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The Bristol Cable

Andreas Malm: ‘Why climate activists should engage in acts of sabotage’

Environmental protesters need to rethink their tactics, argues a Swedish scholar of human ecology who came to Bristol this week.

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Climate movements in the UK have become known for staging marches and school strikes, and engaging in civil disobedience to draw attention to the global crisis.

Thousands of people – sometimes hundreds of thousands – have joined such demonstrations in recent years. And Bristol, like many other cities across the UK, is set to see people take to the streets for a national day of action on Saturday. This kind of activism, it could be said, is a driving force behind the global push for real, meaningful change. 

But global warming is still worsening at an alarming rate, fossil fuel industries are still thriving and, despite world leaders’ various treaties and summits like the ongoing Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow, time is running out for a solution.

So does this mean, if climate protesters are to force world leaders into acting faster, that they must change tactics? That’s the belief of Andreas Malm, Swedish scholar of human ecology, who is calling for environmental activists – namely groups such as XR – to rethink their approach and embrace acts of sabotage.

Malm visited Bristol while he was in the UK for Cop26. Speaking to a crowd gathered at the Malcolm X Centre in St Paul’s on Wednesday night, he said a move to destroy fossil fuel infrastructure – putting it out of commission, burning it down, blowing it up – was a “necessary” tactical route for climate activists all over the world to force governments and industry to act quicker. And, according to Malm, who also makes the case for property destruction in his book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, there may even be an obligation to do so.

‘The moral case

“If someone has planted incendiary devices in the high-rise building where you live,” Malm told the audience, “its foundations are already on fire, and people are literally dying in the cellars, then you might perhaps have an obligation to go and take these devices out of operation. And this obligation is not diminished by the fact that those who live on the top floor who have their rooftop pools and their helicopter pads, profit from these devices.”

“This is the moral case for destroying fossil fuel property,” he argued. “And this case I think is overwhelmingly strong if the realities of the catastrophes of the climate crisis are taken on board.” Fossil fuel developments are given priority over the future of the planet, Malm said. He made an example of Boris Johnson signalling that he would not block plans for a controversial new oilfield in the North Sea. “We can’t just tear up contracts,” the Prime Minister insisted when asked about the project.

“The stakes are so high, the hour so late, and states have postponed meaningful climate action for so long, that we need to think about experimenting with more tactics than those that we have used so far, moving beyond absolutely peaceful civil disobedience.”

Oil giant Shell and private equity-backed Siccar Point Energy could shortly receive final approval to go into production at the Cambo field, 75 miles west of the Shetland Islands. If this happens, drilling at the site could begin as soon as 2022 and it would be expected to produce oil and gas for about 25 years. 

The site could be given the greenlight despite the International Energy Agency warning that exploitation and development of new oil and gas fields must stop this year if the world is to stay within safe limits of global heating and meet the goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Campaigners said its approval would be hypocritical, given that it comes at a time when countries across the world are meeting at Cop26 to take urgent action to prevent global temperatures from spiralling further out of control.

Andreas Malm speaks at the Malcolm X Community Centre in St Paul’s, Bristol (Bookhaus)

‘Break the paralysis

Three days after George Floyd’s murder in the US city of Minneapolis in May 2020, a police station there was set on fire. Officers took the unprecedented step of abandoning the building, and thousands of protesters watched on as it burned down. For many of the demonstrators, the station had become a symbol of the deteriorating relationship between the police force and the community it was supposed to be protecting. And its destruction, argued Malm, was the key moment in a series of events that broke what he called a “paralysis” in the resistance against systematic violence from police against African Americans.

“This is exactly the kind of paralysis that needs to be broken when it comes to fossil fuel infrastructure,” Malm said. “Where people resign themselves – and feel like this continuous expansion of oil and gas… is just something that happens, and there’s nothing we can do about it. This needs to be broken through some kind of equivalent act of disruption of this infrastructure that demonstrates to people that this infrastructure does not stand above what people can do.”

The murder of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, sparked international protests against police brutality. Derek Chauvin, the police officer who held his knee on Floyd’s neck as he gasped for breath, was found guilty of his murder and sentenced to 22 years and six months in jail.

In Bristol, the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest triggered by Floyd’s killing. “The normalcy of these statues and these names has now been shattered,” Malm argued. Since then, statues in other cities and countries that reflect colonial histories have also been pulled down. And in Bristol, references to Colston – street names, buildings – are being or could be removed.

The Colston statue was removed from its plinth and rolled into the harbour

It’s not for everyone

Malm was clear that property destruction, if it forms a part of the climate movement, would be the focus of a radical flank and wouldn’t be for everyone. He also pointed out that, although a shift away from current tactics is an escalation, there is a categorical distinction between what he is advocating and violence against people.  “The climate movement is beginning to contemplate the former, never the latter,” he insisted. 

