Is sabotage needed to save the Earth?

How to Blow Up a Pipeline makes a passionate case for sabotage at the expense of a much better option: expanding the repertoire of nonviolent action.

Brian Martin

Waging Nonviolence, 29 October 2021

Imagine you are a climate-change campaigner. You’ve studied research findings and know that unless greenhouse gas emissions are greatly reduced very soon, future generations will likely suffer catastrophic impacts. You’ve protested for years, yet governments and companies continue to invest in fossil fuels, and emissions keep going up. You are especially annoyed at those who are rich and privileged and who seem not to care that with their SUVs and international flights they are causing more damage to the climate than thousands of ordinary people in Bangladesh or Burundi. You don’t want to give in to desperation. You want to do something to bring a halt to a crime in the making.

If you can imagine this, you are getting close to the thinking of Andreas Malm, a Swedish activist who has been campaigning on climate change since the 1990s. As an organizer of — and participant in — inspiring direct actions, he became increasingly frustrated that the climate-change movement seems unwilling to adopt more confrontational methods. Malm has written a call to arms titled How to Blow Up a Pipeline. It is passionate, readable and thought-provoking, even if you disagree.

Despite the title, Malm’s book is not a practical guide for blowing up a pipeline — or a manual for undertaking any other form of damage to technology. Instead, it is both a call to consider these options and a bitter attack on campaigners who refuse to do so.

He starts by describing climate-change protests that — despite the number of people involved and their commitment — have not done enough to halt the continued march towards climate doom. He tells, with great exasperation, of continued investments in fossil fuels, despite the overwhelming evidence that we need to move in the opposite direction. He sees the fossil fuel juggernaut as impervious to rational argument and contemptuous of concerns about the future. He sees it as driven by the rich and powerful who expect to be able to buy their way out of adverse impacts, and who know they won’t be around when the worst consequences occur. 

The question of property damage

Malm describes climate-change campaigners as committed to the principles of nonviolent action, which he sums up as: protests are fine and encouraged, but violence must be avoided, including violence against property. It’s this latter point — the rejection of property destruction — that he disagrees with, and thinks is holding the movement back from really making an impact.

Malm argues that activists need to go to the next step and damage or destroy physical objects that are contributing most to global warming. This includes actions against SUVs, oil pipelines, coal mines and power plants.

The trouble is that Malm assumes that if violence was used in a movement, the movement could not have succeeded without it — but that is exactly what needs to be shown.

To show the power of this form of action, he recounts numerous cases of effective sabotage, including sabotage of pipelines in Iraq against the U.S. occupation, in South Africa against apartheid and in Nigeria against exploitative oil companies. His most entertaining story is actually about an action he took part in. With a group of climate activists in Stockholm, Malm went into a wealthy area and targeted SUVs parked outside palatial residences, letting the air out of tires and dropping leaflets that argued against the vehicles’ profligate energy use. No physical damage was done — tires were not slashed. Nevertheless, many owners were furious and not at all interested in learning about their negative climate impact.

For all his talk supporting more aggressive tactics, Malm still says it is vital that sabotage of this sort never harms a living creature. If people are physically hurt, the cause will be hurt as well as the people. He recounts the success of efforts to deface and destroy vehicles and buildings with such care that injuries and deaths are extremely rare.

In the third and final chapter, Malm takes aim at fatalists, specifically authors Roy Scranton and Jonathan Franzen, who write that it is hopeless to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to prevent major climate change, and therefore it’s not worth trying. Malm is contemptuous of their unwillingness to reduce their own excessive energy use. In contrast, he argues persuasively that fatalism is never justified because no matter how bad things get, efforts to prevent them getting even worse will extend people’s lives some time in the future. 

A good case for sabotage?

How to Blow Up a Pipeline has all the makings of a powerful and convincing case for sabotage as a vital and influential part of the climate movement. It is just the sort of argument needed to make activists sit up and listen — or to trigger a productive dialogue. Alas, it does not quite achieve this due to several shortcomings.

Malm makes the case that well-known movements and campaigns only succeeded because they used violence against property. He cites the British suffragettes, who smashed windows and torched buildings in their struggle for the vote for women. He refers to sabotage by workers that contributed to the Iranian revolution. He tells of the Black people who formed armed groups and were prepared to take on the Ku Klux Klan, calling them instrumental in the success of the U.S. civil rights movement. 

The trouble is that Malm assumes that if violence was used in a movement, the movement could not have succeeded without it — indeed that the movement succeeded because it used violence. But that is exactly what needs to be shown, and Malm makes little attempt to show it. Furthermore, civil resistance scholars have actually argued the opposite in each of the cases he cites, specifically that: property damage by British suffragettes may have set back their cause, the Iranian revolution was successful because it was mostly nonviolent, and the civil rights movement did not need armed protection.

These questionable examples complement Malm’s harsh attacks on nonviolence theory and practice — particularly the way key figures in the climate-action group Extinction Rebellion have interpreted research on nonviolent action. This is ultimately a critique of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s study of anti-regime campaigns, reported most prominently in their book “Why Civil Resistance Works.” Malm criticizes their classification of campaigns into the categories of violent (armed struggle) and nonviolent (using mainly methods of protest and noncooperation), questioning whether it’s possible to find any campaign relevant to climate action that had no violence whatsoever. Again, he seems to assume that violence is what makes campaigns successful. It is also true that nearly every campaign using violence also involves nonviolent actions. Should we assume that the effectiveness of such campaigns is due to its nonviolent components?

Some sabotage actions are unlikely to lead to saboteurs being physically attacked — for example deleting finance records of an oil company. Without an obvious assault, there is no backfire. Other sorts of sabotage actions, such as blowing up an oil refinery, are quite different.

