An Eco-Suspense Thriller

Frann Michel

How to Blow Up a Pipeline
Film by Ariela Barer, Daniel Garber, Daniel Goldhaber, Jordan Sjol Neon, 2023

IT’S NOT AN instruction manual; it’s a heist flick and a discussion prompt. How to Blow Up a Pipeline offers thrilling suspense and engages compelling questions; it avoids pitfalls common to mainstream films about left movements, although its mainstream genre conventions sometimes jar against its claims to authenticity and its political aspirations.

The film may also be, like the book (by Andreas Malm, Verso Books 2021) that inspired it, a kind of cultural radical flanking maneuver.

Before discussing this film about climate activists, or the book from which the film takes its title, or the other issues that these works raise, it’s worth stressing that blowing up pipelines has in fact not been the work of climate activists, who are more likely to shut down than to blow up pipelines.

Intentional explosions of pipelines have more likely been the work of nation-states or their agents (e.g. Nordstream). But most of the many, many pipeline explosions in the United States result from corporate negligence about maintenance. The website for the film includes a map of U.S. oil and gas pipelines showing major spills since 1986 — almost the entire map is covered by red indications of spills — and a link to the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

At the PHMSA site the diligent can learn that, even according to incomplete data provided by industry self-reporting, between 2010 and 2019 for instance there were 329 pipeline explosions in the USA.

That’s just a small number of the 1.7 pipeline “incidents” each day, not including incidents that were under thresholds for injury, cost, or amount of material released. (The less diligent, like me, can also find this information on

These events are far more damaging to people and to the environment than are the entirely safe shutdowns that climate activists in North America have accomplished using the safety valves installed by pipeline companies themselves.

The valve turners profiled in the documentaries The Reluctant Radical (2018, dir. Lindsay Grayzel) and Necessity: Oil, Water, and Climate Resistance (2019, dir. Jan Haaken and Samantha Praus, and for which — disclosure — I was a producer) planned their actions to be not only less dangerous than an explosion, but also less dangerous than business as usual (which, again, involves fairly frequent explosions, along with its chronic contributions to the escalating catastrophe of climate chaos).

Confronting Planetary Emergency

The valve-turners’ carefully planned actions involved extensive support teams engaged in contacting the pipeline companies to give them the chance to shut the valves remotely; media teams to inform the public of what they had done and why; and legal teams prepared to mount a defense of the shutdowns as responding to necessity.

Those who enter a stranger’s burning home to rescue a child can be found not guilty of breaking and entering, because their actions have averted a greater harm in the only way available. On our flaming planet, shutting down a source of the conflagration is likewise an act of rescue.

Since the first meeting in 1995 of the Conference of Parties (COP) responsible for monitoring and reviewing the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, millions of activists have marched and rallied, lobbied and petitioned, testified and divested.

Yet not only has the planet continued increasingly to warm and the climate to destabilize, but also the very causes of these horrors — extraction and combustion of greenhouse gasses for the profit of oil and gas corporations and the luxury of the wealthy — have themselves escalated.

Oil companies keep posting record profits, global and U.S. oil production reached an all-time high in 2023, and the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) actually endorsed the continued exploitation of liquefied natural gas, which releases methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide released by burning oil or coal.

Looking at such a frustrating pattern, Andreas Malm opens his 2021 book How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire by asking why we have not yet seen mass incendiary action from climate activists.

Despite its provocative title, Malm’s book is neither an instruction manual, nor a call to such incendiary acts, though it is a call for greater militancy in the mass climate movement, including greater willingness to engage in property destruction.

Addressed chiefly to those climate activists dedicated to using only peaceful methods, the first chapter argues against overinvestment in strategic pacifism, challenging the idea that nonviolent movements are always more successful. The second argues for the usefulness of a radical flank effect, whereby the presence of a more militant wing can help persuade political leaders to give ground to the less frightening representatives of a movement.