“I’m not saying that property destruction is the panacea,” he said. “The bulk of the activities of the climate movement will have to be peaceful. Just as the bulk of activities following the murder of George Floyd were peaceful – but there was a component of more militant protest. And this is what I am arguing: that we should open up to a greater diversity of tactics in the climate movement.”

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“The stakes are so high, the hour so late, and states have postponed meaningful climate action for so long, that we need to think about experimenting with more tactics than those that we have used so far, moving beyond absolutely peaceful civil disobedience… We need to give it a try, given what’s going on, and given the significant fact that this crisis will get worse.”

Property destruction, even without considering its controversial nature, can carry heavy fines and jail terms. To draw from one of Malm’s examples: a man who admitted to an arson charge in relation to the burning of a Minneapolis police station following Floyd’s murder has was ordered to pay $12m (£8.6m) and was given a four year jail term.

Malm challenges the idea that current tactics are the only option, and that peaceful protests are historically more successful. But this clearly doesn’t align with large parts of the climate movement. In any case, the pressure must be “ratcheted up”, Malm said, as the momentum of climate activism was lost to the pandemic. And the protests surrounding this year’s Cop26 conference are surely a chance to regain some ground.

Andreas Malm’s talk at the Malcolm X Centre was organised by Bristol-based bookshop, Bookhaus, and Bristol Transformed.

Comments

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  • You really are irresponsible idiots.
    How do you propose to keep people warm without gas on order to generate electricity ?
    Or power hospitals ?
    Dare you post this commenu and open this up for discussion.

    Reply

  • Why is Bristol Cable providing a platform for ideas of political violence, when only recently it was condemning the heavy handed approach of the police in Bristol?

    Reply

  • Very refreshing to see this talk, and to talk frankly about the grotesque naitivity of “political non-violence” even in the face of global extinction, state repression on an unprecendented scale, and state mass murder.

    Reply

  • Just another ignored bristolian

    Sometimes state violence needs to be met. Especially if the courts, & judicial processes & cops are bought out by merchants and corporations from the start. When dissent is being shut down revolt becomes nessesary.
    Our ancestors (worldwide and locally) used sabotage as a useful tool against state oppression & control, slaves burned down platations and slave drivers properties, effectively contributing to the end of the official slave trade, the Marroons and others hepled play a part in this!

    And then people and land folk here, before and after displacement from the land in the uk, the enclousures acts, during the toll bridge riots, corn riots, & 1831 Bristol uprising.. There is a pretty long list of acts of sucessfull sabotage in our histories that not always but often forced governments to reasses their agendas.

    It seems sabotage wasnt seen in the same light back then as nowaday, where a-b protests lead people to get dizzy headed think politicians and people in power will listen to their polite crys. In the past there was an understanding amongst peasants and the working class that a complete break down in our relationahip with power was nessesary to force the state into a postion of weakness, if not its complete defeat.

    Surely one of the most violent acts of the state in its pursuit for industrial ‘revolution’\control was violently forcing people from the land, and attempting to end our relationship with our natural enviroment (ever hear the one about the witch trails/hunts in the uk, or the European inqusitions against herbalists and land folk at that time? renamed witches/devil worshipers by the state and church.). Seemed to work well for power, helping to crush autonomy, health, and self reliance.
    Now we are dependant on the industrialists corporate pharma, in a land where traditional medicenes and herbs are laughed at, or little known about….

    The ballot box was just a way for the liberal wing of political power to maintain its privilege, and defend the state power structure from destruction by peasants, serfs, and land folk, aka to prevent an uncontrolable revolution that the forces of the state power would not be able to contain….. Seems in this era some forgot to carry on these struggles of liberty, maybe believing they already made it , instead of seeing the reality that we must keep fighting power as those before us have, teaching our young to do so in the process.

    Without effective kick backs by rebel populations power would ride us in to a place worst than ‘hell’, we are already day by day sliding close to a society of complete control, (some have always bern feeling it harder than others) mainly due to our state (uk gov plc) facing very little effective and disruptive individual & collective resistance in recent times within these isles.

    Reply

  • Another Ignored Bristolian

    Where are my comments?

    Reply

  • Another Ignored Bristolian

    Where are my comments again and again? Whats going on at bristol cable? I used too support you lot, having seconds thoughts about that after this last years. Working class opinions getting silenced by the media or misrepresented is typical nowadays, even in so called independent media, its happening too often. Its either that your spam filter is crap and pointless, or is it maybe something fishy. Either way sort it out Bristol Cable! Or get bare bad press, ‘cus u aint representing nobody if you arent bothering to upload our comments and thoughts, or different points of view that challenge some of the spookery that seems to be going on & infecting some in your comnents sections.

    Reply

  • I do not think it is the case that ‘environmental activists’ remain a ‘fringe group’ anymore. Such groups are funded to the tune of millions of dollars.
    Worse, the group which are funding them seem often to be linked to groups which are anti-democratic and do not value people’s liberty. I think, often, ‘activists’ are simply expressing violence – I do not think this is a good way.

    Reply

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