What to do about climate change (3): Andreas Malm on blowing up pipelines and other forms of property destruction

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 6, 2022

In his book How to Blog Up A Pipeline, Andreas Malm writes about the need for the climate movement to have a more radical wing (which would do things like blowing up pipelines, or other forms of property destruction). His view is that the climate movement is making a mistake by subscribing to radical forms of non-violence, since the climate crisis is getting worse year by year, while the tactics of the climate movement remain the same – and, in his view, have proven to be ineffective (or at least, insufficiently effective).

One of Malm’s targets is Extinction Rebellion (XR), one of the most visible groups within the climate movement. Local groups of XR are staging various forms of protest, but always non-violent; they do not destroy property. Malm argues that XR has a flawed understanding of how in the past movements operated who were fighting to abolish slavery or abolish apartheid in South Africa, or fighting for women’s political rights or equal civil rights in the US. They all first tried to reach their goals in a peaceful way, but at some point resorted to violence (against property, thereby doing their best to avoid hurting people). And that paid off, since it had the effect of making the claims of the non-violent part of the movement more acceptable to mainstream politics. Malm believes that what XR and other groups in the climate activist movement should learn from the history of the social justice movements, is to have a fraction or a wing in the movement that doesn’t shy away from destroying property. Hence the metaphor of blowing up a pipeline (in case anyone was wondering, Malm doesn’t tell his readers how to actually go about blowing up a pipeline).

This is a thought-provoking book, and I would recommend anyone interested in the future of life on our planet to read it. It is a much-needed book to stir up debate and get us into action, given the desperateness of the current climate situation and the lack of sufficiently effective action (which has been increasingly affecting my mood – as some of my posts here over the last months (one, two) probably revealed). But I don’t think Malm’s book will serve as a one-stop-answer to the question how to make the climate movement deliver results. Why not?

My first worry with Malm’s argument is very well captured by Chris Armstrong in his book review, when Armstrong writes:

… Neither of [the actions that Malm discusses] ostensibly target the state. That raises a puzzle, because Malm is clear that “At the end of the day, it will be states that ram through the transition, or no one will” (p. 69).

There might be a relevant difference between the earlier movements and the climate movement, and that is that there are now two power factors: there is the fossil industry – all those companies that benefit from the continued reliance on fossil fuel extraction and use, either because that’s what they sell or used in what they produce, or else is where they invest their money (the purely financial side of capitalism might be the most powerful force to reckon with). And then there is the state – either the dictators (like in the oil producing countries in the Middle East), or the officially democratic countries elsewhere. But the list of formally democratic countries also contains a worrying large number of countries where the leadership is also, effectively, deeply involved in fossil capitalism – either directly, like in Norway or Russia, or indirectly, like in the USA where money has a disproportional influence on politics and much of that money is tied to fossil capitalism.

So this raises a question: is the re-democratization of countries where fossil industries have a disporportional influence on political decision making, a necessary pre-condition for states being able to address the climate crisis? This would not only include Russia and the USA, but also the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, and many more countries.

This brings me to my second thought when reading Malm’s book. The book is dark, since if his analysis is right, it is clear that the clock is ticking incredibly fast yet we do not have the climate movement that is needed to get us where we want to be, namely, in a decarbonised world. Malm (rightly and thankfully) doesn’t side with those who say we just have to learn how to die; instead, he is hoping that we can mobilise more people into a climate movement that is much more aggressive and also directly attacks fossil capitalism. On the very last pages of his book, he speaks hopeful of his experiences being part of climate activist camps, where people together target sites of the fossil industry. He argues that few other actions for climate change have felt as empowering to him.

I think it would get us further to stress the many different ways in which citizens can become part of the climate movement. Climate camps, or indeed camps in general, are not for everyone: it fits a certain kind of personality, and doesn’t fit other types of personalities. It would be good for those who are convinced of the need for political action to have access to an array of political methods and ways to become engaged, which would also include climate lawsuits (recall for example what Urgenda did in the Netherlands), mass protests, strengthening radically green political parties that are not tied to fossil capitalism, the development of new technologies, the divest movements at Universities and pensions funds – and, indeed, writing books, blogposts and other forms of inciting public debate on the issue of climate change.

I agree with Malm that we must ask the question what is needed to deliver results, but resorting to violence is not something that everyone is able or willing to do, in part also because the price that people risk paying is very different for different people. If a violent fraction in the climate movements would be absolutely necessary for deep decarbonization, then we can only hope that there are some activist willing to do this. But we don’t know whether a combination of different types of activism that are massively scaled-up might not get us to the same results. Those who understand the seriousness of the situation might decide, after reading Malm’s book, that they should consider resorting to violent tactics. But if they reject violence, that doesn’t mean they are off the hook: rather, we need everyone to contribute to climate activism and protests, in ways that are effective, but also in ways that they are able and willing to commit to.



JT 10.06.22 at 10:32 pm

Why cede the word violence in such an instance? Disabling a pipeline or even actively destroying property is property damage, but one need not agree that it is violence.


Gareth Wilson 10.07.22 at 12:19 am

“Hence the metaphor of blowing up a pipeline (in case anyone was wondering, Malm doesn’t tell his readers how to actually go about blowing up a pipeline).”

Telling his readers how to blow up a pipeline with absolutely no risk of injuring people would be useful, since I can’t think how to do that myself.


both sides do it 10.07.22 at 1:54 am

there’s a Magritte joke in here somewhere


John Quiggin 10.07.22 at 3:27 am

As Gareth says, property destruction carries an inherent risk of killing or injuring people. For example, bombs regularly go off prematurely, killing anyone who happens to be nearby (commonly, but not always, this includes the bomb-makers).

And, as with violence which harms people intentionally, property destruction has a long record of failure as a political tactic. Greenpeace tried it a while ago destroying experimental GM crops, but correctly repudiated that campaign. https://johnquiggin.com/2014/01/23/greenpeace-splits-on-gm-sabotage/ (Greenpeace Australia was slower but followed suit)


David Duffy 10.07.22 at 6:31 am

Do the recent presumed attacks on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline count as a “natural experiment” on
what such actions actually get you in the long term? Will Putin help the world reach its 2030 targets sooner?


Ingrid Robeyns 10.07.22 at 6:33 am

The kind of property destruction that Malm has engaged in himself and that is at very limited risk of harming people in a significant way (but no doubt annoying them like hell), is to deflate the tires of SUVs in cities.

So I haven’t read up on the histories of the civil rights movements that Malm discusses, but he claims they all started out peacefully, and only had their demands met when a wing in the movement became violent. If that is true, then there is at least truth to the claim that some social movements could only reach their goals after some part of that movement resorted to property destruction/violence. This should be a claim that historians should be able to assess (since it’s pretty factual imo), so if anyone here has that expertise, I’d be interested to hear their toughts.
Of course, even if it is true that those social movements he discusses had to resort to violence in order to get their demands met, then it doesn’t follow that violence is a necessary element of a social justice movement to meet their demands.


John Quiggin 10.07.22 at 6:43 am

An important distinction is between symbolic violence, which is what Malm seems to advocate and violent force (for example, building an armed movement sufficiently powerful to permanently destroy existing energy infrastructure). In the case of violent force, it’s reasonably easy to tell whether it’s been successful or not.

In the case of symbolic force, it is usually hard to tell in retrospect, how much impact it had. For example, was progress in civil rights helped or harmed by the Black Panthers? I’d say their impact, in either direction was marginal compared to that of the purely legal/legislative struggle (Brown vs Board of Education, Civil Rights Act) and non-violent civil disobedience.

Certainly, the environmental movement has had lots of successes, while being almost entirely non-violent . But progress isn’t fast enough in the current crisis. This may result in some turning to property destruction, but it will be very hard to link that to success or failure.


Gareth Wilson 10.07.22 at 7:11 am

I’ll grant you deflating the tyres of an SUV doesn’t seem likely to injure anyone, but what impact is it supposed to have on climate change?


