If eight people could build two bombs with $700 worth of material and destabilise the global oil market, “What does that say about the tactics currently being employed in the climate movement?” Quoted in an interview with Vulture, this is the premise of Daniel Goldhaber’s environmentalist thriller How To Blow Up a Pipeline. Like the book of the same name by left-wing academic Andreas Malm, the film argues that the destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure is justified.
Unsurprisingly, questioning the sanctity of private property over human life is controversial: Goldhaber and co-writers Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol had to finance the project themselves because no one else would. Capitalist publications like Forbes sit comfortably in the “no, unjustified” camp, but it isn’t alone (in his book, Malm points to Extinction Rebellion’s principle of non-violence). Property destruction is deemed violence. But what equivalence can there be between it and the violence of the ruling class? Slashed tyres vs. poisoned waterways; smashed glass vs. police murders; destroyed pipelines vs. mass poverty.
Sabotage is conceived as self-defence in How To Blow Up a Pipeline. But righteousness sets apart what otherwise is common between the subjects and the crews of classic heist movies. They are dogged by the dangers of disaster and discovery, and Gavin Brivik’s compositions (augmented by oil drum samples) lend a paranoid excitement to their plan, paying homage to Tangerine Dream’s scores for Michael Mann, while some of the synthscapes suggest Hans Zimmer’s Blade Runner 2049, evoking its dust-choked, dystopian vistas.
In structure too, the film takes after heists like Reservoir Dogs. Flashbacks explore with great empathy one of the questions Malm poses: What would drive people to blow up a pipeline? Xochitl, a student activist, loses her mother to a heatwave. Her friend Theo (Sasha Lane), who recalls a childhood bathed in acid rain caused by a nearby oil refinery, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Michael (Forrest Goodluck), a Native American self-taught bomb expert, whom we first see on a bus to the action, is jostled awake to a landscape riddled with oil pumps, which echo the flare stacks blighting his home in North Dakota (shot on the reservation where Goodluck’s family live).
These sequences are a compelling criticism of gradualism and tokenism: Michael is exasperated by his mother’s conservancy, which “makes white people feel better, makes [his mother] feel better and does nothing”; Xochitl gives up on divestment because “by the time any market solution does shit, billions of people will be dead”. At times, the exposition is unbelievable (one activist naïvely invites another into their plan moments after they meet in a bookstore) or the dialogue mechanical, sacrificing subtlety for brevity. But the point is solid: fossil capital destroys lives in a thousand ways and provides a thousand justifications for adopting radical politics.
Fossil infrastructure features as the passive antagonist: oil refineries, pipelines and pumps loom omnipresent in the background, subduing the protagonists. It appears when Xochitl smokes with Theo after her mother’s death: girt in barbed wire, an oil refinery fills two-thirds of the frame. It lurks behind them again after Theo’s diagnosis. To destroy these instruments of doom would, it seems, create a chink in the industry’s impenetrable armour. Xochitl argues, “We have to show them how vulnerable the oil industry is”. Blowing up a pipeline, they hope, will make oil “unviable on the market”.
In the short term, however, it does the opposite. The overall effect is to raise the price of oil, so the profits soar of those companies that haven’t been disrupted. As Nathaniel Flakin points out in a review for Left Voice, the recent sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines “led to record profits for fossil fuel companies”, as they took advantage of scarcity. To even imagine a scenario that would “price fossil fuels out of the market” as Xochitl argues, you would need tidal waves of destruction, affecting the industry from one end to the other. Could such a thing be done?
It’s hard to imagine. How To Blow Up a Pipeline presents sabotage as a vulnerability of the oil industry, when in fact the tactic takes the movement onto terrain most favoured by the state, with its incredible capacity to surveil and repress. Terrorism invites the greatest repression and does the least to prepare the forces of the left for it. Xochitl argues that they could win a legal precedent of a right to self-defence, as if courts would ever sanction destruction of private property. Here, the state appears not as the instrument of capitalist rule, but instead one that could be turned against fossil capital. The diegesis seems to confirm this: in this world, the FBI is content with a couple of scapegoats, as if they were taking away bankers and not eco-terrorists.
Malm dismisses the idea that the state favours this. “The enemy has overwhelmingly superior capabilities”, not only against sabotage but “in virtually all fields”, he writes. Yet capitalism does have a weak spot: it’s dependent upon the labour of billions of workers to keep business as usual profitable—not just oil workers, but retail workers, transport workers and healthcare workers. Most, if not all, of the subjects of How to Blow Up a Pipeline are working class, but the only people who are coded as workers are “part of the problem”—armed property inspectors or the oil workers Michael brawls with.
The possibility that any of these people have collective power seems remote. And yet waves of property destruction like Xochitl hopes for are most likely to be generated and sustained in the shade of a revolution. But that would put workers’ power on the cards, a far deeper-reaching alternative. With a rejection of this possibility, the only option left is to pressure the capitalist state.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline demonstrates a deep compassion for the victims of fossil capital. It’s a gripping thriller made all the more nail-biting by its subject. Unlike criminal capers, this heist doesn’t put individual egos and ambitions at stake, but the planet. They have to succeed. But whether or not they blow up the pipeline, they can’t: their strategy won’t end fossil fuels.