ExxonMobil and big polluters delight in anything that equates those trying to solve the global climate crisis with criminality. That’s why I’m boycotting the movie How to Blow Up a Pipeline. And if you’re climate-concerned, I’m making a case here for you to join me.
The movie is based on a manifesto by Andreas Malm, described as “a lecturer in human ecology at Lund University.” Lecturer Malm explains his motivations as follows:
“The intention of the filmmakers, or my own intention, isn’t to get people to go out and do exactly this. ‘Here’s the manual. Just go out and copy it and blow up a pipeline.’ I don’t think that’s anyone’s intention,” he continued. “The intention is to spur a conversation and make people reflect on what situation we’re finding ourselves in and what kind of actions we need to undertake to deal with it.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, but here are four big problems with this tactical blunder.
First, there’s the inconvenient reality of what Malm actually wrote in his 208-page manifesto. It’s absolutely a case for committing crimes against property:
“Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. 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.” [Emphasis added]
Second, there’s the problem of talk vs. action. I’ll bet a jailhouse care package that Malm won’t leave his university classroom to blow up pipelines in Texas — or in Russia for that matter. That would go as well for him as it will for those he’s encouraging to commit crimes.
Third, the environmental community has a lot of people doing the hard, inglorious work of shutting down aging coal plants and getting toxic “forever chemicals” banned. But it also has an unhelpfully large café crowd that can’t handle the messiness and incrementalism of politics and public opinion. Instead, they want to “spur a conversation” that will result in … well, they really can’t say.
After 39 years of communications campaigning, I can assure you that if a campaign’s goal is starting a “conversation,” its goal is failure.
Malm and the café crowd seem to prefer attention for themselves over producing climate results through persuasion. Their opponents in the polluter lobby, however, are highly focused on the actual work of gaining traction in the public debate.
When I worked in environmental nonprofits, from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, polluter lobbies effectively moved a narrative of eco-terrorism that demanded federal law enforcement crackdown. This load of nonsense was carried dozens of times in the wheelbarrow of CBS News and other U.S. legacy media outlets.
The reality was far different. A handful of eco-vandals did vandalize extractive industry property. But the real threat to people came from right-wing militia goons who physically attacked environmentalists. As journalist David Helvarg documented in his book War Against the Greens:
“A reign of violence and intimidation, including arson, bombings, rape, assault and even murder has been unleashed against environmental activists and government employees by proponents of the so-called ‘Wise Use’ movement.”
Malm and the people behind this deeply foolish film don’t get a fundamental reality of public persuasion: If you lack the money of an ExxonMobil to buy policy change, you must enroll others in your point of view. Like it or not, that’s all you get.
Fourth, Malm and his friends are certain government is dominated by polluter lobbies, blocking climate progress at the needed scale. But they can’t articulate how crimes against property will bring helpful responses from that beholden government.
Take Tim DeChristopher. In 2011, this Utah activist was jailed for two years for simply bidding up prices at a federal oil and gas lease auction. That sentence was handed out in an issues climate set by the “eco-terrorist” propaganda the polluter lobby had placed in legacy media.
Eight years later, Chuck Jones was the CEO of Ohio utility FirstEnergy. On his watch, FirstEnergy doled out $61M in illegal bribes to Ohio politicians so they’d bail out his money-losing coal and nuclear plants. The highest-profile recipient of Jones’ bribes, former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, was recently convicted. But polluter-briber Jones kept his bonuses. He can binge-watch Netflix this weekend without negotiating TV access with a prison shot caller. Don’t bet on that changing.
Twenty years ago, the polluter lobby laid the conventional wisdom that eco-terrorism is a real thing. But even with the signs posted, the crew involved in this movie is walking into the trap.
And note how taut the wire on that trap is strung. When New York Times columnist Ezra Klein wrote a dispassionate takedown of Malm’s diatribe, the polluter lobby’s water carriers on Fox News pounced. They claimed Klein had “appeared to condone eco-terrorism … [and] to understand and even sympathize with the author.”
Just think what they’ll do with this film — or with favorable reviews of it by the likes of DeChristopher (go figure).
A friend of mine had a parent involved in 1990s eco-vandal circles, and she put it well:
“This reckless movie will result in more young activists churning out ideas within their echo chambers, cheered on by Malm from the comfort of his ivory tower. They’ll think they’re winning and can outsmart the FBI. They’ll get prosecuted under the Patriot Act and get terrorism enhancements on their sentences. And they’ll have made zero positive difference.”
Here’s the core problem with Malm and his ilk: Stopping the global climate crisis will rely on communication that persuades others, not actions or rhetoric that polluting industries can weaponize. Making this film is akin to climate activists gluing themselves to priceless museum artwork, or flattening the tires of SUVs owned by complete strangers.
These actions don’t persuade. They don’t start conversations. They just enrage the undecided. Taking them and claiming climate progress is like hitting yourself in the face and declaring you have a fight plan.
The folks involved in this film would have made far more climate progress if they pushed even a single restaurant chain to make plastic straws an opt-in choice, not a mindless default. Then again, driving hard, inch-by-inch progress won’t make you the center of attention.
Given this indulgent mistake has already been launched, the best we can do is not give it our time or money. Let the ExxonMobil lobbyists pay the full ticket price. They’re the beneficiaries, and there’s certainly enough of them to pack several theaters.
By Mike Casey, President of Tigercomm
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