Matt 10.07.22 at 7:31 am

I’d hate to get too side-traded on the meaning of “violence”, but the noraml dictionary definitions all seem to include intentional damage to property, at least of certain sorts. It seems like a dodge to say that it’s “non violent” because it doesn’t harm people. And, I’d think, going around deflating car tires is likely to be both ineffectual in the extreme both in a direct sense and very unlikey to help build a movement. (And no doubt there’s a reason the book isn’t called “how to deflate car tires”. That seems relevant.)

More importantly, though, I worry that it at least sounds like not enough attention is given in the book to marginal thinking and likely trade-offs. For example, Europe is now burning a lot of “bio-mass” to produce electricity. But especially when the transit and production aspects are taken into account (and even more so if we use realistic accounting for the CO2) this is much worse than burning natural gas. Why is it being done? Because peope don’t want to be cold! But, in many places we’re likely to need some back-up to solar and wind for some time, and it’s much better that that be gas than bio-mass or coal. (Of course, hydro or geothermal would be better still, but they are not available everywhere. Nuclear might have been better too, but some places have already given up that idea too soon.) This makes me think that we should be asking how we might use the cleanest sources we can to supplement fully clean sources. That’s a lot less sexy than wanting to blow up pipelines, but it seems to me that it’s also much more likely to be helpful.

A related idea is that more people are likely to get on board with making needed changes if they think it can be done without too radical of costs. One way this has been presented in the US is that it’s bad for gas prices to go up too high too quickly, because if they do, people will vote for Republicans, who will stop trying to improve things at all, and will likely reverse the steps that have been taken. (This seems to be what happened to the carbon tax in Australia, at least in part.) The position of the book seems to be that people will come around to the author’s view if they are slapped a bit. But it seems likely to me that we will get the opposite result, making things much worse than what unsexy peacemeal reform might have done.


Max 10.07.22 at 7:36 am

I haven’t read the book and I admit that my prior is strongly in favour of non-violent resistance. Now in political science there is a large empirical literature on non-violent resistance in countries across the globe. In wonder, does the book engage constructively with this work or is it just cherry-picking examples or property destruction by successful social movements?


Tim Worstall 10.07.22 at 9:02 am

Malm’s previous book (which his publishers sent me for some strange reason) gets very excited about the imposition of Leninist war communism as a solution to climate change. Somehow dropping industrial production by 90%, starving 20% of the population, seems like a bit of an over-reaction to the chronic problem faced. Especially as the entire policy was then reversed after only 3 or 4 years to have the NEP, which brought back markets and profits in order to retain at least some semblance of civilisation.

Perhaps Malm sees himself as part of that vanguard telling everyone what to do rather than one of those being told.

Myself, and I know this is very out there as a claim, I’d say that being that wrong on the subject produces a certain scepticism about any further suggestions from the same source.

“But especially when the transit and production aspects are taken into account (and even more so if we use realistic accounting for the CO2) this is much worse than burning natural gas.”

There is also that point, closing down nuclear to burn lignite, burning N American woodchip in British furnaces, the ethanol boondoggle, E15 and so on and on. Given how counterproductive so much of the planned response has been perhaps more central planning isn’t going to work – even with Leninist fortitude.


John Quiggin 10.07.22 at 9:40 am

I think the favorable treatment biomass is an unfortunate consequence of using terms like “renewables” and “fossil fuels” which date back to the 1970s concern that we would run out of oil and gas, and maybe even coal.

The question isn’t renewable or not, it’s carbon-based or carbon-free


engels 10.07.22 at 9:48 am

My intuition is very much that “violence” has to be against people, not just property (perhaps including cases where someone is attacked through their property, eg by slapping a book out of their hand). I think that’s probably the legal definition in England. Cambridge Dictionary lists two senses for UK, one is person-directed and the other is just extreme force but the latter includes things like violently hitting the brakes of my car, which clearly isn’t relevant here (the third sense they list for US is perhaps more expansive as are Merriam-Webster’s so perhaps it’s a tomayto/tomahto thing).



Sean Purdy 10.07.22 at 9:52 am

Thank you Ingrid for alerting me to this book, which I will read. Before I do, two things spring to mind based on your post and some of the comments.

The first is that the climate movement is different from all previous movements in that it faces a deadline. If the civil rights movement had taken 50 years longer to achieve what it did, that would not have threatened the survival of the human race – just certain minorities within it. Dawdling over climate will be (is already being) catastrophic for humanity.

The second is that solving the climate problem is an insanely complex task that needs to be tackled on multiple fronts simultaneously. Every kind of human endeavour is involved: political, economic, commercial, social, cultural, technological etc etc.

Given this, I think that an escalation towards violence is both needed and inevitable as part of the solution. My own bias is strongly non-violent, but I really struggle to see how things will change at the pace and scale required if we continue to take the “polite” approach.

I’m guessing Malm’s book will only confirm that belief. And I honestly don’t know where that leaves me in terms of my own conscience and actions.


Salem 10.07.22 at 10:18 am

There is nothing special or unique about the climate movement facing a deadline. There are obvious analogous deadlines for nuclear catastrophe, habitat loss, worries about a “fascist takeover,” unfriendly AI, opposition to a particular war, etc, right down to tiny issues like campaigning against a new development.

Deadlines are part of the ordinary stuff of politics, they are not an argument for stepping outside of it.


Matt 10.07.22 at 10:31 am

John – you’re right that “renewable” as such isn’t very important here. But, supposedly a lot of the support for burning bio-mass in Europe (basically pelatized trees) was based on the idea that it was carbon neutral, because the trees were re-grown, removing the carbon released in the burning. Of course, already that doesn’t work unless we’re willing to take a slow growing as equivalent to a fast burning. But it also doesn’t include all the carbon produced in the turning of the trees into pellets, transporting them to Europe, etc.) It’s a really bad situation.

On “violence”, Merriam Webster gives “the use of physical force so as it injure, abuse, damage or destroy”. Some others explicity say “someone or some thing.” Engles – if some thugs came to your house and smashed all of your belongins in an aggressive way, and then someone said, “well, they were not violent – they didn’t touch you after all” I assume you’d think they must be joking. We can debate when violence is justified, but this attempt to say that blowing things up to bring about political change isn’t “violence” is both silly and clearly involves self-deception.


Chris Armstrong 10.07.22 at 10:45 am

I’m less sure that the violent / non-violent distinction is uber-important from the moral point of view. Violent actions (smashing up property) can be fairly harmless, in the right circumstances. On the other hand, non-violent actions (like blocking roads) can actually be quite harmful, by e.g. stopping people getting to hospitals. Perhaps we have the typology a bit wrong, and should be talking of harmful versus non-harmful actions, rather than violent versus non-violent ones?


Matt 10.07.22 at 10:52 am

Chris Armstrong said, Perhaps we have the typology a bit wrong, and should be talking of harmful versus non-harmful actions, rather than violent versus non-violent ones?

I’m sympathetic to that (except that I think it’s using a bad definition of “harm” – a moralized one, when harm should just be used as a setback to interest – but we can fix that and get the same outcome here) except that I think people here are engaged in a sort of slight of hand, on themselves as much as on others, to try to convince themselves that their actions are similar to those of people they like or who are widely liked, even though they are not. What would be better is trying to argue that an action is violent and harmful, but still justified. That seems hard to most people, and so they try rhetorical slight of hand, even on themselves. (Of course, lots of violent and harmful actions can be fully justified, so being honest here doesn’t rule anything out a priori.)


engels 10.07.22 at 11:21 am

The Library of Congress borrower card for this book:

October 2022


Thomas P 10.07.22 at 11:23 am

Atwood was depressingly profetic with The Handmaid’s Tale, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the same will happen with Oryx and Crake. At some point either a state or a private group with sufficient resources will decide that the only solution is a drastic reduction in population and design bioweapons to achieve it.


