Is Blowing Up Our Pipelines the Best Way to Address Climate Change?

the Plug #18 | On Environmental Extremism

In 2016, Michael Lewis published The Undoing Project.

It’s a story about the friendship of two Israeli psychologists who produced a series of “breathtakingly original” studies on the assumptions behind our decision-making process. If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend doing so.

One quote from that book has stuck with me:

“When someone says something, don’t ask yourself if it is true. Ask what it might be true of.”

I was reminded of it while reflecting on an interview I listened to over the weekend. The interview, titled “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” was featured in an article on The New Yorker’s website. The title originated from a book, published under the same name, which came out earlier this year. It was penned by Swedish professor Andreas Malm who studies the intersection between climate change and capitalism.

The implication that we should be blowing up pipelines seems, at face value, to be pretty radical. Maybe even something out of the Unabomber’s manifesto. But, instead of dismissing the idea out of hand, it’s worth questioning: what could Malm’s statement be true of?

Or said differently…

What would need to be true about the state of the world in 50 years to justify the destruction of pipelines today?

Thinking on such a long-term time frame is a muscle I never really exercise. But to better inform our opinions around what should be done to address climate change today, I believe it’s an important exercise to perform.

This week’s edition has 4 sections:

  • 🔥 Pipeline Destruction For Dummies

  • 💀 Warning of Human Extinction

  • 🌡️ Temperature Check on Climate Sentiment

  • 🔮 What Will the Future Will Hold

🔥 Pipeline Destruction For Dummies

I found the interview mentioned above under a New Yorker article titled “Should the Climate Movement Embrace Sabotage?” A slightly more subtle way of asking the same question as Mr. Malm.

According to the interviewer, Malm’s message is more nuanced than the title of his book suggests. While I am certainly not a proponent of destroying critical energy infrastructure, I’d still encourage you to give the interview a listen.

Malm certainly has an interesting (albeit sliiightly extremist) perspective.

The underlying thesis of Malm’s book is that environmental activists should rethink their commitment to non-violence and adopt tactics of sabotage. An area in which he himself has some field experience.

In 2007, Malm led an insurgency in the deflation of tires on dozens of SUVs in affluent Stockholm neighbourhoods. Malm and his co-conspirators left the following note behind on the vehicles in question:

“We have deflated one or more of the tyres on your SUV. Don’t take it personally. It’s your SUV we dislike.”

Imagine waking up to that note. Haha.

Malm believes that embracing violence and sabotage might be more effective in addressing climate change than pacifist alternatives. He does however clarify that violence against humans isn’t acceptable.

Which is a relief, I guess?

The adoption of violence would be a sharp departure from what traditionally has been (mostly) non-violent environmental activism in North American and Europe. This disclaimer on Green Peace’s website is an example of that.

“For more than 40 years we have been using peaceful protest to bring about change. Non-violence is a core principle of Greenpeace and is at the heart of all of our activities. Our non-violent direct actions have proved essential to the success of campaigns in exposing environmental crimes, confronting unjust activities and stopping environmental destruction.”

What must Andreas Malm believe about what the future holds in order to justify the escalation of activism into violence?

💀 Warning of Human Extinction

To answer that question, let’s check in on the streets of London.

For more than three years now, the activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR) has been running amuck across England. For anyone unfamiliar with the history of XR’s activism, here is a limited sampling of notable mischief orchestrated by the group in recent years:

  • Nov-2018: A group of ~6,000 XR activists took part in a coordinated action to block the five main bridges over the River Thames in London.

  • Mar-2019: XR staged a “Blood of our Children” demonstration outside Downing Street, in which they poured buckets of fake blood on the ground.

  • Aug-2021: Protestors chained themselves together to block a busy junction in Covenant Garden.

What could justify such Broadway-themed insanity?

Well, the group’s raison d'être is actually implied in its name. Extinction Rebellion believes that, without undertaking drastic action to mitigate the impacts of climate change, humanity is at risk of mass extinction.

That much was clarified in a 2018 interview with Sky News.

In the interview, XR activists claimed that “billions of people are going to die”, and that “life on Earth is dying.”

Well shit. What if XR is correct in their assessment of our terminal decline?

How long do we have?!

If humanity is at risk of mass extinction due to worsening climate change, then maybe Extinction Rebellion is right in their actions. And maybe we should be blowing up pipelines.

Fortunately, that dire prediction of the future doesn’t seem to be supported by any real evidence. Just conjecture and speculation of a potential worst-case scenario.

In assessing the actions of Andreas Malm and XR, our inability to predict the future presents challenges. The uncertainty of how badly impacted humans will be by climate change several decades from now makes it all the more challenging to figure out what should be done today.

Who am I to say that Andreas Malm or Extinction Rebellion is wrong? I can’t see into the future either…

🌡️ Temperature Check on Climate Sentiment

On the bright side, public sentiment towards climate and environmental issues has trended in the right direction over the past decade.

In the U.S. for example, the belief that “Dealing with Global Climate Change” should be a top priority for the President and Congress increased from ~30% in 2008 to ~52% in 2020.

At least there’s something we seem to be able to agree on.

But what does dealing with global climate change mean to the respondents?

Maybe some are warming up to the idea of blowing up pipelines. But mostly, I’d assume, probably have something less extreme in mind. More renewable energy, maybe slightly higher utility bills, perhaps? But the assertion that we need to mobilize for war, as XR’s activists stated in the interview with Sky News, is probably a bridge too far for most.

At least I hope so...

Fortunately, the protests in London have given us a great case study on the public response to environmental extremism. Paul Graham, the British founder of Y Combinator and one of my favourite writers, offered this insight on Twitter into XR’s traffic blockades earlier this summer:

There’s an interesting and subtle difference between raising public awareness of climate change and generating support for efforts to mitigate it. Actions with direct impacts on individuals might serve to generate the former (awareness) at the expense of the latter (support).

Well, what would be the impact of bombing a pipeline?

I can’t imagine that people would be happy if targeted pipeline attacks created price inflation in oil and gas markets, in turn hitting consumer’s wallets. I’m certainly not a fan of that idea….

For environmental activists, there’s a fine line to walk between mischief and malice. Stepping over that line could prompt a public backlash. Especially from those who, despite worsening climate change, imagine a much more comfortable future than some extremists do.

If only we could predict the future….

🔮 What Will the Future Hold?

If climate change is beginning to cause the mass extinction of humanity, then by all means blow up our pipelines! But first, I need to see some evidence that our species is going extinct. Maybe Extinction Rebellion can provide some?

For that, I won’t be holding my breath.

I believe that the biggest hindrance to broad agreement around what should be done about climate change today is our inability to understand what the distant future will hold. A seemingly obvious statement on its face. But our understanding of what the future could look like should inform our decisions today.

A lack of such understanding would lead to poor decision-making.

Shane Parrish, the writer of the Farnham Street blog and several books, described that reality better than I ever could.

“The future is far from determined and we can better navigate it by understanding the likelihood of events that could impact us.”