How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire
by Andreas Malm
Published January 2021
The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind
by Judith Butler
Published January 2021
In September 2019, I joined a climate strike in Turin, Italy: a huge and predominantly youthful crowd composed of Fridays for Future and other climate organisations, unions, communists, anarchists, and an eclectic miscellany. Over a couple of weeks, millions of people marched or took action on all continents including Antarctica. Greta Thunberg had addressed the UN a few days before, igniting popular sentiment so quickly that many placards proclaimed her words: ‘how dare you!’ There was a sense of global momentum. Surely the next summit, the next meeting, would be the one at which world leaders accepted our demands for change.
There was also a familiar routine to the day: placards and chants, costumes, upbeat music on the sound system, marching into the piazza for speeches. I remembered taking part in the massive anti-Iraq war demonstration in Sydney in 2003, part of the largest protests in history, also global, a month before the invasion went ahead regardless. Would this kind of activism ever be enough to make change, or did we need to do more?
In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm cites the September 2019 protests as the latest peak in three recent waves that have centred around climate summits, blockades, and school strikes. He is initially excited about the climate movement’s obvious growth and reach, as well as its diversity of tactics: ‘The movement must learn to disrupt business as usual. To this end, it has developed an impressive repertoire: blockades, occupations, sit-ins, divestment, school strikes, the shutdown of city centres, the signal tactic of the climate camp.’ By late 2019, he enthuses, ‘the climate movement had become the single most dynamic social movement in the global North.’ In numbers alone, the protests were turning-point exciting.
Malm began his previous book, 2018’s The Progress of this Storm, with a question: ‘Is there any time left in this world?’ In that book he argued for theory that works in service of political action. Here, he turns more directly to the tactics of climate activists, but retains that keen and infectious sense of urgency. Given the sluggishness of much academic reaction to world crises, it’s encouraging to read a theorist so invested in demands for change. But in responding to the temporality of the climate crisis, Malm can sometimes seem less interested in refining his own position or working through its inconsistencies. This makes him both exciting and frustrating to read.
You don’t need me to tell you that since those protests, delayed COP26 negotiations finished with a continued commitment to global heating from world leaders. The latest IPCC report has us on a trajectory for 1.5 degrees of warming next decade, exceeding 2 degrees by the end of this century. New coal mines continue to open and gas and fracking industries continue to expand. The Australian government subsidises this with one hand and throws expensive band-aids at the Reef with the other, all the while spruiking non-existent ‘technological solutions’ to rising emissions, a problem we already have the means to solve.
‘To say that the signals have fallen on the deaf ears of the ruling classes of this world would be an understatement,’ writes Malm, before he diagnoses what he calls ‘the general deficit of action in response to climate change.’ It’s not the quantity of people that he has trouble with, but the quality of our actions, not militant enough to effect change quickly enough to matter.
Malm’s frustration with slow progress on the issue is understandable, and his impatience with what seems to be the tameness of mainstream climate activism is relatable. Extreme weather is already more likely because of global heating. People are already dying in floods, fires and hurricanes. The forests are burning, seas rising. As Thunberg put it, our house is on fire. And yet climate protests remain relatively calm.
‘At what point do we escalate?’ Malm asks. He diagnoses ‘a form of inaction within the world of activism itself.’ ‘So far, the movement has stopped short of one mode of action: offensive (or for that matter defensive) physical force. Anything that could be classified as violence has been studiously, scrupulously avoided.’
Curiously, by ‘the movement’ Malm seems to be referring to a small group of organisations, predominantly those in Europe and North America that have led recent waves of action: 350.org, German blockaders Ende Gelände, and Extinction Rebellion (XR). All are strong adherents of nonviolent direct action. Describing 350.org and Bill McKibben as moral pacifists, Malm is not interested in challenging their convictions. He wants to engage with strategic, rather than moral, questions, to make a case that some kinds of violence are useful now, or soon will be.
XR takes a strong stance on nonviolence. Malm cites two main reasons for this. One, the moral ground of nonviolent action is important – displaying a consistent commitment to just action shows credibility. Two, a nonviolent stance invites broad participation, something it has to pursue if it wants to succeed. But Malm finds the commitment to nonviolence too rigorous: ‘Thus far the movement for averting a spiralling climate catastrophe has not only been civil; it has been gentle and mild in the extreme.’