The last chapter argues against despair and for continued action to mitigate the onrushing catastrophe. Malm’s text rejects the binary alternatives of, on the one hand, the purportedly antipolitical mass nonviolence of early Extinction Rebellion groups in the UK, and on the other hand the “no masses, only the armed vanguard” approach he sees advocated by Deep Green Resistance.

His preferred model is “climate camps: tent cities serving as festivals of prefigurative living and learning and bases for mass action against some nearby point source of emissions.”

Acknowledging the difficulty of pressing a mass movement toward greater militancy without losing mass support, he cautions against fetishizing property destruction as well as pacifism. Instead, Malm advocates less explosive and more massive direct interventions — like blockades (as in the work of Ende Gelaende in Germany) and occupations (as at Standing Rock and in Welaunee Forest).

Even these actions, of course, are painted as terrorism in the arguments of fossil-funded legislators and in the mainstream capitalist press. So we might understand the book as itself offering a kind of radical flank maneuver: the incendiary title outflanks the kind of mass actions Malm endorses, which in turn might become more palatable to the reader insofar as they do not involve blowing anything up.

Dramatizing Property Sabotage

Malm’s book generated much discussion, including a collection of essays responding to Malm’s arguments, available as a free e-book from Verso: Property Will Cost Us the Earth: Direct Action and the Future of the Global Climate Movement (2022, ed. Jessie Kindig). But a mainstream popular film is likely to reach even more people — especially if that film has an eye-catching title with some built-in name recognition — and thus bring to a wider audience a debate about property destruction, sabotage and self-defense.

The 2022 fictional film by Barer, Garber, Goldhaber and Sjol borrows little more from Malm’s book than its title, and the general idea that property destruction can be morally justified in the face of the climate crisis.

The film’s website invites viewers to host a screening and provides a link to obtain a free e-copy of Malm’s book. The film itself offers a dramatic narrative in which a small, ragtag group comes together to pull off one big action. Shot on 16mm, the film has a grainy vitality, suited to its dusty and desolate landscapes of pipelines, refineries and oil derricks.

If Malm’s book offers a rhetorical radical flank, so perhaps does the film. Unlike in some cinematic portrayals of left activists — spoilers ahead! — the characters in Pipeline turn out to be motivated not by malevolence or greed, but by genuine and justified concerns and, unlike the ecowarriors in films like Night Moves (2013), they manage not to kill anyone.

But although the caper succeeds in its titular sabotage, and all of the protagonists survive, the act is not without costs to them. Indeed, the film would make a dangerous blueprint for action, despite — even because of — its gestures toward authenticity. Yet the sympathetic portrayal of these young activists might help move viewers toward direct actions less incendiary than those on screen.

Leftist Heist Characters

The filmmakers have attempted an avowedly leftist approach to a mainstream film, giving equal billing to director, screenwriters and editor as the filmmakers, and choosing a genre — the heist or caper film — that foregrounds group action.

In interviews, Goldhaber has pointed out that heist films are typically ensemble pieces, addressing inequality — a group of outsiders come together to rob a bank, for instance. Thus they tend to run counter to the sacralization of private property which, as Malm writes, “will cost us the earth.”

Like other heist films, Pipeline offers viewers the pleasure of watching people working, and working together, exercising — or, here, developing — specialized skills and expertise. Viewers might recognize and reflect on the frustrating limits of conventional political frameworks for action, and the challenges of building trust and solidarity across social differences.

The eight central characters have a representative quality, standing in for some of the demographic groups in North America most harmed by the fossil fuel industry and the climate crisis.

Ringleader Xochitl (Ariela Barer, also one of the screenwriters) is frustrated with her college divestment campaign and grieving her mother’s death in a “freak” heat event. Her childhood friend Theo (Sasha Lane) is suffering from cancer caused by growing up near an oil refinery. Native American Michael (Forest Goodluck) is furious about the oil companies exploiting his North Dakota homeland. Texan Dwayne (Jacob Weary) has lost his family’s land under eminent domain. And so on.

