ASK Musings

No matter where you go, there you are.



April 2023



How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Two Stars

Best for:
I’m really not sure, and I’ll get to that in the review.

In a nutshell:
Author (and climate activist) Malm attempts to argue in favor of stronger action by the public where it comes to climate change and fossil fuel.

Worth quoting:
“We face an ostensible paradox here, in that the US is a vastly more violent society — as measured by the diffusion of guns, the incidence of mass shootings, the civilians killed by police, the veneration of armed heroes in popular culture, the belligerence of the state and any other yardstick — than France, and yet the intolerance for violence committed by social movements as at its highest in the former.”

Why I chose it:
While the title is provocative, I was hoping to learn more about the discussion of what to do with the fact that governments are just not acting with enough urgency.

What it left me feeling:

I’m trying to be more constructive in my reviews, because I’m trying to remind myself that there is a person who spent a lot of time and energy on the book I’m reviewing. I might disagree with their arguments (or even disagree that an argument has been made at all), but unless they are making harmful claims (e.g. expressing bigotry), there’s no point is being unnecessarily critical.

So of course one of the first books I am reviewing with this new approach is one that is going to test it mightily.

The world is on fire. In some places, quite literally. And the leaders are failing us all. As Greta Thunberg pointed out in her speech to the UN: “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

It is very clear that politicians in the nations responsible for the most CO2 emissions, the most burning of fossil fuels, are doing the absolute least in addressing these issues. They sign onto agreements that only require changes many years in the future. They repeatedly move the goalposts. And while that happens, California and Australia burn, islands in the Caribbean are mowed down by increased tropical storms. England reaches 107 degrees F. And private jets are still a thing, and yachts are still a thing, and billionaires are somehow still a thing.

So, what do we do? Malm sort of has a suggestion – more action targeted at the polluters, in the form not just of sit-ins or marches, but in the form of vandalism. Take out pipelines (he doesn’t literally explain how to or directly advocate for that). Deflate tires of SUVs in rich areas (he has done that). Do whatever it takes to be heard.

I don’t know if I agree or disagree with Malm because I found his book challenging to follow, and not because it’s too academic, or beyond my understanding. As previous reviews show, I am generally fine with sharing when I think I just don’t understand a book. This one, I found, is just not well argued. Part of that is its length – it’s not short, but it only has three chapters, and I don’t think the argument was well-organized enough to fit into just three chapters. I think it would be much stronger with more logical and specific delineations.

But it isn’t just that for me – I also am not sure of what the specific argument Malm is putting forth. Obviously I agree with him that climate change is of critical importance and that a different approach is needed, but I’m not sure if I know what the different approach is that he supports. Most of the book seems to be Malm arguing against other people who have made arguments that he disagrees with. And that can definitely work, but I don’t think it does here because those other arguments aren’t well positioned against anything the author himself is offering.

He spends a lot of time looking at historical protests that others suggest were successful due to their non-violent nature, and refutes a lot of that. And while the way he does that isn’t how I would choose to do it, he does do it. He also calls out how some modern-day climate actions are ineffective (specifically Extinction Rebellion) as well as hypocritical in their complete non-violence stance (again, Extinction Rebellion). He also spends time suggesting that violence doesn’t need to mean physically harming people – and I think perhaps even argues that we need a different term, because violence is loaded, and damaging a pipeline shouldn’t be considered violent. Especially when the impact of that pipeline is actual violence, causing actual harm to real people. I can see his point, I think, but I needed more from him here.

The strongest part of the book for me is when he talks about luxury vs subsistence emissions. Like, it’s absurd to suggest that people who burn wood so they can heat their homes and cook food and survive need to be making changes before someone who owns a yacht or an SUV or flies a private jet.

In the end, for me, books like this need to have a specific audience to be successful, and after reading it I am not clear on who the audience is. Is he trying to convince average folks to take up the cause to fight climate change? Is he trying to convince existing activists to step up their games and be more pro-active in their targeting of those causing the most harm to the climate? Is he trying to convince the big movements to stop calling for non-violence? The book cannot be all things to all audiences, and it feels to me that it is trying to be just that, and so ultimately it does not work. The subtitle is ‘Learning to Fight in a World on Fire,’ but I do not feel like the book is teaching how to fight.

The book also suffers (for me) from something I see so often in activism books: the sort of ‘who knows’ of it all. The author, just four pages from the end, says this “How could that happen? This cannot be known beforehand. It can be found out only through immersion in practice.” Which strikes me as disingenuous. 157 pages of arguing about needing to take a new approach to climate activism, but ultimately he isn’t willing to write out specifically what that should look like and how it can work.

If the target audience is people who aren’t yet active in the climate change arena (me), it doesn’t work. I’d be interested to learn if those who are active in that area find the book useful.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
Toss it

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.