I am less familiar with Ende Gelände, but a local comparison might be Blockade Australia, who successfully blocked rail access to the world’s biggest coal port in Newcastle last year. In Germany, some credit the decisive move away from coal to these forms of direct action. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein referred to these actions/temporary autonomous zones as ‘Blockadia’. Such blockaders often work autonomously, using nonviolent direct action tactics popularised by environmental groups such as Earth First! in the 1980s, tactics which are overwhelmingly peaceful, though they have sometimes included damaging mining or forestry equipment.
For Ende Gelände, ‘the strictures against violence extend to property destruction,’ according to Malm. ‘At Ende Gelände events the ‘action consensus’ meant that every participant pledged that we will not damage machines or infrastructure.’ Malm does not pause to tell us how that ‘action consensus’ was reached.
XR’s commitment to nonviolence has certainly produced some surreal moments. In their 2020 handbook, XR UK had to ask people to please stop chanting ‘we love you’ at the police. According to Malm, strategic pacifism has become ‘a fetish’ in the climate movement, based on a ‘sanitised history bereft of realistic appraisals of what has happened and what hasn’t.’
XR’s historical approach relies on Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s important research in Why Civil Resistance Works (2011) to argue for the effectiveness of nonviolence. Malm runs through a takedown of the main historical examples used. Moving through the abolition of slavery, the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, apartheid and briefly the poll tax riots and Gandhi, there is a quick parade of evidence that nonviolence has not always been the sole source of success. I mostly agree with his reading of social movement history, even if I find the argument from history questionable; just because violence has worked in the past, that doesn’t mean it will work now.
Malm’s case runs into trouble, not because it depends on history, but because it depends on what he means by ‘nonviolence’. Swept up in the temporality of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, it is easy to think only of tactics. But it is worth pausing to ask what constitutes violence and nonviolence, and why a position of strategic nonviolence might be so important to climate justice.
Another writer who speaks from and to social movements, Judith Butler’s approach to nonviolence is grounded in practice, but she has a philosopher’s care with language, always attentive to the terms she uses and the way they frame our thinking and construct our world. The Force of Nonviolence, also published by Verso, begins not with history but with language. For Butler, there is no definition of violence that is not already framed by a particular structure of power or way of thinking: ‘We cannot race to the phenomenon itself without passing through the conceptual schemes that dispose the use of the term in various directions, and an analysis of how those dispositions work,’ she writes. This means engaging with how the word is used and misused by those in power, in ‘a public sphere where semantic confusion has been sown about what is and is not violent.’
What is called violence depends on who is in power. States ‘seek to rename nonviolent practices as violent, conducting a political war, as it were, at the level of public semantics… the power that misuses language that way seeks to secure its own monopoly on violence.’ This can include gaslighting and media manipulation, often against activists and those resisting violence, a DARVO pattern on the part of the state that is deeply relevant to the climate crisis. The naming of violence always happens within a political agenda.
To Butler, nonviolence is essentially relational. In this she follows from Hannah Arendt’s 1970 essay ‘On Violence,’ which argues that power derives from human co-operation; violence is not a function of political power, but an expression of its loss, ‘the last resort of power.’ Butler extends this relational conception of violence to posit a nonviolence that requires the equality of self and other, an understanding of the interdependence that makes another’s life matter.
As she did in Precarious Life, Butler addresses the question of vulnerability and personhood through the lens of grievability. In looking at grievability, Butler illuminates the conditions of violence that underpin inequality. This approach feels particularly potent now, as the pandemic reveals various approaches to who is worth protecting and who gets to be sacrificed. In centring life and the equal grievability of the other, Butler advocates a particular framework of thinking about violence, one that leaves open the possibility of embracing the nonhuman within that relationship.