Nevertheless, it is reasonable to observe that insights from campaigns aimed at ousting dictators may not always apply to a rather different sort of campaign, one to reduce to zero the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The trouble is that Malm has not gone back to other key sources on strategic nonviolent action, such as Gene Sharp’s “The Politics of Nonviolent Action,” which includes a framework for understanding the dynamics of nonviolent campaigns. One element in this framework is called political jiu-jitsu, or the process by which physical assaults on nonviolent protesters sometimes can lead to greater support for the movement. A jiu-jitsu effect also can occur in other domains, such as sexual harassment, police beatings and genocide. Perpetrators can use a variety of methods to reduce public outrage, while campaigners can use counter-methods to increase it. These “backfire dynamics” apply to sabotage whether it is classified as violence, nonviolence or on the boundary between them.

Imagine that police brutally assault some saboteurs. Potentially this could backfire on the police, leading to greater public support for the movement. But will it actually backfire? This depends on the action and the response by authorities. Some sabotage actions are unlikely to lead to saboteurs being physically attacked — for example deleting finance records of an oil company. Without an obvious assault, there is no backfire. Other sorts of sabotage actions, such as blowing up an oil refinery, are quite different. They could lead to a roundup and interrogation of suspects and massive surveillance of climate activists. Would such a response generate enormous public outrage about ill-treatment of alleged saboteurs by authorities?

A lot depends on the level of public support for sabotage against greenhouse gas emissions. Consider a different sort of campaign, one against a corrupt and repressive government. There might be widespread opposition to the regime that is seldom expressed due to fear of reprisals. An anti-regime movement can grow massively when there is an opportunity to resist without too much danger. Nonviolent campaigns have a much greater capacity for popular involvement, and this is a key factor in their success. Government repression can generate greater opposition. In this context, sabotage that targets regime assets is less likely to backfire on the movement.

Sabotage carried out in secrecy is easier to label as “ecoterrorism,” a highly misleading term considering that environmental activists have never killed anyone.

Malm talks mainly about sabotage carried out in secret. When activists operate secretly, it is harder for them to gain public sympathy, and also harder for members of the public to participate. In contrast, some types of sabotage are carried out openly. This is less frightening to the public, and they can join in too. In 1989, Communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed in the face of popular resistance, mostly without violence. After the government of East Germany resigned, citizens set about dismantling the Berlin Wall, a symbol of Communist oppression. This might have been called sabotage, but it was carried out as a joyous celebration. 

For decades, plowshares activists have entered military facilities and sought to cause damage to weapons. Rather than trying to sneak out, they have taken full responsibility for their actions, and often ended up serving years in prison. This sort of action is less threatening to the public, and authorities who call the activists terrorists have less credibility. On the other hand, plowshares efforts have failed to trigger mass support for efforts to bring an end to the war system.

Another problem with secretly organized sabotage is that it is harder to ensure that no harm will come to humans. In 1987, a sawmill worker was nearly killed when a sawblade hit a tree spike; this accident was blamed on environmentalists. Sabotage carried out in secrecy is easier to label as “ecoterrorism,” a highly misleading term considering that environmental activists have never killed anyone.

A further layer of tactical complexity is that authorities, or other hostile elements deploying agents provocateurs, might try to undermine the movement by instigating sabotage that causes risks to lives. This is to promote what can be called “black backfire” in which climate activists are blamed for actions they did not do, enabling repressive responses that do not trigger much public outrage. Openness reduces this risk to the movement.

On withdrawing consent

Climate change is a different sort of issue because there is not a single ruler from whom cooperation can be withdrawn. In affluent societies, most citizens are implicated in activities that contribute to global warming, for example driving cars, using electricity or eating meat. Direct actions against greenhouse gas emissions — for example, power sector workers going on strike — can cause hardship across the society and may cause hostility rather than generate support.

More promising are actions that withdraw support for investments in sectors contributing the most to global warming. This is happening already to some extent, with the fossil-fuel divestment  movement and banks refusing to fund new coal mines.

Malm is right that direct actions to destroy energy infrastructure will alarm investors who fear the stranding of their assets. This fear is also present in the financial sector, as large investors and reinsurance companies change their preferences. A capital strike, denying or withdrawing investments — or threatening to — is a powerful tool. It is regularly used to serve the interests of large companies at the expense of consumers and workers, yet can also be used to support the climate movement. Shareholder activism, and social influence with major investors, can help make this work.

Malm dismisses this sort of action as fighting on the opponent’s terrain, but that is too simple of an analysis. Nonviolent actions — such as those trying to stop new pipelines — can have powerful economic impacts simply by causing delay, which costs large amounts of money, whereas sabotage of a pipeline may cause only a blip in operations. Some shrewd investors understand the threat posed by climate change — and the climate movement — to corporations and markets, and are open to change.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, campaigns against nuclear power slowed projects, stimulated more safety measures, increased costs and helped to make the nuclear option uneconomic — and there was little if any contribution from sabotage to this process. The same could happen, and indeed is already happening, with fossil fuels and climate activism.

There is much more that can be said about strategy for the climate movement, and discussions of Malm’s arguments for sabotage are worth having as part of that broader conversation. Yet, at the same time, there is also the possibility of expanding the repertoire of methods of nonviolent action — especially strikes and boycotts, drawing in a range of allies in the struggle. Most of the population will need to be brought on board for strong action. The question is: What’s the most effective way of doing this?

For valuable comments, thanks to Paula Arvela, Mark Diesendorf, Bryan Farrell, Suzzanne Gray, Anneleis Humphries, Tim Johnson-Newell, Olga Kuchinskaya, Julia LeMonde, Monica O’Dwyer, Stellan Vinthagen, Bec Watt and Qinqing Xu.

Go to

Brian Martin's book reviews

Brian Martin's publications on nonviolent action

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website