Fake Dave 10.07.22 at 12:20 pm

The claim that escalating violence makes social movements more successful needs a big [citation needed] after it. History is lousy with examples of groups that embraced armed struggle only to become feared and hated by ordinary people. The postcolonial alphabet soup of liberation fronts and worker’s parties were notorious for turning idealistic young people into dead-eyed guerrillas who thought nothing of setting bombs and waving rifles in people’s faces because it was the duty of all citizens to resist the oppressors and those who sat idle were aiding the enemy. Maybe a lot of those groups started as self defense associations or legal protest groups before the “diversity of tactics” crowd started pushing for more dramatic shows of force and more dangerous provocations.

I’m not usually one for slippery slope arguments, but aggression and violence can have addictive qualities and it does seem like there is a certain personality that can get hooked on the drama and romance of a revolutionary struggle the same way a compulsive gambler can’t help raising the stakes. People idolize passionate, self-assured rebels like Emma Goldman and Che Guavera, but their personality flaws are right there to see in the inhuman way they treated opponents. Part of what makes non-violent resistence effective is that it breaks the cycle of dehumanization and allows people to believe in the possibility of peace and reconciliation without fear of vengeance and retribution. People who don’t understand the value in that approach are just making that work harder.


engels 10.07.22 at 12:45 pm

if some thugs came to your house and smashed all of your belongins in an aggressive way, and then someone said, “well, they were not violent – they didn’t touch you after all” I assume you’d think they must be joking

I’m not promising I wouldn’t be pissed off but I think it would be violent in the descriptive sense that slamming a door can be violent act but not in the more morally significant sense that that punching someone is a violent crime. If they just came in and calmly painted all my furniture purple that would be illegal and malicious damage to my property but it definitely wouldn’t be violence imo.


engels 10.07.22 at 12:59 pm

I suppose the other side of the this is a growing tendency for the American radical left to categorise various kinds of bigoted, insensitive or politically disagreeable speech as “violence” and “harm,” which I find equally counterintuitive.


LFC 10.07.22 at 1:40 pm

That (the L of C borrower card) means basically nothing, bc the L of C is not an ordinary lending library. If you’re a member of the public, you have to, besides physically getting there, 1) go through security, 2) sit down in the reading room, 3) fill out a call slip for the book, 4) wait for the staff to bring it to you. (Plus you have to have an L of C card and make sure it hasn’t expired.)

If you’re a member of the public and you need to get your hands on a non-rare, recently published book like this w.o buying it, it’s prob easier, even if one lives within say a 10 to 15 mile distance of the L of C, to go to a local public library and ask them to get it via interlibrary loan if nec. The L of C is only a convenient option if you happen to live right next door, imo. If one is engaged in serious research (one can get a “shelf”) or needs something very out of the way, it’s good. Otherwise makes not much sense unless, as I say, you happen to live or work in close proximity to it.

(I used L of C some yrs ago when working on diss. Don’t think I’ve been back since. I don’t know exactly what the procedures are now in terms of security, etc. )

P.s. Members of Congress can actually check books out and remove them from the premises, I believe. And prob or possibly Sup Ct Justices. And that’s about it.


Sashas 10.07.22 at 2:58 pm

@Matt (various) Quoting a dictionary is not going to be a convincing argument in this case. I was introduced to the distinction between “violence” (against people) and “destruction” (against property) through the example of violence against protesters in defense of property. The specific example used was police who beat and gassed protesters vs protesters who trashed an empty gas station.

The protesters argued that these were qualitatively distinct acts with distinct moral significance. The police disagreed.

Your dictionary appears, unsurprisingly, to be aligned with the police in this disagreement. That doesn’t exactly add weight to the argument, however, because the protesters’ point is that existing power structures value property above human life. (They argue further that this is Bad and Wrong.)

We can quibble about word choice and definitions, but the underlying point is that attacks against people should be viewed differently from attacks against stuff. It’s not slight of hand. Your example home invasion actually involves two elements: One of an attack against stuff, AND a threat of attack against a person. I don’t know about you, but I can very easily imagine a scenario where the stuff gets trashed but the perpetrators remove the threat to my person. And while I would be very pissed about the whole thing I wouldn’t call it “violent”. I would personally say “destructive” in that case. This is again, however, beside the actual point. Words used aside, if one person trashed my stuff and a second beat me up, I would argue that the second was doing something qualitatively different–and qualitatively worse–than the first.


notGoodenough 10.07.22 at 3:12 pm

Just a quick comment – I’ve not had time to properly flesh this out, but hopefully it is coherent enough to give a vague idea of my train of thought here (borrowed heavily from other, better thinkers than myself).

I think it is better to consider communitarian rather than more individualistic actions (after all, harm in the sense discussed in the OP is mostly a result of action at the society level, and how exactly does one blow up such a social relationship?). It seems to me that many (perhaps even most?) people would accept that (in principle, though heavily dependent on context) force used in self-defence can be justified. However, a focus on the capacity of an individual (or even small collective) for self-defence in response to a harm is – at least to my mind – in danger of missing the point that the majority of societal harm is, in fact, organised (if not consciously, at least through cultural and social norms).

While I understand the temptation to discuss and debate the concepts of violent militancy vs nonviolent disobedience as tactics (there is, after all, a time and place for use of force), I can’t help but feel that this misses the woods for the trees. Typically during the process of harm (at least in the way we seem to be considering here), there are many possible points of intervention before force becomes necessary (though force may still be appropriate if earlier interventions fail). However, surely force can only be an effective tool if it is being supported by the wider community? Thus, it is necessary to think in terms of systems and communities – which, it seems to me, would suggest one should have already begun that beforehand. By all means, “let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or a knife, and lay in wait on the steps of the palaces of the rich”, but also let’s have find ways to help the vulnerable survive in the meantime because, very frequently, violence simply isn’t enough.

In short, I don’t really see how blowing up pipelines can serve as an adequate replacement for wide spread and well organised communities following “best practices” (at local, organisational, and political levels), and I’m sceptical that it does much to support more fruitful endeavours. I suspect that if we think in terms of systems and communities, we will prevent a great deal of harm from occurring in the first place, and reduce the need to resort to harm as a response.


engels 10.07.22 at 4:16 pm

Examples from CPS, ONS, Victim Support charity:

“Violent crime covers a variety of offences – ranging from common assault to murder. It also encompasses the use of weapons such as firearms, knives and corrosive substances like acid.”

“Violent crime covers a wide range of offences including minor assaults (such as pushing and shoving), harassment and abuse (that result in no physical harm) through to wounding and homicide.”

“A violent crime is when someone physically hurts or threatens to hurt someone, and also includes crimes where a weapon is used.”


Peter Dorman 10.07.22 at 6:35 pm

So much of the climate talk, especially on the left, is just about attitude. People have strong feelings and mistake how strongly they feel with how much justification there is for feeling that way. Books like Malm’s are based on sweeping, unexamined assumptions, cherrypicked examples and little honest engagement with alternative points of view.

I tried to write a very different kind of book (Alligators). It lays out an approach to climate policy and action that is science-based but (or therefore) politically and economically radical. I take seriously the objections to my position and acknowledge their force when warranted. Every claim is referenced, with preference to high-quality research and primary sources. That doesn’t mean I’m right, but it does earn a bit of scrutiny, no?

Yet what do we see? Writing that is long on opinion and short on evidence or analysis gets just about all the attention, including even here. Careful work is damn near invisible.

Fossil capitalism? I’ve made the case that opposition to serious climate policy is supported by a much wider swath of capital, and for good (for them) reason: once you look at the demand side of the impacts of much higher energy prices as well as the supply side (costs to producers), a large chunk of the capital stock is at risk. This is not just speculative; there are studies that trace lobbying money to specific industries, and while fossil fuels are certainly well represented, they are far from alone. The issue is important, because it bears on what sort of political challenge we face.

As for what the climate movement needs, it should be obvious that militancy of whatever stripe is futile without clear objectives. In the case of climate change, that has to mean imposing a cumulative carbon emission budget, which is exactly how most climate scientists calibrate policy. The gazillions of things we need to do to decarbonize are manifold and complex, and it’s almost impossible to hold government to account when they can dangle one sort-of policy to accomplish one sort-of goal and then another. (Exhibition I: the Inflation Reduction Act.) Without a quantitative budget there’s no yardstick. Debate over tactics is pointless without clarity on what the tactics are for.