Most of the characters are people of color; some of them are queer; all of them are poor, mostly not by choice. We learn that Logan (Lukas Gage) could call on “the family lawyer” if he chose, but the signs of precarity are more common throughout the film: the GoFundMe for cancer treatment, the family that can’t offer a glass of water because they’ve run out (and, we can assume, what comes out of the tap is too toxic to drink), the jobs replaced by faulty automation, the soup kitchen that has to close for the rest of the week because they’ve run out of food.

Although the dialogue refers to American empire and unjust terrorism charges, and recaps some of the debates in Malm’s book, no one in the film mentions capitalism, and no one seems connected to any wider networks of militant activists. The film includes verbal or visual references to Malm’s book, to Che Guevara, to Audre Lorde, but not to the long history of sabotage.

As Mike Davis discusses in “The Stopwatch and the Wooden Shoe: Scientific Management and the Industrial Workers of the World,” the term “sabotage” originally encompassed a range of tactics for workers to organize for power at the point of production — a sense both more broadly collective and less inherently explosive than indicated in the film.

The film also omits most of the steps that might take each character from tragic backstory to militant saboteur. In interviews, director Daniel Goldhaber has defended this omission by pointing out that so, too, does mainstream military propaganda like Top Gun: Maverick take shortcuts with character motivation.

Given the relative rarity in the mainstream of sympathetic portraits of the outlaw saboteur, audiences might still find the brevity of backstory unsettling, but the point about the seeming transparency of the mainstream soldier is worth reflection.

In choosing to make a mainstream genre film in order to reach a wider audience, the filmmakers inevitably invoke mainstream expectations. But the conventional tropes that work well for conventional stories may be less successful for dissident tales.

More generally — as noted by Jasper Bernes in “Deeds and Propaganda,” a review of the film for The Brooklyn Rail — the disconnect of mainstream narrative’s dramatic focus on individual characters (even in an ensemble) from the scale of needed collective actions on climate presents structural obstacles, which this film is not alone in not having overcome.

Bad Security

As a number of reviewers have noted, the security practices of this small group might read better as cautionary tale than as inspiration. Their lack of deeper and wider community connections leads to some security missteps.

To obtain the materials for bomb-making, for instance, they would probably do better to connect with someone who could arrange for materials to fall off a truck, rather than buying them with an employee discount at the hardware store, as Michael apparently does.

These people do not all know each other well or seem particularly concerned about that, and indeed one of them turns out to be an FBI informant — although, in the tradition of The Sting (1973), that plotline too turns out to involve a further layer of confidence game. A more realistic or less optimistic film might take fuller account of the dangers of entrapment, given the history of law enforcement infiltrations of radical groups.

One might also note points at which the film slights other problems. Prison health care looks implausibly good, for instance, and except when assembling explosives, no one in the film wears a respirator mask or worries about the mass disabling event of the continuing pandemic (images from the film set show crew in respirator masks, but no one on screen mentions the risks).

Where Malm’s book recognizes the privilege entailed in being able to choose to risk or seek arrest, the film’s ensemble of representatives of frontline groups means they are precisely not those with such privilege.

Don’t Try This At Home

To object that the film does not provide a reliable guide to the project of its title would seem akin to objecting that Oceans 11 does not teach us how to conduct robberies, or that Malm has not updated The Anarchist Cookbook. Yet the filmmakers consulted a government counterterrorism expert in an effort to assure authenticity in the portrayal of the bomb-making, and so one needs to say: do not try this at home.

At least one IRA veteran has observed that the practices shown on screen are extremely dangerous, and that the anonymous consultant might be guessed to have an interest in undermining any usefulness the film might have had as an actual How-To. [See “Is this Movie a PsyOp? | Dangerous Misinformation in ‘How to Bl*w Up a Pipeline’ (2022)” from Marxism Today on YouTube.]

It would certainly be unwise to see the pipeline map on the film’s website as offering a set of bomb targets. The FBI issued a warning about “heightened threat activity” in response to the release of the film, repeating that bureau’s typical flattening of political differences by including possible dangers to the electrical grid.