In Butler’s thinking, questions about whether the ends might justify a violent means, or whether violence is justifiable in self-defence, arrive already troubled by the problem of individualism, by the separation of self and other, and by the associated problem of inequality. When we understand violence as emerging already within certain political assumptions about whose lives matter, we see that those justifications for its use risk reinforcing such assumptions. The question of ‘when to escalate’ carries certain ideas about the trajectory of activism, and contains a promise that the escalation of violence will cease when the goal is achieved, a promise that requires some pretty robust democratic protections, and one that, historically speaking, is rarely fulfilled.
An important message of Arendt’s essay is that violence is not a tool but a practice. Its most quoted line bears repeating here: ‘The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.’ Similarly, Martin Luther King spoke of ‘the need for mankind [sic] to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.’
Malm doesn’t ever actually call for armed struggle, but nor does he linger over the problem of definitions. Instead, he writes that ‘in the eyes of the public, in the early twenty-first century and particularly in the global north, property destruction does tend to come off as violent’ and therefore ‘we must accept that property destruction is violence’.
Must we? The popular usage of the word surely differs from its political application. In the popular sense, a storm or a sound can be violent. Given the specific nature of political violence, it’s important to have a justification for a particular use of the term, other than surrender to an assumed norm. I would argue that a working definition of violence should be based on the idea of harm to others, which would exclude damage to inanimate objects unless they are life-sustaining (a water supply, a school, a farm, etc).
One definition Malm does cite is Robert Audi’s, whose 1971 essay ‘On the meaning and justification of violence’ makes room for property destruction. Audi’s definition is broad, and more notable for its inclusion of psychological violence and verbal abuse; this is useful in expanding our understanding of harm, but challenged by a context of direct action. For one thing, it would include yelling threats at the police, a definition from which the police would enjoy numerous advantages.
Malm’s insistence on the inclusion of property destruction derives partly from his antagonists. Chenoweth and Stephan’s definition of violence includes ‘physical sabotage such as the destruction of infrastructure.’ This parameter is useful for their historical research, but reading Butler, we can see how it risks replicating value structures which equate property with life, or hold some property as worth more than some lives; these are the kinds of value structures that have gotten us into this mess in the first place.
That is not to say our definition of violence must be narrow in order to be of use. On the contrary, the climate crisis itself can be seen as a form, or several forms, of violence. Two forms of violence that are worth examining in the context of the climate crisis are structural violence and slow violence.
Structural violence is built in to social organisation. It can be bound up with institutional racism, defunded public services, unevenly distributed health care, and so forth. The prison system is often cited as a form of structural violence, along with other state-based forms; Angela Davis points out that its evolution is continuous with slavery, and that historically, ‘the work of the criminal justice system was intimately related to the extralegal work of lynching.’ In Australia the prison system and police violence are rooted in the colonial project; for example, the over-policing and imprisonment of Aboriginal people can be seen as part of a history of genocide and dispossession. Within the idea of structural violence, legal and extralegal forms of violence can overlap. In an era of austerity, decayed public infrastructure that creates vulnerable populations can be seen as structural violence, an example grimly illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Slow violence, defined by Rob Nixon as ‘a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all,’ is less direct, less instrumentalised. This kind of violence is intricately bound up with visibility and invisibility: ‘Attritional catastrophes that overspill clear boundaries in time and space are marked above all by displacements… [that] smooth the way for amnesia.’ In an Australian context, this resonates strongly with the interlinked forms of land dispossession, environmental damage and the conflicts over history that enclose and entangle the climate crisis.
‘There is no way to name something as either violence or nonviolence without at once invoking the framework in which that designation makes sense,’ Butler writes. And yet ‘we cannot give up on the demand to decide the difference’. Indeed, the urgency of the problem and its entanglement with the attendant problems of political power makes it more important to interrogate its framing, not less. While admitting that the insolubility of the problem of violence might lead to paralysis, Butler’s patient insistence on beginning with the terms of the discussion is deeply useful to anyone struggling with the question of nonviolence as it pertains to climate action. As she points out, the moral and political dimensions of violence have ‘consequences for both how we end up doing politics, and what world we seek to help bring into being.’ Butler shows how questions of violence and nonviolence always lead back to questions of power and equality. There is no approach to the problem of violence that is simply tactical.