I realize grumpiness is a professional hazard. It’s too easy to get all curmudgeon at everyone who hasn’t paid their scholarly dues. But still, there’s difference between argument that tries to adhere to standards and argument that just bloviates. If the climate crisis is truly an epochal challenge, isn’t the choice to give time and attention to careful analysis a political one?

ps: About deflating the tires of SUV’s, that’s not only tactically stupid but clueless about the nature of the crisis we’re in. Yeah, bigger cars create bigger problems, but outlawing all SUVs or pickups or whatever would accomplish next to nothing, and it’s not even symbolic of what we need to do. (Create a long, long list of all the consumer items we want to ban?) If you’re going to piss off a large part of the population, it ought to be for a good reason.


Ingrid Robeyns 10.07.22 at 8:01 pm

Peter Dorman – yes, you are grumpy and we don’t need your ad-hominems. I’ve told you I’ve bought your book and I started reading it, but given that there is a very high pile of books before yours in the queue (and that I’m writing one myself that is not on climate change and that has an overdue delivery deadline), it will take a while before I get there. And then there is the next question whether I can find two evenings to write the book review (also, grumpy reactions do nothing to get it higher on the pile or improve the odds of me writing a review – quite the opposite – but perhaps John Q. has more patience with this, and I suspect he has your book too). Malms book was on the pile since it came out last year, and as it happens I also have a zillion other things to do in life than only writing blogposts; I do not work at an American tier 1 research university that swims in money and assistants, nor do not I live a care-obligations-free live and am not retired, so I decide myself what I do in the very little spare time that I have, thank you very much indeed).
More importantly, I think you are unfair towards Malm’s argument – he is discussing the tactics and choices of the climate social movement, and -rightly in my view – arguing that these tactics are not increasing pressure on the government to do more (and of course they should have done much of what is in this list of gazzilon things that need to be done much earlier). In the country in which I live, there was a clear plan on what could be done to decarbonize (based on science, with targets, etc.) many years ago, but the governemnt didn’t think it necessary to stick to its own targets and promisses; a lawsuit from the climate movement was needed to put pressure on them. So I do believe we need the climate social movement as part of a theory of change; the discussion in the OP, and the reason to bring Malm’s book on the table, is what kind of climate movement we need. And I do think we need to take serious the hypothesis (for Malm it’s a claim which he supports with historical analysis) that the social movements that were succesful in the past only became so after a wing appeared (or they changed tactics and became that wing) that was not shying away from causing harm via property destruction.


lathrop 10.07.22 at 8:28 pm

“How to Blog Up A Pipeline” — I like that typo!

I just saw James Hansen speak about the crisis. Of course he showed the very key charts on energy and carbon usage. Then made a call for young people to act (it was at a university) — but marred by his political naivete, proposing support for a third party in the U.S. (mentions Yang by name). Between lack of popular urgency as Vaclav Smil has noted, and this unserious, slow politics, you’d think the conclusion ought to be “we are screwed.”

One can understand the need for Malm’s arguments for an aggressive multipronged strategy. Perhaps the non-violent mass blockade anti-nuclear movement from way back when offers a partial model (Livermore Action Group, Abalone and Clamshell alliances).

And yes, I realize that the calculus regarding nuclear power may be different now.


weichi 10.07.22 at 9:26 pm

How does Malm grapple with the reality that (a) US + EU account for only a bit less than 1/3 of total carbon emissions, and their emissions are falling (b) China’s emissions are 40 % higher than the USA + EU, and rising?

Given these realities, it seems like the most pressure needs to be brought on China. It’s highly questionable whether a campaign of property damage could lead to policy changes in this area for the US and EU. But it strikes me as ludicrous to imagine that such a campaign could have any impact at all on Chinese policy.

Peter Dorman, does your book address the issue of China (and indeed of the 2/3 of the emissions from non-USA, non-EU countries)?


Peter Dorman 10.07.22 at 9:41 pm

Sorry Ingrid if my grumpiness seemed directed at you; it certainly wasn’t. It was wrong of me to include the swipe at CT for the reasons you mentioned.

Really, my peeve is with the broader babble. It’s undeniable that opinionating has crowded out analysis almost everywhere. If there were lots of serious books, including some from the left, garnering attention, I would have no beef. But that’s not what I see.

I take your point about Malm. His is really not a climate book, in the sense that he doesn’t have anything new to say on that front (right?) and recycles the arguments of others. As you say, his contribution lies in the discussion of social movement strategy. I still think the bigger problem the climate movement faces is putting forward a clear program that holds governments accountable and would really tackle the climate challenge. We’re not there yet.


Brett 10.07.22 at 10:15 pm

Quiggin brought up the good Greenpeace and GM crops example, but there’s also the history of animal rights property damage and violence, which failed to pan out to much because the modern state really can bring down the hammer hard in terms of surveillance and arrests if they want to.


LFC 10.08.22 at 12:51 am

I don’t know exactly which successful social movements Malm has in mind, but I don’t think property destruction had much of anything to do w the success of the U.S. civil rights movement if one treats the landmark legislation of the mid-60s as marking a significant if not total success. But that took decades and, as some back-and-forth upthread points out, time is a real issue for the climate movement.


John Quiggin 10.08.22 at 2:04 am

Developing a bit further the distinction I drew above between symbolic violence and violent force, I suspect there is a big element of magical thinking here.

That is, by performing a symbolic violent act, you can somehow compel your opponents to do things, when in reality this would require the use of enough violent force to overcome their resistance. Many forms of magic work this way.


John Quiggin 10.08.22 at 2:12 am

One final point. A key part of civil disobedience, as with the civil rights movement and Extinction Rebellion, is that it is public and invites arrest and prosecution.

By contrast, violent action is typically undertaken secretly. This would make sense if the action were part of a genuine attempt to achieve goals by armed force. But, in the case of symbolic violence, it’s just cowardly.


nastywoman 10.08.22 at 4:50 am

and there is nothing more violent than the property destruction by the Hurricane(s) which rage through Florida and the Fires that rage everywhere in the World –
BUT have politicians learned their lesson in a more effective way as when their kids would completely stop going to school and keep on protesting until something truly effective would have been done?


William Berry 10.08.22 at 5:06 am

What JQ said in comments 35 and 36:

Deconstructive criticism has shredded (usually justly so, IMNSHO) pretty much everything written more than yesterday ago, but “An Essay on Civil Disobedience”, by H. D. Thoreau, is strongly evoked (for me, at least; whether intentionally or incidentally: don’t know, don’t care, doesn’t matter) by these comments.

If anyone here hasn’t read it, I highly recom. . . ; no, if you haven’t read it, just read it already!

We’re a long way from the Mexican-American War (of, what, 1844?), but other than the dates, what has changed (WRT this question, I mean)? If you don’t personally stand for your protest, what good is it? Are you willing to go to jail? What is a random act of violence (of any kind) good for (especially in a world that suffers a surfeit of violence such that very few pay any attention to it unless it happened on their block, or at the mall they frequent) when no-one knows what it means, or is supposed to mean? At minimum, one must take the risk of revealing their IP address (or something similar) to make known what they’re fighting for. If you don’t risk something, you don’t really care all that much.

I’m dead against violence that threatens human life, and violence that might result, intentionally or incidentally, in physical injury, or harm, to human beings.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on climate change (or on anything, for that matter), but we have to be very careful about the means/ weapons we choose to fight this struggle. Violent protest risks provoking the National Security Super-State into a crackdown/ repression that becomes a major distraction from the very issue we want to address.

That politics and public relations might be our only tools to battle Global Warming (Can we stop saying “climate change”; isn’t it a euphemism, like “surface mining”, for strip mining?) is scary and depressing. Given that it’s the only thing that has a chance of working we’d best get to it.

In the end, it’s a game of public relations and persuasion. If we can’t get a critical mass of human beings to support solving the problem then you can stick a fork in us, we’re done*.

*HT to Lou Reed in “Last Great American Whale”.