In fact, attacks on distribution points like power stations have been a favorite with right-wing groups rather than climate activists.

There are legal as well as moral arguments to support the use of property destruction in defense of the climate, but they are unlikely anytime soon to extend to use of explosives.

Director Daniel Goldhaber has said in interviews that we need legal recognition of the climate necessity defense — the legal provision that justifies breaking a law to prevent a greater harm — and that he expects more such cases to lead to its wider acceptance. But although Xochitl calls the group’s action one of self-defense, the film does not present activists seeking such legal recognition. We do not see them obtaining legal representation or discussing the possibility.

Nor would the group in the film seem to have a particularly strong legal case. Although the legal requirements for such cases vary by jurisdiction, they generally require demonstrating that (a) the threat is imminent (an opportunity to raise awareness about the state of the climate crisis and the dangers of any particular infrastructure location); (b) the threats of the action are lesser than the threats being averted (an easier bar to reach with an action like valve turning, which uses the safety shutoff mechanism installed by pipeline companies themselves); and (c) all other methods to seek redress are unavailable or have been tried (although some of the film’s characters are shown engaging in a divestment campaign, others involved seem to have little or no background in the legally acceptable approaches of letter-writing, testifying in environmental hearings, filing lawsuits, marching in permitted protests, and the like).

Malm’s arguments also do not address the use of the necessity defense, but it seems counter to his arguments that arrest should be avoided because it is not scalable, given the disproportionate impact of policing on already oppressed communities.

He approves the actions of Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, who sabotaged parts of the Dakota Access Pipeline while it was under construction, thus delaying its completion for some months, but does not praise their decision to confess publicly, noting that “Sabotage can proceed in the dark.”

The “terrorism enhancements” that compounded Reznicek and Montoya’s felony sentences might add to Malm’s arguments against trying to work within or through the legal system.

Sabotage or Mass Resistance

Characters in the Pipeline film repeat Malm’s argument that damaging fossil infrastructure can put pressure on oil markets and corporate profit — like divestment campaigns, only faster. But Malm also argues that “The question is not if sabotage from a militant wing of the climate movement will solve the crisis on its own — clearly a pipe dream — but if the disruptive commotion necessary for shaking business-as-usual out of the ruts can come about without it.”

While of course it is true that blowing up one pipeline will neither stop climate change nor undermine the corporate arsonists, practical mass resistance can contribute to pressure on the oil and gas industry and its government allies.

Shell Oil gave up drilling in the Arctic in 2015, after a series of problems that included technical obstacles and meager finds, but also after activists blockaded an icebreaker support ship, the Fenneca, to delay its arrival past the arctic drilling season.

Similarly, Malm points to the “small win” of a blockade of Gothenburg Harbor persuading the Swedish government to deny a permit for Swedegas. The real gains of such actions, however, may lie less in any small local wins than in the possible building of organized community and thus the momentum toward more frequent and massive action.

Indeed, the pipeline bomb is not the only form of sabotage in the film. It opens with slashing SUV tires (perhaps a more visible approach than the pebble-in-the-valve method Malm describes), includes sugar in the tanks of construction equipment, and ends with another group — let’s call them Orcas — sabotaging a yacht, another potential target mentioned by Malm.

The flyer that the Orcas leave at the end looks much like the one left on the SUV in the opening scene, hinting that there are wider networks than we actually see, as well as that such interventions are continuing and spreading.

Malm acknowledges that an underlying reason for the lack of more radical action is a dearth of radical organizing and an infelicitous configuration of class forces, hampering the pursuit of such action. We need revolutionary change, which means we need revolutionary politics, and we are still far from the mass organizing, education and training of people that will provide the needed leverage.

But if viewers of How To Blow Up A Pipeline come away from it more open to shutting things down, that would be a step in the right direction.
;So, see it with your comrades.

March-April 2024, AT 229

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