One social movement that is deeply engaged with these questions of structural violence, naming, and activism is Black Lives Matter (BLM). It is curious that this movement doesn’t get a mention in Malm’s book, given its rich engagement with the subject. Nowhere is there a more perfect illustration of the uneven naming of violence than a state which characterises a protester breaking a window as ‘violent,’ but a police officer kneeling on someone’s neck until they suffocate and die as a perfectly legitimate use of force.
Indeed, some of the best recent writing on nonviolence emerges from the BLM movement and from Black writers animated by generations of scholarship and experience. To draw briefly from this deep well, here’s Ta-Nehisi Coates:
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.
Coates’ frustration with the deployment of terms echoes Angela Davis’ words from prison in 1972, her incredulity as enduring as the absurdity itself:
When someone asks me about violence, I just – I just find it incredible… the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what Black people have gone through, what Black people have experienced in this country.
Or this, from Audre Lorde:
Black women and our children know the fabric of our lives is stitched with violence and with hatred, that there is no rest. We do not deal with it only on the picket lines.
Butler is with Coates when she points out that the argument from pre-existing violent conditions, the notion that we live in the force field of violence, does not itself justify further violence. Indeed, for Butler, the very ubiquity of violence – including structural and slow violence – impels us towards nonviolence. ‘We have to break open the horizon of this destructive imaginary in which so many inequalities and effacements now take place.’ To accept a ‘popular usage’ definition of violence is to accept a whole slew of political assumptions and power relations. If the category of violence needs to be expanded, why in the direction of damage to inanimate objects, and not the direction of murder by the police? Accepting a definition of violence that includes property damage risks replicating a world view in which some lives matter more than others.
The few citations in Malm’s work from Black scholars beyond Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela reflects a lack of engagement by environmentalist movements with other pressing movements for social change. If I was going to point out the limitations of mainstream climate activism in the global North, I would probably start there.
Direct action seeks to interrupt business as usual, to create disturbances in the everyday. This has three main goals: firstly, to draw attention to an issue, pressuring those in power to make change; secondly, to interrupt an existing harmful practice directly, to slow or stop the damage; and thirdly, to create, through the empowerment of taking action together, the kinds of relationships and structures that we want more of in the world. It’s this third effect that Malm underestimates.
With a range of tactics available, nonviolent direct action is a broad category with a long history. What counts as nonviolent direct action has changed over time and is always in contention, with tactics needing to adapt to specific circumstances, risks, and goals. A principled attachment to nonviolence or a tactical consensus of nonviolence obviously excludes certain types of direct action, but that does not make it passive, gentle, or mild. In asking whether an organisation is too nonviolent, it’s important to ask how participation is structured. I find XR’s approach a little irritating, with its handbooks and compulsory nonviolent direct action workshops. Though it aims to be accessible to all, the assumption that everyone begins with little experience has always put me off. But its affinity group structure should be flexible enough to include many tactics; how decisions are made about individual actions depends on the people involved.
Definitions of nonviolent direct action vary widely within and between activist communities, and disagreement about what constitutes violent and nonviolent action is common. These differences aren’t just ideological or tactical; they’re often circumstantial and personal, questions about distributed risk and varying states of safety. Alongside the problem of racist policing, a person’s approach to risk might depend on their health, physical ability, carer duties, migration status, arrest or imprisonment history, employment status, and so on. When one action can endanger everyone, all must be involved in deciding whether it should be used.
Often a conservative approach to nonviolence is a result of talking through that distributed risk. For example, the risk to Traditional Owners from an action that takes place on their land is often much higher than it is for young white blockaders. Consideration of these matters can quickly narrow the range of tactics available. The process of nutting that agreement out in meetings is absolutely essential to an action’s effectiveness – and its legitimacy. It’s also one way of making visible our interconnected responsibility to one another.
There are more pragmatic reasons to be cautious about nonviolence. There’s always someone in Blockadia whose behaviour is not mindful of the risk to others, and there’s often infiltration by undercover cops keen on sparking conflict. Police use agents provocateurs because they know that when conflicts become physical, they have the advantage. Organised activists need to balance inclusiveness and encouragement of broad participation with some self-regulation and a degree of suspicion.
