to dig up nearly 200 million tons of brown coal – the dirtiest of all fossil fuels – every year. The open pit mines expand relentlessly, forests and villages being torn down so the sooty bowls can stretch beyond the horizon and the excavators can shovel up more soft rock to be set on fire. Since COP1, my home country, Sweden, has initiated one of the largest infrastructure projects in its history: a massive ‘ring road’ highway. Nothing extraordinary, just another highway. Coiling around Stockholm, it is meant to carry more cars spewing out ever more millions of tons of the noxious element. In April 1995, the month COP1 came to an end, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 stood at 363 parts per million. In April 2018, it was higher than 410 ppm.

A cloud of smoke billows across Siberia as I write these words. It originates from wildfires of unprecedented extent and ferocity within the Arctic Circle; for weeks, the flames have been sweeping through what should be the coldest forests on Earth and sending up plumes into one giant formation of soot. The cloud is now larger than the territory of the European Union. Before it dissipates, swathes of the Amazon catch fire and turn to ash at a pace never registered before.

To say that the signals have fallen on the deaf ears of the ruling classes of this world would be an understatement. If these classes ever had any senses, they have lost them all. They are not perturbed by the smell from the blazing trees. They do not worry at the sight of islands sinking; they do not run from the roar of the approaching hurricanes; their fingers never need to touch the stalks from withered harvests; their mouths do not become sticky and dry after a day with nothing to drink. To appeal to their reason and common sense would evidently be futile. The commitment to the endless accumulation of capital wins out every time. After the past three decades, there can be no doubt that the ruling classes are constitutionally incapable of responding to the catastrophe in any other way than by expediting it; of their own accord, under their inner compulsion, they can do nothing but burn their way to the end.

And so we are still here. We erect our camps of sustainable solutions. We cook our vegan food and hold our assemblies. We march, we block, we stage theatres, we hand over lists of demands to ministers, we chain ourselves, we march the next day too. We are still perfectly, immaculately peaceful. There are more of us now, by orders of magnitude. There is another pitch of desperation in our voices; we talk of extinction and no future. And still business continues very much as usual.

At what point do we escalate? When do we conclude that the time has come to also try something different? 

When do we start physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy them with our own hands? Is there a good reason we have waited this long?

In the summer of 2017, the Gulf of Mexico stored a record amount of heat. Its surface waters had never been as warm before. When the seasonal hurricanes began to gather, the winds spinning and swirling up in spirals, they extracted some of that excess energy as fuel for their motion and their rains. On 18 September, the eighth hurricane of the season, christened Maria, suddenly and explosively intensified from a category 1 to a category 5 system and took on the shape, as satellites recorded, of a monstrous saw blade. It tore through the Caribbean island of Dominica, mowing it down. The rainforests covering the hills were clear-cut, the trees chopped and thrown into the sea, the island sheared of its emblematic greenery in the course of a few hours; buildings were blown away as if they had been straw huts. Estimates of the share of houses either vanished or badly damaged ranged from 60 to 97 per cent. Afterwards, piles of debris – roofs, bricks, furniture, cables, sewage pipes, an entire nation’s infrastructure – lay scattered over the island. One of those who lost his home was the prime minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, who took the podium of the United Nations’ General Assembly four days after Maria’s landfall.

Rarely has a head of state been so shell-shocked when addressing that gathering. Skerrit spoke of himself as coming straight from the front line of a war. ‘We dug graves today in Dominica!’ he exclaimed. ‘We buried loved ones yesterday and I am sure that as I return home tomorrow, we shall discover additional fatalities. Our homes are flattened! Our buildings are roofless! Our crops are uprooted! Where there was green there is now only dust and dirt.’ Aptly summing up the science, Skerrit explained to the world’s congregated leaders that the heat in the ocean functions as a fuel load for storms, super charging them and turning them into weapons of mass destruction. The heat was not generated by Caribbean peoples. An island almost exclusively inhabited by the descendants of slaves and a sliver of an indigenous population, Dominica remains impoverished, a world away from New York City or London, responsible for a level of fossil fuel combustion so miniscule that it alone would have left no trace on the planet. ‘The war has come to us!’ Skerrit cried out, struggling to contain the pain. ‘We are shouldering the consequences of the actions of others. Actions that endanger our very existence . . . and all for the enrichment of a few elsewhere.’ He made a desperate plea to his audience. ‘We need action’ – action, that is, to cut emissions – ‘and we need it NOW!!’ He probably knew on what kind of ears his words would fall. His war imagery was apt; like a precision-guided missile, Hurricane Maria departed Dominica and continued towards Puerto Rico, where the scenes were repeated, flooding and mudslides shattering villages and killing people in droves. The government put the death toll at sixty-four, but several independent research teams demonstrated that the real figure was somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000. No similar assessments were conducted for Dominica.

