Little Rock Sometimes you stumble over something so obvious, you shake your head wondering why your thinking was so patterned that it was in danger of becoming more habitual than flexible in facing organizing problems. An organizer always has to challenge herself not to simply fall back on a practiced repertoire of tactics and strategies in facing an organizing problem or situation, but to carefully evaluate and analyze what might work in the context and wrong foot the opposition, forcing progress and change. Recently, I was lured into such an exercise by an old and trusted comrade to think about how to organize politically conservative constituencies in rural areas of the United States in a way that would integrate political change with climate change. It was a fascinating process, and I hope one that bears fruit, because now I want to implement the program, not just outline the plan. All of this made me more attuned to observing the strategy and tactics of environmental activists trying to confront policy makers and corporations around their environmental practices.
Reading not one, but two, essays in the London Review of Books that critiqued the advocacy writing of the Swedish environmental activists and writer, Andreas Malm, I found myself shaking my head at how superficial my review of such organizing and argument has been. I had never heard of Malm or his work, and suddenly I was reading exhaustive arguments about whether he was right or wrong in advocating violent disruption by climate organizations and activists. I read his new book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, while flying back from Montreal recently. His choice of that title alone gives you a sense of what is to come, although despite the advertisement, this is not really a how-to-book, although it does offer some reports on how easy activists have found it to disrupt pipelines around the world, but a philosophical, historical, and contemporary argument about tactics. Perhaps his clearest how-to is a description of his own personal work as part of a gang of self-described climate cowboys deflating the tires of SUVs in rich neighborhoods in Sweden. Not what you were thinking perhaps? Not really Georg Sorel’s syndicalists or Mikhail Bakunin’s anarchists, with bombs bursting, but from his reporting, achieved almost the same point with no blood shed or lives lost.
Malm makes the case that contemporary social movements need a hard edge to go with efforts to win soft power if they want to save the climate. He is respectful of historic efforts, whether abolition of slavery, civil rights, apartheid, or peace, but he reminds that in the background, away from the headlines on peaceful protests, there were often disruptions, usually against property, which he correctly defines as violent. His essential question is straightforward: If climate change is an existential challenge, why have no movements responded with appropriately extreme disruptive tactics? His argument is that people are predicting the end of the world, and we’re playing pattycake while Rome burns. He’s respectful of the efforts of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, but critical of their unwillingness to advocate and do what is necessary. He is devastating in his critique of Bill McKibben’s strategic passivity approach. McKibben frequently writes for the LRB and the NYRB, which may be why Malm’s books stirred up their hornets’ nest so wildly. Shame is not the game to win. Truth to tell, his points counted coup consistently.
Organizations and people need to make their own decisions about strategies and tactics, but Malm’s arguments seem to me impossible to ignore. I forwarded the question to another comrade, the campaign director for Greenpeace in the US, for example. No one is saying it’s time to start packing, but it does seem strange to me that there are not more, or really much of any, direct actions on climate-destroying corporations, greenwashers, and climate killing infrastructure. Malm must want his books to be a call to action, and, although I’m not sure who is reading books anymore, but judging by the London Review of Books, there must be some, and I’m betting some will also answer the call.