KT2 10.08.22 at 6:18 am

Is physical violence worse than “slow violence”?
(Slow Violence & Rob Nixon -links below and Solint’s “industrial-scale and systemic violence”)

I personally cannot cleanly seperate  violence to property, dictionary or ethical & moral definitions of violence against property,  verses human harm, however indirect.
Slow violence – aka climate change violence & deaths. “Overall, air pollution causes the deaths of around ca. 7 million people worldwide each year”. Wikipedia.

With all due respect Ingrid, and I understand this OP is dealing with physical attack predominantly of property, I would like to see another post in this series, on slow violence  (harms?) as by Rob Nixon (link at end).

We – society & states – account accurately for physical violence. And provide remedy at law.

I do not believe we account for effects of carbon nor slow violence or remedy or reparations correctly, or with any accuracy related to reality.

And a comparison of costs of “slow violence” against deaths. If Qaly’s or VSL used, my intuition tells me the gap between physical violence as outlined by “Andreas Malm on blowing up pipelines and other forms of property destruction” against death and displacement + climate induced violence, will be a very sobering statistic. And a very useful statistics / analysis, towards arguments relating to:
i) Limitarianism
ii) and towards for your “second thought” … ” [Malm] also directly attacks fossil capitalism.”.
iii) campaigns on economic grounds to effect change as the hip picket is all powerful in politics

JQ, we would appreciate a pointer or quantification of “slow violence” & other related harms.

notGoodenough @26 invokes harm saying, ( I appreciate you invoking separately systems and communities);  “that if we think in terms of systems and communities, we will prevent a great deal of harm from occurring in the first place, and reduce the need to resort to harm as a response.”.

Harms may address costs of the statement by Rebecca Solint in the Guardian article “In every arena, we need to look at industrial-scale and systemic violence, not just the hands-on violence of the less powerful. When it comes to climate change, this is particularly true.”

…”let’s talk about climate change as violence. Rather than worrying about whether ordinary human beings will react turbulently to the destruction of the very means of their survival, let’s worry about that destruction – and their survival.”

“What the scientists actually said, in a not-so-newsworthy article in Nature two and a half years ago, is that there is higher conflict in the tropics in El Nino years, and that perhaps this will scale up to make our age of climate change also an era of civil and international conflict.

“The message is that ordinary people will behave badly in an era of intensified climate change.

“All this makes sense, unless you go back to the premise and note that climate change is itself violence. Extreme, horrific, longterm, widespread violence.”

“Using data from 1950 to 2004, we show that the probability of new civil conflicts arising throughout the tropics doubles during El Niño years relative to La Niña years. This result, which indicates that ENSO may have had a role in 21% of all civil conflicts since 1950, is the first demonstration that the stability of modern societies relates strongly to the global climate.
Hsiang, S., Meng, K. & Cane, M.
Civil conflicts are associated with the global climate. (2011).

“A review concluded that, like in 2015, pollution(¾ from air pollution) was responsible for 9 million premature deaths in 2019 (one in six deaths). It concluded that little real progress against pollution can be identified.[43][44]

“Air pollution
“Overall, air pollution causes the deaths of around ca. 7 million people worldwide each year, and is the world’s largest single environmental health risk, according to the WHO (2012) and the IEA (2016).[45][46][47]

“Slow violence is violence which occurs gradually and is not necessarily visible. Slow violence is ‘incremental and accretive’, contrasted with other violences that are spectacular and instantaneous. The key outcome of slow violence is environmental degradation, long-term pollution and climate change.[1]” Wikipedia

[1] Nixon, Rob (2011).
Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor

Q: any better terms than harms and slow violence?


engels 10.08.22 at 9:33 am

About deflating the tires of SUV’s, that’s not only tactically stupid but clueless about the nature of the crisis we’re in. Yeah, bigger cars create bigger problems, but outlawing all SUVs or pickups or whatever would accomplish next to nothing, and it’s not even symbolic of what we need to do.

SUVs second biggest cause of emissions rise, figures reveal
If SUV drivers were a nation, they would rank seventh in the world for carbon emissions


engels 10.08.22 at 1:03 pm

If you’re going to piss off a large part of the population, it ought to be for a good reason.

I don’t think they’re a large of the population outside of US (or Chelsea). Yet.


Thomas P 10.08.22 at 3:34 pm

weichi, USA+EU has less than 10% of the world population, not much more than half the population of China. USA is still the world’s economic leader and has a huge culture export. People all over the world watch American movies and learn to see that wasteful lifestyle as the desired goal. Changes in the West will affect the rest of the world too.


Matt 10.08.22 at 9:35 pm

I don’t think [SUV drivers] a large of the population outside of US (or Chelsea). Yet.

Alas, they make up a good portion of drivers in Australia (though of course that’s not a big part of the world population.)


Bob 10.08.22 at 11:52 pm

What JQ said in comments 35 and 36

I don’t see the kind of thing that Malm is proposing getting anywhere. It will provide cover and incentives for impulsive young males to do dumb stuff. There will be a lot of “collateral damage.” Also, just think of the size and scope of the global fossil fuel infrastructure and imagine making even a tiny dent in that with a guerilla campaign of unpaid volunteers making bombs in their basements. It’s pathetic. It’s a way for someone to feel good, like they are “doing something,” but I don’t see it having much real impact on anything that matters. It’s about as pathetic as thinking you can win the climate war letting the air out tires, one SUV at a time.


Eric F 10.09.22 at 4:08 pm

Maybe I missed it, but nobody here seems to have noticed that a few days ago, somebody actually blew up some pipelines.
A real-world experiment to provide data on whether blowing up pipelines will halt climate change.
Anybody see the climate stop changing in the last few days?
Oh, by the way, who blew up those pipelines?
Climate activists?
Yeah, right.
You can argue ad nauseum about who exactly blew the Nordstream pipes, but I can guarantee you one thing: They were destroyed by state actors who are not concerned one whit about climate change, but are working to preserve the ability of certain parties to profit on petrochemicals (among other things) in the current system.

I take this to mean that if you want to be effective by destroying pipelines, you need to destroy ALL of them.

Meanwhile, it’s way safer for you all to go on arguing about the definition of ‘violence’.


Ingrid Robeyns 10.09.22 at 5:33 pm

Erik F @45
Maybe I missed it, but your comments seems entirely irrelevant. Since the question Malm asks is not whether blowing up any pipeline will help stop climate change, but rather whether, given that the fossil fuel industry, and other industries contributing to climate change, are largely resisting to do what is needed for deep decarbonisation, whether the climate social movement should step up its actions by developing a violent wing, which might, among other things, conduct property destruction of the fossil industry. So yes, the Nordstream pipes is an interesting thing to discuss, but has nothing to do with this post.


engels 10.09.22 at 5:47 pm

nobody here seems to have noticed that a few days ago, somebody actually blew up some pipelines

Please don’t make me explain my joke.


engels 10.09.22 at 6:06 pm

Recent figures for UK:

Bodystyle Number on UK roads
Supermini (Fiesta) 11,643,272
Small hatch (Astra) 9,291,604
SUV (eg Qashqai) 4,335,230
Large family car (Passat) 3,855,987
MPV (Scenic) 1,816,700

4 million is miserably many but not not politically un-piss-off-able I reckon, especially as they’re probably mostly Tories anyway.


Ingrid Robeyns 10.09.22 at 7:04 pm

just saying that I’ll not let this thread be taken over by trolls. Whether or not they consider themselves trolls, if they can’t even bother to read what the OP is about, then their can go elsewhere to try to inflate their own ego’s and/or prevent others from having a reasonable discussion on the question whether the climate movement needs a radical (violent) wing in order to reach more (significant) results.


Murray Reiss 10.10.22 at 12:56 am

Actually the civil rights movement did depend on violence for much of its success — the televised violence of the rabid segregationists against peaceful protestors and children.


KT2 10.10.22 at 8:43 pm

Anyone here have as much skin in the game?

Farhana Yamin

By “a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for three of its five assessment reports, and an adviser in the United Nations climate negotiations for almost 30 years.