Two weeks before Maria, as a comment on the ongoing hyperactive hurricane season, one publication that had long taken an interest in climate change, the London Review of Books, pulled out essays on the topic from its archives and sent them to subscribers. The first was written by the British novelist and essayist John Lanchester. It begins:

It is strange and striking that climate change activists have not committed any acts of terrorism. After all, terrorism is for the individual by far the modern world’s most effective form of political action, and climate change is an issue about which people feel just as strongly as about, say, animal rights. This is especially noticeable when you bear in mind the ease of things like blowing up petrol stations, or vandalising SUVs. In cities, SUVs are loathed by everyone except the people who drive them; and in a city the size of London, a few dozen people could in a short space of time make the ownership of these cars effectively impossible, just by running keys down the side of them, at a cost to the owner of several thousand pounds a time. Say fifty people vandalising four cars each every night for a month: six thousand trashed SUVs in a month and the Chelsea tractors would soon be disappearing from our streets. So why don’t these things happen? Is it because the people who feel strongly about climate change are simply too nice, too educated, to do anything of the sort? (But terrorists are often highly educated.) Or is it that even the people who feel most strongly about climate change on some level can’t quite bring themselves to believe in it?

These words were penned ten years before the hurricane season of 2017. They were written before floods inundated a fifth of Pakistan and ruined the lives of some 20 million people, before Cyclone Nargis killed a couple of hundred thousand in Myanmar, before Typhoon Haiyan killed more than six thousand in the Philippines, before Cyclone Idai devastated central Mozambique, before Matthew, Isaac, Irma, Dorian, before the droughts settled on Central America and took hold of Iran and Afghanistan, before mudslides killed more than a thousand in the capital of Sierra Leone and monsoon-like rains washed away hundreds of villages in Peru and the thermometer regularly reached levels barely endurable by the human body in the Persian Gulf, before uncountable other disasters – some reaching deep into the global North: heatwaves roasting Europe for two consecutive summers, the worst wildfires in the history of California – all formed in the cauldron of an overheated world. And still the same conditions prevail. They are puzzling. At least five factors make them so.

First, the magnitude of what is at stake: close to all living beings in heaven and on earth. Second, the ubiquity of potential targets in advanced capitalist countries. A petrol station or an SUV is rarely more than a stone’s throw away – a factor absent, crucially, in countries like Dominica, where emissions sources can be few and far between. Third, the facility with which such things could be taken out of service; no very complicated instruments would have to be employed. Fourth, the awareness of the structure and dimensions of the crisis (considerably more widespread now than when Lanchester’s essay was published), weighing rather heavier on people’s minds than an issue like animal rights. To these easily ascertain able factors, Lanchester added a fifth of a speculative nature: the efficacy of a campaign to take out the most emissions-intensive devices. We do not know if the results are guaranteed, because no such campaigns have yet, as of this writing, been undertaken. On the other hand, one could adduce a sixth factor that is always fully evident: the enormity of the injustice being perpetrated.

All in all, this makes it strange and striking indeed that the kind of actions described by Lanchester have not been taken. It is a paradox: call it simply ‘Lanchester’s paradox’. It registers part of the general deficit of action in response to climate breakdown. It captures a form of inaction within the world of activism itself. There is a relation between it and the blah-blah-blah of politicians.

How to blow up a pipeline
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