James Clark

Should Environmental Activists Sabotage Fossil Fuel Infrastructure? →

30 January, 2022

With temperatures rising and time to defend a safe climate running out, it’s understandable that the question of more militant tactics like sabotage is coming up more frequently.

Andreas Malm is the most visible proponent of sabotage, with his book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire, has been igniting debate on this topic around the world. The fact that The Nation have published a debate on this topic shows just how effective his advocacy has been and how far the conversation has come.

Malm argues:

Sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure is a form of self-defense, or perhaps humanitarian intervention. On the premises of climate science, fossil fuels should be classified as projectiles fired into humanity—primarily toward the Global South. The question is not whether we have a right to destroy them; it is why people haven’t yet acted on the imperative.

The moral case against the fossil fuel industry is irrefutable. But this is not simply a question of morality, this is about strategy and power. Strategy demands that we consider the terrain of public option, as well as our opposition’s power and our limitations.

The aim of fossil fuel property destruction would not be to enlighten the denialists but to inflict costs on the enemy: fossil capital. It is here that the movement in the Global North has grievously failed. Marches of a million children, divestment campaigns, parliamentary initiatives, court cases, square occupations, and road blockades are all good, and they have taken us to where we are in early 2022. But something more is needed.

Malm is right, something more is needed. But we have more choices than “exactly what the climate movement has been doing” and “blowing up pipelines”. Sabotage isn't our only option for escalation.

Daniel Sherrell, in his rebuttal to Malm:

The real question the climate movement must ask itself is not whether sabotage is ethical, but whether the tactic is likely to succeed in bringing down temperatures. At least at our current juncture in history, the answer is probably not. Were climate activists to start blowing up pipelines in 2022, it would likely backfire and weaken the climate movement’s ability to win policies that would draw down temperatures.

Let’s play out the scenario in the United States, the political terrain with which I’m most familiar. In 2022, a widespread campaign of pipeline or power plant destruction would immediately draw condemnation from both sides of the political aisle, as well as all mainstream news sources. If an accident were to result in even a single injury, the condemnation would grow tenfold. If the sabotage were linked to a spike in energy costs for working families, the climate movement would be alienating exactly the people it needs to win: those on the front lines of the crisis. Even if the link to higher prices weren’t true, Fox News would render it so for millions of US voters.

I think the response in Australia, the context I know best, would be much the same, if not worse. Our media sphere is even more concentrated. Our movement currently has no political champions who would stand up for us if we turned to sabotage. The charge of terrorism would likely see our content removed from social media platforms, making in nearly impossible to tell our story effectively. The climate movement would be isolated, demonised, and the full weight of surveillance and repression from the state would slam down against all wings of our movement.

I have not seen advocates of sabotage articulate a convincing rebuttal to these points. The best that Malm can do in this article is to argue that sabotage would demonstrate the fragility of fossil fuel infrastructure and be “inspiring” enough so that “the prospects for mass unrest open up.” This simply amounts to magical thinking. We cannot manifest strategy out of catharsis and moral righteousness. The masses of people we require to take down the power of fossil fuel capital will not be inspired by sabotage. Sherrell concludes:

For the sabotage to succeed, it would need to ratchet up the political pressure. And for that to work, the saboteurs would need to be seen as heroes by large swaths of the public. Within the frame of our current Overton window, they’re more likely to be seen—however unfairly—as terrorists.

Our path to victory is winning state power with the backing of a mass movement and public support. This does not mean we only engage in electoralism, nor should we abandon militancy. In fact, the climate movement must embrace more escalation, polarisation and militancy. But the goal of these actions is always primarily to face the public and build active popular support, and this demands more creativity than simply turning to sabotage. Without active popular support, our resistance is vulnerable, and will be crushed. Sabotage, at this point in history, is far more likely to set the climate movement backwards than move it forward.


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Hey, I'm James Clark. I’m an organiser, writer and social movement nerd based in Melbourne, Australia. You can read more about me here.