“Why I broke the law for climate change

“On 16 April this year, I superglued my hands to the pavement outside the headquarters of the oil company Shell in London, surrounded by dozens of policemen. Once unstuck, I was arrested for causing criminal damage. I have been a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for three of its five assessment reports, and an adviser in the United Nations climate negotiations for almost 30 years.

“Why did I, an international environmental lawyer, break the law? Having spent three decades failing to get governments to pay attention to the climate crisis through advocacy at the highest levels, I felt that activism was now crucial. I wanted to show how ridiculous it is that a law-abiding (indeed, law-making) mother of four should be handcuffed while the world’s major polluters remain unaccountable for ecocide.



KT2 10.10.22 at 9:10 pm

Although this may be deemed off topic, it is important.
Anyone know youths or young adults?
And so to mental health and sleep. Slepp because the Nature article has a graph of US youth sleep patterns correlating closely with rising in mental health problems.
Less violence, more acrion, better outcomes.
I hope those here in academia action such in your institutions.

“Young people need experiences that boost their mental health

“More policymakers and practitioners should encourage exploration and discovery during youth, to prevent adolescents from reaching crisis.


“Climate Change & Youth Mental Health

“Psychological Impacts, Resilience Resources and Future Directions

“Our review of existing research indicated that climate anxiety is highly prevalent and becoming more widespread. Climate anxiety can range from mild to severe; for most people, distress about climate change is not a pathological condition, but rather a rational response to a real, existential threat.

“Additionally, young people seem to be particularly vulnerable to climate anxiety. Surveys examining concerns about climate change stratified by age have found that although distress about climate change is high among the general population, the prevalence is highest among young adults. A recent global survey of 10,000 youth ages 16-24 from ten countries found that 59% of adolescents and young adults reported feeling “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change, and over 45% reported that this worry interferes with their daily functioning.”



weichi 10.10.22 at 9:10 pm

@Thomas P,

If the only way that a radical wing could influence Chinese policy is this indirect “US cultural export” route (which I think would be a weak influence in this case, but I agree that the influence is non-zero), that tells me that even if the radical wing succeeds in the US+EU (a BIG if), it’s going to have only marginal impact on China. That doesn’t mean that a US+EU radical wing should be rejected, but it does mean that a successful radical wing would only solve part of the problem – a relatively small and shrinking part of the problem. It simply isn’t enough. For a global problem you need a global strategy.


nastywoman 10.11.22 at 7:14 am

and may I repeat this:

“Our review of existing research indicated that climate anxiety is highly prevalent and becoming more widespread. Climate anxiety can range from mild to severe; for most people, distress about climate change is not a pathological condition, but rather a rational response to a real, existential threat.

“Additionally, young people seem to be particularly vulnerable to climate anxiety. Surveys examining concerns about climate change stratified by age have found that although distress about climate change is high among the general population, the prevalence is highest among young adults. A recent global survey of 10,000 youth ages 16-24 from ten countries found that 59% of adolescents and young adults reported feeling “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change, and over 45% reported that this worry interferes with their daily functioning.’

and that’s why I –
about the fight against the Climate Crisis –
really LOVE ‘young people’ –
and not only because they will have to live with the consequence of old people doing NADA because they couldn’t care less – as they are going to be DEAD much sooner…


engels 10.11.22 at 9:24 am

In other news: the RSPB is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore.


TM 10.11.22 at 1:20 pm

Re biomass: Environmentalists have never advocated burning trees for electricity generation. It has always been clear that biomass in the form of forestry and agricultural waste products and biogas generated from organic refuse and sewage sludge can only provide a small (nevertheless not negligeable) contribution to the sustainable energy transition. That cutting down trees to burn them is insane is obvious to anyone who has though about the issue.

I have read many articles properly warning against excessive biomass burning for electricity but haven’t seen any good data about the extent to which it is actually happening, and where. I found this article which states that the UK is the world’s biggest importer of wood pellets, and imports wood for burning from the Southeast US (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/europe-burns-controversial-renewable-energy-trees-from-us). The producers claim “that biomass collected for wood pellet production from Enviva and other producers represents just 3 percent of wood products extracted from Southeast forests every year”. Don’t trust the logging companies, of course, but the US forest cover is increasing, not shrinking. The same is true in the EU.

Now I found some statistics:
EU wood pellet demand to set a new record in 2022

EU production of wood pellets is expected to reach 20.2 million metric tons in 2020 (2022?), up from 19.7 million metric tons in 2021 and 19.209 million metric tons in 2020. Imports are expected to reach 6 million metric tons this year, up from 5.428 million metric tons last year and 4.681 million metric tons in 2020. The EU is expected to export 2.25 million metric tons of wood pellets in 2022, up from 2.21 million metric tons in 2021 and 1.17 million metric tons in 2020.

Consumption is expected to reach 24.3 million metric tons in 2022, compared to 23.128 million metric tons in 2021 and 22.469 million metric tons in 2020.

These figures are not alarming, compared to total wood production in the EU on the order of 500 million cubic meters and compared to natural regrowth.



TM 10.11.22 at 2:03 pm

“I suppose the other side of the this is a growing tendency for the American radical left to categorise various kinds of bigoted, insensitive or politically disagreeable speech as “violence” and “harm,” which I find equally counterintuitive.”

Would you seriously dispute that hateful speech or psychological abuse can cause harm even without involving physical force?

I tend to think that reducing violence to physical force is way too narrow a concept.
Also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structural_violence


engels 10.11.22 at 5:14 pm

I’m not saying speech can never be violence (“Smithers, release the hounds!” probably is); I just disagree with a lot of the examples I’ve heard recently.


engels 10.11.22 at 6:03 pm

Oh and I’m not denying people can be harmed psychologically, including through speech alone (perhaps it’s the most common vector).


Matt 10.11.22 at 11:05 pm

TM asked: Would you seriously dispute that hateful speech or psychological abuse can cause harm even without involving physical force?

This looks to me like a nice example of not distinguishing concepts that need to be distinguished. For one, “harm” =/= “violence”. So, all sorts of things can cause harm without being violent. (This is obviously so if we understand “harm” as a “setback to interest”, as we should, but once we have the correct non-moralized notion of harm, we can know that whether something causes harm is just the first step in most of our investigations.) Next, not all harmings are wrongings, and not all wrongings are harmful, and not all cases of harming or wronging are violent. (It might be that all things that are properly called “violent” involve harm, or at least damage, but I’m not certain about that. I am sure that that not all violent actions/events involve wrongings.)

To use engels exampl from above, if someone gets in my apartment and paints all of my things purple, they have harmed me, and almost certainly wronged me (maybe there’s a reason why I’m not wronged, but it seems unlikely), but it’s not violent. If they come in and smash my things with a bat, it’s harmful and wrongful and also obviously violent. If they come in and say things to me that cause me to feel bad, it’s harmful, and maybe wrongful, but could only be violent in an extended or metaphorical way. If someone uses speach to cause violence to be brought about (“release the hounds!” , “kill that guy!”, “I order you to bomb Kyiv”), they have used language to cause harm and violence to come about, maybe wrongfully, but the speach act itself isn’t harmful or violent.
None of this seems hard when we bother to go slow.


J-D 10.12.22 at 1:05 am

I suppose the other side of the this is a growing tendency for the American radical left to categorise various kinds of bigoted, insensitive or politically disagreeable speech as “violence” and “harm,” which I find equally counterintuitive.

Would you seriously dispute that hateful speech or psychological abuse can cause harm even without involving physical force?

The idea that words can cause harm is one that may be counterintuitive to some people, but it’s not a recent invention by the American radical left, it goes back thousands of years.

To be fair, the idea that words cannot cause harm, still popular in playgrounds, is also one that goes back thousands of years.

Clearly the disagreement between these two ideas cannot be resolved solely on the basis of people’s intuitions.


TM 10.12.22 at 7:47 am

Matt 60: I agree that harm and violence are not the same. I referred to engels 23 who explicitly talked about ““violence” and “harm,””.