Even when physical conflict is not introduced by police themselves, the smallest act of property damage by a protester can result in a massive show of force by law enforcement. The following day on the front pages, ‘protests turn violent’. The story of violent protests is a well-rehearsed routine on the part of the state and corporate media. In a situation where the state is captured by fossil fuel interests, the use of ‘violence’ to describe property damage is firmly in the interests of climate capital.
‘Again and again… governments are teaming up with corporate players to roll over the opposition, using a combination of physical violence and draconian legal tools reclassifying peaceful activists as terrorists,’ writes Klein. It is no wonder activists aiming for popular appeal are doing all they can to avoid such charges. But that doesn’t mean we are obliged to accept the labels that the state has pinned on us.
‘Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices,’ Malm instructs his readers. ‘Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.’
Let’s for argument’s sake bring these acts under the umbrella of nonviolent direct action. (Malm admits this possibility when he discusses sabotage of the Dakota Access Pipeline by two Catholic Worker activists in 2016-17). We could distinguish them from other forms of direct action by referring to them as destructive force; we could retain their status as nonviolent so long as they do not harm one’s self, another, or any group or community, directly or indirectly.
Even if I decide that destroying things and devices is not violent, and have no moral objection, I find that I still have some hesitations about the usefulness of this tactic. In a context where the very fabric of life on Earth is threatened by large destructive forces, I could worry that enacting more destruction just adds to the problems we face. Or I could argue that sabotage mostly seeks the same response as a climate strike – calling for states or companies to enact change – and that asking less politely isn’t necessarily going to be more effective.
Destruction might feel cathartic, but it can also exhaust activist resources. Lawyers are expensive. I suspect there is a deal of heroism and self-mythology in calls for more destruction. Disrupting business as usual is a fine goal, but what does it build? What world is it making? Increasingly, the disruption to business as usual is wrought not by the climate movement but by the climate crisis itself, and/or the overlapping crisis that is COVID-19. Our ‘portal’ has led to unprecedented transfer of wealth from the world’s poorest to the world’s richest people. What good does disruption do, when capitalism is so good at taking advantage of a crisis?
We sometimes talk as though the pandemic has interrupted the climate movement, but it seems to me that for those in power, the pandemic is not an interruption to the movement, but an extension of it. It’s an opportunity to obfuscate, to police, to play economic games with who lives and dies. To get us used to thinking about each other as expendable. The fog of deniability, the ‘gas-led recovery,’ the National Covid Commission, the invoking of ‘pre-existing conditions,’ sow similar kinds of deliberate semantic confusion. Business as usual is crisis.
Still, it is possible to imagine that large-scale, co-ordinated sabotage of fossil fuel infrastructure could put a dent in its profitability. It is easy to imagine that it will help shut down individual projects, but only if attached to other kinds of campaigning. Writing of the sabotage and vandalism common to Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front in the 1980s and 1990s, Malm states: ‘All those thousands of monkeywrenching actions achieved little if anything and had no lasting gains to show for them. They were not performed in a dynamic relation to a mass movement, but largely in a void.’ His argument seems to be that such action is not, after all, very useful, and certainly not by itself.
There is also the suggestion that property damage will alienate concerned people from participating in the movement. We can take the French version of that 2019 climate strike as an illustration: when militant activists took to smashing shop windows after the march, Greenpeace told its followers to go home.
When asking why such violence is not more widespread, Malm has a tendency to slip into Marxist social movement speak. The problem, he argues, is ‘the general demise of revolutionary politics… bringing down the levels of consciousness required to connect the dots’ as well as ‘insufficient politicisation of the climate crisis.’ The impression that he is speaking to an elite corps of climate activists is revealing. Who among us wants to be characterised as ‘the masses?’ (How dare you!)
I share Malm’s frustration with the ‘blah-blah-blah’ of summits and to an extent that of their attendant ritualised protests. But I don’t share his belief that ordinary people haven’t connected the dots on climate, or that ‘the movement’s role is to stretch an existing level of consciousness.’ There is a whiff of brocialist superiority here that is more alienating than any burning barricade.
Perhaps the ‘climate movement’ needs to stop seeing itself as a single entity, or a select group, and understand that it, too, belongs to a range of systems and power structures: it is, we are, part of the complexity of human culture, a realm in which each of us has some power to bring about change, and none of us can wield it alone.
