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A New Film Shows How to Blow Up a Pipeline — But Would That Save The Planet?

May 30, 2023

Two years ago, a book with a brilliant title hit the shelves. But the cover of How to Blow Up a Pipeline by the Swedish academic Andreas Malm could be considered false advertising. The 208 pages do not contain a single line about how to sabotage fossil fuel infrastructure. An accurate title for this philosophical tract would be more like: Why Aren't More People Blowing Up Pipelines?1We are going to examine the book in an upcoming article.

Now, Hollywood has come to the rescue. A film of the same name looks at the more technical aspects of sabotage. A group of eight youngsters, each with their own skills and quirks, gather in a shed in West Texas for a daring heist. It's like an environmental version of Ocean's Eleven, except they’re not trying to get rich — they’re trying to save civilization. Their plan is for the explosion to drive up the price for a barrel of crude, and thus discourage investments in oil infrastructure. More importantly, they want to inspire others to commit similar acts of sabotage.

The movie features a cross-section of America. There are young women from Long Beach, California who grew up next to an oil refinery and have suffered horribly for it (one has terminal cancer, while the other lost her mother to a heat wave). There are college students who are sick of ultra-pacifistic protests for divestment from fossil fuels. There are anarcho-punks from Portland (one poor, one rich) who are already used to ecological sabotage, but want to take it to the next level. There is a socially awkward Indigenous man from North Dakota who hates oil workers invading tribal lands, and is really good at making explosives. And finally, because subcultural leftists can't get enough of this fantasy, there is a real Texas cowboy who carries a gun, chews tobacco, and loves Jesus. He joined the plot after his land was seized to build the pipeline.

Let's take a moment to emphasize that the film is dangerously unrealistic. The conspiracy is built up by DM’ing people on TikTok or approaching people in a bookstore while they look at Malm's book. They only meet in person at their hideout. This is a surefire way to make sure a group is full of police agents. In fact, if you ever are approached like this, you can be sure you’re talking to a cop.

In the world of this film, the FBI exists, but there is a single agent on the case who relies on an informant's updates via text message. In the real world world, the police apparatus of U.S. imperialism has trillions of dollars to ruthlessly persecute activists. If we look at actual ecological sabotage movements in the United States, like the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) from the 1990s, we see the FBI spending limitless resources over decades to pursue, imprison, and torture every single person involved, despite the fact that the ELF's actions were less dramatic than the explosion at the center of this film.

Regardless of the feasibility of the tactic: Is blowing up a pipeline a good idea? The film ends right after the bombs ignite and the triumphant video statement is uploaded to TikTok. But here's what would happen next: Every character would be tortured by the imperialist state for the rest of their lives.

Would this hurt the profits of fossil fuel companies? In recent years, we’ve seen massive acts of sabotage, although not from leftists. Last September, the Nord-Stream pipelines that once carried natural gas from Russia to Germany were blown up. Three years earlier, drones sent by the Houthi movement in Yemen struck two refineries in Saudi Arabia. This was far beyond what young activists in the U.S. could hope to accomplish — the explosions knocked out six percent (!) of global oil production all at once.

The Nord Stream attack did contribute to a huge spike in natural gas prices. As a result, working people were forced to pay billions of additional dollars to fossil capital to keep their homes warm. The sabotage led to record profits for fossil fuel companies — capital that will be used to build more pipelines. Similarly, the Abqaiq–Khurais attack led to a weeks-long interruption of production, but this did not have a big impact on the global oil markets because Saudi reserves were opened up. These attacks, while not ecologically motivated, were far larger than anything Malm or the filmmakers are contemplating. Capital can get through far greater levels of destruction — see: two world wars — as long as it finds a way to keep generating profits.

More importantly, would this inspire more activists? Probably not, given that the enormous sacrifice led to such meager results.

Sabotage like this — what the bourgeoisie calls eco-terrorism — is a dead end. But there is a way to stop the capitalist doomsday machine that is systematically cooking our planet. The film even offers small glimpses of it: the characters who have chosen to focus their life's work on this one pipeline are all working people. We see them facing the same problems as billions of working people in the United States: being denied health care by a for-profit corporation, struggling to find housing not drenched in pollution, looking for dignified work in a region with none. These are all workers, but they’re not presented as anything more than individuals. In fact, the workers that pop up in this movie are all mindless drones of fossil capital — oil workers even joke that they are doing the work of a literal drone — and the only antagonists on screen. And yes, workers can be manipulated to support the coal industry or car companies. Yet the real-life class struggle shows that even oil workers, when they organize and struggle independently, can fight for ecological transformation. And you don't need to blow up the pipeline if you can get the oil workers to shut down the valves!

Instead of cutting themselves off from their communities in order to go underground, these eight activists could work to organize the working class and the oppressed in a revolutionary movement fighting to expropriate fossil capital. Rather than try to influence the market to get bankers to invest in other forms of energy, they could fight for a socialist transformation of society, so it's working people who decide how the global economy is structured. The vision of an alternate society is something that neither the filmmakers nor their characters nor Malm seem to have ever considered.

In times when class struggle is low, and the global working class isn't visible as a potential agent of social change, it's inevitable that isolated young people aim to replace mass actions with sticks of dynamite. The idea is to "wake up" and "electrify" the still ignorant masses. But this only ever serves to isolate the activists and provide justification for state repression.

As socialists, we don't reject "violence" — the ruling class describes anything that goes against their interests as "violence," "terrorism," etc. But acts of sabotage by small groups will never have much effect on the system. Whenever something gets blown up, the capitalists will force workers to pay to rebuild it.

When the pipelines blow up on screen, we’re as happy as anyone else in the audience. But as Marxists, our goal is much greater. To end with a point made by Leon Trotsky over a century ago:

If we oppose terrorist acts, it is only because individual revenge does not satisfy us. The account we have to settle with the capitalist system is too great to be presented to some functionary called a minister. To learn to see all the crimes against humanity, all the indignities to which the human body and spirit are subjected, as the twisted outgrowths and expressions of the existing social system, in order to direct all our energies into a collective struggle against this system—that is the direction in which the burning desire for revenge can find its highest moral satisfaction.


Climate Change