I also agree with most here that property damage and violence need to be distinguished.


notGoodenough 10.12.22 at 9:39 am

Still a bit rushed, but to try and quickly follow on from my previous post and a few comments here:

I certainly wouldn’t claim expertise in this area, nor would I even go so far as to claim I am necessarily correct in my perspective, but in order to give a little background of where my thinking comes from (as time and energy allows) I will try to elaborate a little. On this point, I am reminded of some of the socialist-anarchism literature from the late ‘70s and ‘80s, and more recently books like “The morality of defensive war” and “The Failure of Nonviolence”. I have not read Malm’s book, but I think I see some parallels with Gelderloos’s arguments (as I understand them, at least).

Firstly, just to emphasise one point quickly, as I understand it Malm draws a distinction between violence against property (e.g. oil and gas infrastructure) and that directed at people (up to and including violence which hits material conditions necessary for subsistence), and endorses the former but not the latter. Again, I have not read the book (and will happily be corrected by those who have), but that is my understanding. That being the case, I will try to consider my discussion with respect to this position. The strategy that Malm appears to be proposing seems to me, at this time at least, to follow a similar train of thought as some I’ve heard before – that it is necessary not only to engage in a strategy to collapse the will of the ruling class to bring about revolutionary conditions (e.g. by “blowing up pipelines”), but also that an alternative acceptable and popular framework exists (e.g. that radical action exists alongside, but crucially not instead of, an “acceptable and mainstream” alternative to the status quo). If this is a reasonable comparison, I think it raises a key point – a radical and violent wing of the environmental movement in the sense it is meant here would still be relatively nonviolent (in the sense it is harming property rather than people) in comparison to other radical and violent movements (I would hope most people would agree there is some difference between “blowing up a pipeline” and “blowing up an oil executive and their family”, regardless of whether they approve or disapprove of such actions).

I think the point that “taking violence off the table asymmetrically cedes a point in the favour of those with power” is a not unreasonable one (I should note I am not claiming Malm holds this position, merely that it is one I have heard regarding similar discussions), and I think it is one which must be acknowledged. After all, many states can, and do, consider it perfectly reasonable to engage in suppression of (and violence against) those who protest, even when such protests are carried out in a pacifistic and non-violent way.

However, I would also say that it is equally important to consider the point that one “can’t blow up a social relationship” – that is to say that the collapse of a system (or, more broadly, society) provides no assurance as to what might replace it, and that unless there is a significant collective (ideally a majority) with a clear plan and organisation to replace it there is a strong likelihood that the old system will simply reassert itself (because that is what people are used to and what many people would still believe in). From this perspective, it seems reasonable to be concerned that acts of political violence risk producing little-to-nothing in return except increased repression and/or an authoritarian regime (and potentially a conflation between all wings of the movement, radical and violent or not, in order to justify extreme action taken against it – and once allegiance to a movement makes one an outlaw, so to speak, marginalisation as a result of social exclusion may well lead to political irrelevancy).

Or, to put it another way, it seems that there is little point in blowing up a pipeline if you do nothing (or can do nothing) to change the situation that leads to pipelines being built in the first place. This is not to say that conditions of a society which produces harm should not be overthrown – indeed, it is less that they should, but rather that they must – but rather it is necessary to consider the most fruitful political traditions and political possibilities to address the actual problems at hand.

Within this framework, I think one of the points made in the OP is rather a key one – we need to consider if the conditions necessary to a result in a significant change in society (in this case decarbonisation) would be sufficient in and of themselves without being accompanied by such additional radical action, or if force/harm/violence (in the sense intended within the context of this discussion) would also be necessary to facilitate meaningful change. For me, this seems a question which has yet to be satisfactorily answered.


Sashas 10.12.22 at 3:58 pm

notGoodenough @63
Well said! In regards to your last point, I don’t think anyone (including Malm?) has argued for an end to non-violent activity in these movements. Just that a militant wing existing alongside the non-violent one would also be helpful. So perhaps that’s where a sort of answer to your question lies. Militancy could act toward overthrowing the current conditions, and this is its focus. Militants would point toward the aligned non-militant parts of the movement for development of the systems that should be put in place.

Matt @60
I ask that you show a little more respect for the rest of us. You’ve called several things “obvious”, and you’ve stated “None of this seems hard when we bother to go slow.” I don’t mind that you disagree with me; that’s a natural part of discussion. But this kind of language doesn’t help anyone.

For what it’s worth, I was taught that where I am tempted to say “obvious” is the place where my argument is weakest.

The point is made quickly by TM @62, but I’ll elaborate a little. Someone smashing my things with a bat is probably harmful, probably wrongful, certainly destructive, but not necessarily violent. I reserve the word “violent” to refer to things done against people. (Animals are a gray area for me, but I would sometimes use “violent” here too.) I think it is very important for us to distinguish between harms against people and harms against property. I don’t actually care what words you use as long as I understand that you are making that distinction. You do not appear to be making it yet, but if you are please clarify how you are doing so.

I think your definition of “harm” is also missing a couple things. First, the agency of the one doing the harm. If we agree to toss a coin for who has to pay for dinner and I lose the toss, that sounds like a “setback of interest” but it doesn’t seem like I’ve been harmed. Second, I’m not sure how to describe this except by example: If we play a game of chess and I lose, that’s definitely a “setback of interest” for me, but again doesn’t seem like you harmed me.


Matt 10.12.22 at 10:24 pm

Sashas at 64 – I’m happy to be respectful to persons, but not to arguments, and the arguments here seem to me (as a philosopher and lawyer who deals with these topics regularly) to be not good. Let’s look at “harm” and “setback to interest” in your reply. They are good questions, but ones that there are good (I think) answers to.

First, harms may be large or small, and even trivial. That seems to fit with normal usage, and fits nicely with the non-moralized account I favor. If there are setbacks to interest in the cases you bring up, they are probably small to trivial. That’s fine – I’m happy to accept that. It seems to me to be a virtue of the account I favor. But – and this is where we need to go slow – we need to be sure that there’s a setback to interest in those cases, too. Suppose we play chess and I lose. (That’s likely – I’m very bad at chess.) Is this a setback of interest for me? Maybe – but not necessarily. I may be playing merely for fun, and not care if I win or lose. I might be playing to keep a friendship going, and again not care if I win or lose. Or, maybe I’m trying to improve my game, and losing here helps me – it’s a step towards getting better. So, there may be no setback to interest here at all. I think that in the cases where your example would seem like a problem for the non-moralized account, it depends on scenarios where there isn’t actually a setback to interest. But in those cases, there is also no harm on this account, and so no problem. (Something similar applies for the coin flip case.)

What about agency? If what you mean is that harm can only be caused by someone intending ill to others, then I think that’s clearly wrong – it goes against normal usage and has lots of counter-examples. (We might think that parents who beat their children are trying to help them, but are actually harming them. The intent doesn’t matter here. Other example abound.) Maybe you mean that the action must be intentional but the outcome doesn’t need to be. That wouldn’t fit your own examples and also would cause problems for negligent or inadvertant cases of harming, which are pretty common and widely accepted. I sometimes have some sympathy for the idea that, properly speaking, “harm” requires an agent of some sort – that we want to distinguish “harm” from “mere damage” (say, from a tree limb falling on me or my car during a storm.) I go back and forth a bit here, but think in the end that an agent isn’t required. What is required is that the thing harmed has interests, though, so my car can be damaged, and the damage to my car can harm me, but my car itself isn’t harmed, merely damaged.

This approach doesn’t, of course, capture every one of our intuitions or every bit of normal usage. No account will do that. But, having worked on it a lot, it does seem to me to do the best job of caputring our intutions when we work them out a bit, and normal usage, and it leads to fewer problems and a lot less question-begging than do moralized accounts. It leads to clearer thinking through of these issues as well. We could do something similar for “violence”, but this has already gone on too long.


EnckeGap 10.13.22 at 7:07 am

Most successful violent protest movements I can think of were revolutions or resistance movements that actually had an advantage in terms of numbers or logistics over the states they were resisting (usually colonial regimes based far away), represented majorities of their societies and frequently had help from other states. At least for the near-term, climate activists will not have the numbers advantage to actually beat their opponents militarily, and will not comprise the majority of their home nations.