For Butler, nonviolence has nothing to do with passivity. It is an active way of being in relationship to others. ‘To subdue destruction is one of the most important affirmations of which we are capable in this world. It is the affirmation of this life, bound up with yours, and with the realm of the living: an affirmation caught up with a potential for destruction and its countervailing force.’ The self-restraint of nonviolence both requires and demonstrates equality. Butler wryly admits that this sounds utopian. But by drawing out the relationality that underlies a practice of nonviolence, she positions the question of violence as essential to social being and collective survival. At root, ‘nonviolence becomes the desire for the other’s desire to live.’ Although open to exceptions – she has written elsewhere of the usual Nazi-punching exemptions – Butler sees a commitment to nonviolence as a basis for living in a community. This approach places theory in the service of human survival.
Malm may only want to talk tactics, but he admits that relationality in the language he uses. He writes about nonviolence as ‘strict’, ‘a discipline,’ ‘a virtue,’ ‘studiously, scrupulously avoided,’ and so on. But there is nothing that restrains him from blowing up a pipeline except his own relationship to others. By adhering to an organisational decision, or an ‘action consensus,’ he shows that his participation in collective forms of power matters more than his choice of tactics.
If the purpose of climate action is to stop the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, the tactics needed might appear simple. But Butler makes it clear that there is no neat way to separate the tactic of nonviolence from its moral dimensions. And if the purpose of the climate movement is to create a better, more just and ecologically sustainable world, she makes a strong case that nonviolence is the only position from which to begin. Not because nonviolence is a moral high ground from which to proclaim, or because violence will alienate those unenlightened masses, but because nonviolence is a way of being in the world, a choice about what kinds of relationships we have to others and a way of taking responsibility for the survival of others – surely central demands of the current crisis.
To believe in the usefulness of climate action, we have to believe that our actions change the world, that our behaviour constructs political reality. And so how we organise matters. In a nonviolent ‘action consensus,’ the consensus matters at least as much as the action.
I suspect that most decisions about whether to break a luxury shop window, tip over a police car, or sabotage an oil refinery are not made in books, but in the gut. Perception of personal risk changes with emotion, with how much you feel you have left to lose. The emotional aspect of violence and nonviolence troubles theory all the more.
In writing about climate despair, Malm is right to criticise the fatalism of writers like Scranton, Franzen, and Kingsnorth. But it is important not to pass over the emotional dimension of the climate crisis. Climate action does not occur instead of or in spite of climate grief, but alongside and in some sense because of it.
When I think about the possibility of combining mourning with justice, I think immediately of the long campaigns against Black deaths in custody. Many forms of Aboriginal and other First Nations resistance demonstrate the connection between mourning and justice. Despair and militant action often coexist by necessity, and may even spring from the same well. Butler’s focus on grief and grievability finds resonance in movements such as the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, Black Lives Matter, and ACT UP – movements that demonstrate the power in the overlap between grief for a loss and outrage at its injustice. The funereal aesthetic of XR is a deliberate effort to channel mourning into action.
On the other hand, too much focus on grief can be problematic. For colonisers of occupied lands, grief can quickly become a performance that re-enacts dispossession. Grieving harm to trees, or the loss of a rare bird, while failing to acknowledge the harm of colonisation or one’s own position in its structures, can even be considered ontological violence. Mary Annaïse Heglar and others have drawn attention to what she calls the climate movement’s ‘existential exceptionalism,’ the delusion that this is the first life-threatening disaster human beings have ever faced, or indeed the first apocalypse.
The temporality of the climate crisis conjures a hovering question mark over the act of writing about it. If the world is ending, why go to the slow trouble of setting down sentences? Wouldn’t it be better, after all, to dedicate your hours to some good old monkeywrenching?
It’s telling that, in calling for sabotage, Malm has chosen to write a book. Really, it’s an admission that much can still be done in the realm of culture, even with literature – surely one of the slowest and most cautious art forms, with its tendency for self-restraint, its inherent care for language and its use. Maybe there is something in that attentiveness that can nurture the best in us. Perhaps one’s belief in the existence of a reader is itself nonviolent, since it’s a kind of trust in a functioning society. Butler suggests as much when she draws on Walter Benjamin’s idea of language, translation and the task of mutual understanding.
