Make Politics, Not Art
How to Blow Up a Pipeline, directed by Daniel Goldhaber, opened in the US on April 7, 2023.
Like most people, I started planning my first terrorist atrocity around the age of twelve. Back then, the plan was to blow up the Bank of England, which I understood to be the epicenter of the entire capitalist system: so crucial, in fact, that simply igniting some fertilizer around the place would immediately blast us all out of the current of history and into a glorious new world. The plan for getting my bomb into the building was less clear-cut. I thought I might study economics, apply for a job there, and sneak the bomb in during my interview. But that would take about a decade—I didn’t want to wait that long. I needed to do it now. I nursed happy visions of the whole building collapsing in a cloud of limestone dust, broken masonry, and screams. If you’d asked me why I was so certain that violent means were necessary, I’m not sure I would have understood the question. People were dying every day; animals, plants, ecosystems—the planet was dying. How could anyone just sit there and do nothing? The sheer state of everything seemed to invite violence all by itself; the only sensible response to an obviously dysfunctional reality was to make bits of it explode.
As it turns out, economics and explosives both pose significant challenges. Writing about art is easier. I never did set off that bomb.
Adorno wrote that every work of art is an uncommitted crime, and it’s true that a lot of would-be violence-makers end up resorting to culture. But things aren’t always so clear-cut. Some works of art directly point toward violence. Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto is an extraordinarily vivid document, but it’s pointless to pretend that its attractiveness doesn’t have something to do with the fact that the author really did put a bullet through Andy Warhol’s chest. I have a somewhat guilty fascination with the screeds written by more recent spree shooters for much the same reason: they might not be very good, but there’s something so much more immediate about a murderer’s screed than another novel by another neurotic with an MFA. Concerned parents and state authorities worry about the potential for culture to translate directly into crime: violent movies, violent video games, violent music. That’s why half the drill tracks on YouTube come with a little disclaimer at the start: “This is strictly for entertainment purposes and none of the lyrical content should be taken literally. We are only expressing a musical and creative expression.” And then a four-minute track about the real murders of real people recounted with what sounds like intimate knowledge plays. Nobody’s fooled.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline doesn’t come with any disclaimers. Like Andreas Malm’s book from which it takes its title, this film straightforwardly advocates criminal violence: widespread, targeted acts of ecoterrorism to disrupt the world’s energy infrastructure and make fossil fuels economically unviable, as a form of self-defense on a warming planet. And while Malm’s book doesn’t literally tell you how to blow up a pipeline (one of the film’s characters bemoans this fact), the film sort of does. We see our heroes choosing their targets and all the risky, fiddly steps of a bomb being prepared. Rolling Stone reported that after the film’s release, the FBI issued an alert warning that it “has potential to inspire threat actors to target oil and gas infrastructure with explosives or other destructive devices.” If there were a film that openly advocated blowing things up for other, nonenvironmental reasons—a religious mandate, for instance—the FBI might respond with guns rather than memos, but the whole spectacle is still extremely fun. There’s plenty of culture out there that “confronts” or “addresses” important issues, usually with a faintly masturbatory air of self-congratulation. But this film appears to have landed with some of the force of an actual bomb.
Essentially, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a heist movie. It’s an indie one, gorgeously shot on 16mm film, full of chilly images of the scarred and dying West Texas landscape, but all the beats are there. We meet our crew, a ragtag group of chancers from across the country, each with a specific set of skills and a reason to hate the fossil fuel industry. Theo has been diagnosed with leukemia, caused by pollution from an oil refinery near her home in Long Beach. Michael is a Native American from North Dakota whose reservation is being torn open by drillers. Dwayne is a conservative Texan whose home was seized by the state for a new pipeline. They scheme and banter. They piece together a convoluted plan to hit the oil infrastructure in Texas. (Because global oil prices are calculated based on the Texas spot price, this will cause an instant spike.) But things go wrong, and the three have to adapt. At the end, as in any good heist movie, there’s a clever little double cross. The plot adheres to a time-tested formula. It’s good. It works.
What the film doesn’t give us is a clear, practical account of exactly why making a bomb, rather than, say, marching through the streets with a big effigy of a greedy oil executive, is the answer. It’s simply taken for granted that nonviolent means are washed out and pointless and represent an exhausted accommodation with the death of everything and that violence, being more extreme and immediate, is necessarily more efficacious. In one scene, we see two of our heroes going through the motions with their student climate activist group as they plan a campus protest. “I’m having trouble feeling like any of this matters,” one says. They’re trying to get the university to divest from fossil fuels. They keep telling each other it’s a step in the right direction. “Which would be great, if we still had time. But by the time any market solution does shit, billions of people will be dead from climate crisis.” As someone who’s trudged along on his fair share of climate protests, I can confirm that there’s something performative about a lot of them. Often literally: climate activists tend to go for elaborate theater. Puppets. Stage pieces. Acting. They’re little sparks of art in a dying world; the point is to give tangible shape to a crisis too huge to see properly, but a kind of giddy thespianism creeps in. This is the sort of thing Malm describes in his book:
Activists played guitars and violins while others danced; some juggled; some handed out sunflower seeds to irate motorists. The next day, we flooded a thoroughfare with an elaborate street theatre. Dressed up as trees, flowers and animals, we laid down on the tarmac to be run over by a vehicle built of cardboard and wood to symbolize business-as-usual…. We erect our camps of sustainable solutions. We cook our vegan food, and hold our assemblies. We march, we block, we stage theaters, we hand over lists of demands to ministers, we chain ourselves, we march the next day too…. And still business continues very much as usual.
Puppetry, it would seem, is not a viable political tactic. Malm’s call to arms was published in 2021; in the time since then exactly one major pipeline has been blown up—and whoever took out Nord Stream 2, they probably didn’t do it for environmental reasons. Still, over the last year or so, Malm got his wish, and oil prices really did spike. The result has been a lot of suffering. It’ll be a while yet before we can tally up the numbers and know for sure how many people froze to death last winter, but the number will be high. In the film, one of the crew does briefly raise this point: blowing up a pipeline hurts more people than oil executives. But that’s where the line of thought ends.
The fact is that the oil industry has profited wildly from the current instability. This industry thrives when prices are low, and it thrives when prices are high. It eats bombs for breakfast. Anything you throw at it seems to end up hitting someone else. It presides over the dying of worlds. Violent activism, then, might be just another form of acting. Last year, another group of protesters declared that they were sick of passive, fruitless climate theater and wanted to take more direct action: Just Stop Oil started attacking art itself. They threw soup over a Van Gogh in London and mashed potatoes at a Monet in Germany. No more metaphors! “What is worth more? Art or life?” A fair question, except that in the end these protests are only really legible as art. Attacking and destroying artworks is a perfectly valid and accepted form of artistic expression. There’s plenty of precedent. Robert Rauschenberg erased a De Kooning and displayed the blank paper. Ai Weiwei smashed a Han Dynasty urn. The Futurists wanted to burn the lot. Just Stop Oil actions are visually striking and emotively dense; they might even be good art. But they are art, not politics.
Is blowing up a pipeline any different? The film’s heroes want to do it for the same reason I wanted to blow up the Bank of England: a bomb is a very efficient medium for projecting your internal feelings into the external world. It feels like doing something. But aside from that feeling, it’s far from established that a guerilla bombing campaign would be any more effective at stopping climate change than guerrilla puppetry. Our heroes know this. Still, it looks good. It’s art.
The FBI can probably relax about How to Blow Up a Pipeline. After all, the people behind this thing made a film, not a bomb. Another uncommitted crime.
SAM KRISS is a writer and dilettante living in London.