The arguments for violence then become that the population at large and their governments will be frightened into compliance by the activists they outnumber and outgun (which I find dubious), that the violence will legitimize the non-violent activists and increase their popularity (again, dubious), or that the population will admire and be inspired by the (militarily ineffectual) violence (very dubious). The latter is the “symbolic violence” rationale, but violence isn’t about convincing people, it’s what you do when you can’t convince them and have to fall back to threatening.

Civil disobedience seems essential, but violent activism seems like it would be stamped out quickly unless it was just steady flow of disconnected lone wolves.

Also, the discussion here about whether property damage counts as violence seems simplistic. Somebody mentioned the example of people breaking into his house and painting his furniture as an example of property damage that doesn’t cause harm. Anything that involves breaking into someone’s house causes harm, and will be considered violence by its victims. Breaking into someone’s house and simply watching them sleep will be experienced as violent by the victim. Laws in most places categorize lots of actions that don’t cause physical harm as violent because they are invasive and implicitly threatening. Letting the air out of tires can be threatening in the right context. Bombings and home invasions essentially always are. What makes nonviolent civil disobedience work is the savviness to choose an action that minimizes exactly this kind of threat perception while maximizing disruption.


engels 10.13.22 at 10:08 am

If smashing things with a bat is violent what about chopping vegetables with a knife, cutting down a tree with an axe or mowing the grass with a lawnmower? Or are they only violent if done without the owner’s consent? None of these seem at all plausible to me except the axe example which, like the bat one, may persuade to the extent it does because there is an implied personal threat. This seems less compelling to me in some contexts, eg corporate headquarters rather than someone’s home. (Also, as stated above, “violent” can refer to the means one performs an action in a way that isn’t relevant here: a bank teller might “violently” hit the panic button when a gunman enters but that doesn’t mean that both have committed acts of violence.)

On the question of whether speech itself may be violent, I’m not certain if shouting “Smithers, release the hounds” (knowing that it will cause attack dogs to be unleashed on the hearer) is itself a violent act (or a direct cause of one) but it seems rather similar to saying “Siri, release the hounds” to the same effect, which in turn seems similar to pulling a lever to release hounds, or bombs—which incontestably is. In any case, there are also clear, though admittedly more unusual, examples of utterances which are inherently violent, eg the execution in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony or the <a href=https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/jan/12/surgeon-burned-initials-livers-two-patients-fined-simon-bramhall-assault-transplant

British surgeon who carved his initials on patients’ livers. (I think it’s important to note that speech can be violent because of the problems this raises for free speech.)

I should say I know almost nothing about the law (or philosophy) about this but I do think property destruction usage is likely more widespread in US than UK ( as the dictionaries suggest) and the issue appears to have become somewhat politicised recently in US (judging from Google).


engels 10.13.22 at 10:27 am

Breaking into someone’s house and simply watching them sleep will be experienced as violent by the victim.

Not if they’re asleep!?

Btw this whole comment seems to be an example of the phenomenon I was referring to above of Americans (on right and left) extending the concept of violence beyond what other people would (plus the ubiquitous logic that “X ‘experiences’ Y as Z” therefore “Y is Z, or might as well be”.)


engels 10.13.22 at 11:33 am

Somebody mentioned the example of people breaking into his house and painting his furniture as an example of property damage that doesn’t cause harm.

I didn’t, I said it wasn’t violent: a different thing (see Matt #60).

Letting the air out of tyres can be threatening in the right context. Bombing and home invasions always are.

What I am seeing on this thread is that people who are defending the idea that attacking property is violence are giving very circumscribed examples to illustrate this (I think one qualification above was that the damage was done “in an aggressive way”.) So perhaps some of us agree that although it can be, it isn’t in general, and try to understand the conditions. I’m not opposed to expanding these beyond what I said in my initial comment (indirect personal attack) to include things like major/symbolic/uncontrolled vandalism in domestic settings but I’m still sceptical I think.

Very happy to be wrong about any of this ofc.


EnckeGap 10.13.22 at 10:34 pm

I’m not American.

Obviously the victim won’t experience a stranger breaking in and watching them sleep as threatening if they never become aware of it, but in the cases in which they do, they find it very frightening and threatening, with good reason. You would too.

Both the “blowing up a pipeline” and “breaking into someone’s house to paint their furniture/break it with a bat” discussions seemed to me to spend too much time on the question of whether damaging a pipeline or altering furniture with a paintbrush versus a bat is violent, and not nearly enough on whether building homemade bombs and forcing entry into people’s homes is violent. That’s the part that actually scares people, and makes those weird choices for examples of nonviolent property damage.

Violence can include intimidation, and if an action is directed against property but is likely to make a reasonable person fear for their physical safety, I’d definitely be leery calling it nonviolent.


Fake Dave 10.14.22 at 7:48 am

I also read (about half of) Gelderloos’ “Failure of Nonviolence” and was equally unimpressed. I really don’t no where these quasi-anarchist wannabe street fighters get their facts from, but their reading of the Civil Rights Movement is as wrong-headed as it is presumptuous. Aside from all the standpoint issues and the problem of hindsight bias, there’s also the basic issue of demonstrating that the militant factions or outbreaks of violence actually affected policy at all
much less in a net positive way.

We know, more or less, how Brown V. Board was decided and how the Civil Rights Act got passed. A lot of good came out of the freedom rides, the sit-ins, and the March on Washington and the people who did get hurt were generally the same people taking the risks. The militants are a lot more ambiguous, even from a sympathetic vantage. Malcolm X’s legacy was only tarnished by all the years he spent carrying water for the sinister cult that ultimately killed him and even if we csn admire groups like the Panthers and MOVE, they brought down so much hell for themselves (and their friends, families, neighbors, communities, etc.) that people are still rotting in prison for things they maybe didn’t even do.

How many lives were shattered by the state crackdown on ‘black identity extremists” and where are all the concessions from the state that were supposed to make it all worthwhile? Even up to the present day, the main strategy to oppose groups like BLM is to paint them as thugs, anarchists, and criminals (as it was in MLK’s day) and the militant fringe becomes Exhibit A against them (even if they’re largely imaginary).

Environmentalists should look to their own history and the way group after group from ALF to Earth First to PETA have flirted with violent tactics (or property crimes they could justify as not “real” violence ala Engels) only to be pilloried in the media as “eco-terrorists” and faced massive state campaigns of infiltration and suppression during a “Green Scare” that lasted more than a decade.

Most of these groups were ultimately compelled to denounce para-violent tactics like spiking trees and “monkeywrenching” machinery by their own constituencies for the sake of their own survival and the environmental movement is generally much healthier and more broadly supported because of it. To this day though, there are people in Northern California who blame the tree huggers for destroying good logging jobs (as opposed to the timber companies that cut down all the trees and left) and the stereotype of environmentalists as spoiled brats and sanctimonious bleeding-hearts who never had to work for a living remains widespread (and frequently accurate). Tree-spiking in particular was a poignant example of idealistic people crossing a very dangerous line from sabotaging machinery to endangering the lives of their operators and betrayed a careless, callous, and self-righteous disregard for the lives of working people that still smarts. We’ve made great strides in building “blue-and-green” coalition in the decades since and it’s baffling to me that anyone would want to go back to the bad old days.


lurker 10.14.22 at 8:00 am

“that the violence will legitimize the non-violent activists and increase their popularity (again, dubious)” EnckeGap, 66
The lived experience of many, many radical movements tells us the new member who wants to blow shit up and has access to explosives is almost certainly a cop. Discrediting your movement with stupid violent actions is SOP.


engels 10.14.22 at 11:34 am

Shorter CT commentariat: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”


Ingrid Robeyns 10.14.22 at 11:51 am

Would this be what Malm had in mind?
Let’s see whether it has any of the effects that he predicts it would have.

NS: I’ve dropped Andreas Malm (whom I do not know) a note when I posted this blog, so he has had an opportunity to defend himself against the critiques many of you have made on this thread. Which is fine of course, he is free to engage or not as he wants.

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