To Butler, the imagination is crucial: ‘we are at this moment ethically obliged to think beyond what are treated as the realistic limits of the possible.’ ‘Imagination is a pivotal faculty,’ Malm agrees. This includes our tactics, but it also must include questioning the terms in which those forms of action are described, the powers that describe them. Imagining our way out of destructive patterns, and into other kinds of power relationships.
When Arendt points out that ‘the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals,’ this is not only a warning against unintended consequences. It’s a description of any social movement’s greatest strength. If we seem inadequate, too few or too weak, it is only because we cannot know our own impact.
In his moving book Full Circle, Scott Ludlam wrote about the sense of disproportion inherent in direct action: Taking the long view, our interventions are vastly insufficient. The harpoon ships we turn back, the access roads we lock down, are just holding actions against the scale of the assault. It’s done to prevent acts of destruction in the here and now, and so we press on. But the true purpose of this kind of work is to catalyse a wider field of action; to make common cause with others around the world.
A climate movement that begins from a position of nonviolence can make explicit the links between fossil fuels, colonisation, police violence, prisons, border regimes, and war. It can propose what Butler calls ‘an egalitarian imaginary that apprehends the interdependency of lives.’ Perhaps climate movements have their clearest and most compelling connection with other movements on the common ground of shared survival. As a movement for shared survival, climate activists can better see the necessity of Indigenous leadership, make common cause with the fight for Black lives, draw on the legacy of internationalist and anti-war traditions (what use is a climate movement that is not also a peace movement?) Importantly, Butler insists that this notion of survival must be founded on equality and interdependence, lest it embrace fascist phantasms of persecution and perceived threat like those that prop up violent border regimes or forms of apartheid.
When I think about what I found so encouraging about the 2019 climate strikes, it wasn’t just how well-attended the marches were. It was the sense of generational change, the kind of paradigm shift that any social movement is always seeking. All those young people weren’t just marching down the street. They were teaming up with their classmates, sharing skills, learning to organise. Becoming aware of their own power.
In the crowd I saw people forty years older than me and people forty years younger. Grandparents who would have been youths in the 1960s carried small children on their shoulders, waving crayon signs. Teenagers marched past partisan memorials, singing along to antifascist anthems from eighty years ago. They were a part of history, and they knew it.
Nine months later, I joined a Covid-safe Black Lives Matter action in the same piazza following the death of George Floyd. It was smaller, but just as youthful. In the socially-distanced and diverse crowd, I spotted quite a few Fridays for Future activists. We sat quietly and listened to speakers make the connections between racist police violence and the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean. In Australia, BLM was joining a longer trajectory of action against Black deaths in custody. These movements lit up around the world, locally specific and yet united: movements for survival, finding common cause.
Perhaps the question of what is violent and what is nonviolent can’t be resolved, but asking it unlocks important aspects of the climate crisis, revealing the structures and dynamics at work. Asking it also illuminates how existing climate movements see themselves. Reading Butler’s and Malm’s books side by side is a way to dismantle what have sometimes become fixed positions on nonviolence in activist circles, helping map the politics and ethics underlying what can appear to be decisions about tactics, and assisting activists to better understand our own choices.
The climate crisis demands both urgent action and patient attention. There is no way to remove tactical questions about nonviolence from the deeper moral or philosophical questions about violence, just as there is no way to simply remove fossil fuels from a capitalist economy (even if this is a great place to start). But there is infinite capacity in a climate movement that can see itself as a movement for the shared survival of all life, one that intersects and stands with other movements for equality and survival.
As Rob Nixon notes, ‘Contests over what counts as violence are intimately entangled with conflicts over who bears the social authority of witness.’ For those in a position to bear witness, this entanglement should be of urgent concern. Asking what counts as violence means asking who is in power and whose lives matter. I’d be suspicious of any climate movement that didn’t start with these questions in mind.
Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Columbia University Press 2011
Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? Seven Stories Press 2003
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