Sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure is a form of self-defense, or perhaps humanitarian intervention. On the premises of climate science, fossil fuels should be classified as projectiles fired into humanity—primarily toward the Global South. The question is not whether we have a right to destroy them; it is why people haven’t yet acted on the imperative.
Fossil fuel property destruction is central to the plot of two recent big novels: How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue, in which an African village rises up against an oil company wrecking its lands and killing its children with pollution, and The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, in which young Indians react to a hyper-lethal heat wave by attacking fossil fuel infrastructure worldwide. Both books seem to imagine that this would be a sensible thing to do. In relation to its actual practice, there has been a surplus of thinking about this form of resistance. The reasons are obvious: If governments cannot bring themselves to rein in fossil fuel producers, but rather keep abetting them, then people outside of state apparatuses will eventually try and do it instead.
But if the moral case for such intervention is unassailable, the strategic one isn’t. Here objections crop up: Will it save us or expose us to dispersal? In December, The Guardian pronounced its verdict in an editorial: “Eco-sabotage could harden rather than soften climate-sceptic attitudes, making it easier for states to respond harshly.” Let us begin with the first part of the argument: It implies that if only climate activists proceed gently, “climate-sceptic”—that is, denialist—attitudes can be softened. But I fail to see on what grounds we should expect such a miracle. The past decades do not indicate that denialists are amenable to persuasion, either from the politeness of activists or from the blows of disasters themselves. The United States, the holy land of denialism, might be the strongest case in point. The movement will never convince the likes of Donald Trump, and so it should not design its tactics with that purpose in mind.
The aim of fossil fuel property destruction would not be to enlighten the denialists but to inflict costs on the enemy: fossil capital. It is here that the movement in the Global North has grievously failed. Marches of a million children, divestment campaigns, parliamentary initiatives, court cases, square occupations, and road blockades are all good, and they have taken us to where we are in early 2022. But something more is needed.
What about the second part of the argument, that tactical diversification will bring the hammer of state repression down on us? To answer this, we must be attuned to the temporality of this crisis. It will keep getting worse, which should—if there is any rationality left in the world—mean that the public appetite for fossil fuel property destruction will rise. The absurdity would be for humanity to plunge headlong into these killing fields without anyone striking blows against the responsible party. Only by ratcheting up the struggle in a crisis hardwired to worsen do we stand a chance to remain relevant and, yes, win people over. Our task is to make the impassive part of the public realize that fossil fuel property is not something indestructible like the moon. Once people reach that insight—unlikely to happen as long as such property is treated as untouchable by the climate movement—the prospects for mass unrest open up.
Activists will, of course, end up in prison. It’s happening already, even before there has been a major shift toward militancy. This is part of every struggle against entrenched material interests. Here we are asked to be historically unique in accomplishing our goal—to abolish fossil capital in toto without a phase of intense confrontation with the state. What movement in history ever achieved something similar without cadres doing stints in jail?
That doesn’t mean we should be sanguine about repression. To the contrary, we must strive to minimize its damages. This begins with breaking the civil disobedience protocol that considers it a moral and strategic virtue to get arrested, recently pursued to new heights by Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain. Activists should stop throwing themselves into the arms of the police. Instead we should seek to break through their cordons, run from them, and elude them to the best of our ability.
None of this is to suggest that we should be reckless, indiscriminate, committed to proven errors, or closed to criticism, or that fossil fuel property destruction is a panacea. It should be one tactical component among many. Nor is it to say that property destruction must be carried out by secret cells. Imagine the headquarters of a fossil fuel corporation taken over by an enraged crowd and burned to the ground. Who could object to that? The same people who drove their cars into Black Lives Matter demonstrations, of course. As for many others, it could be tremendously inspiring. It would show that these forces can be taken down after all! It might seem that the climate struggle has been going on for so long that the cause is lost. But from another angle, including that of the history of social struggle, it looks rather like it has yet to start.
To evaluate whether the climate movement should embrace sabotage, we need first to dispense with the moral question. Coal, oil, and gas are destroying the biosphere on which human society depends. In 2018, air pollution from fossil fuels killed 8 million people, and that doesn’t count the millions who were drowned and displaced, parched and pummeled, bankrupted and burned out of their homes by climate disasters. If fossil fuel corporations are allowed to continue heating the planet, mounting food and water scarcity could well induce civilizational decline.
There is no great moral controversy here. If it were likely to reduce average global surface temperature even a few tenths of a degree—thus saving millions of lives and keeping millions more out of penury—destroying fossil fuel infrastructure would be not only justified; it would be morally necessary. As Andreas Malm has previously put it, “If someone has planted a time bomb in your home, you are entitled to dismantle it.” Those who deny the immediacy of this metaphor are either ignorant of the climate science or unwilling to assimilate its implications.
The real question the climate movement must ask itself is not whether sabotage is ethical, but whether the tactic is likely to succeed in bringing down temperatures. At least at our current juncture in history, the answer is probably not. Were climate activists to start blowing up pipelines in 2022, it would likely backfire and weaken the climate movement’s ability to win policies that would draw down temperatures.
Let’s play out the scenario in the United States, the political terrain with which I’m most familiar. In 2022, a widespread campaign of pipeline or power plant destruction would immediately draw condemnation from both sides of the political aisle, as well as all mainstream news sources. If an accident were to result in even a single injury, the condemnation would grow tenfold. If the sabotage were linked to a spike in energy costs for working families, the climate movement would be alienating exactly the people it needs to win: those on the front lines of the crisis. Even if the link to higher prices weren’t true, Fox News would render it so for millions of US voters.
Suddenly, the climate movement—whose popular support and political power have grown steadily over the past decade—would find itself with waning influence and few defenders. The right would gleefully cry “Ecoterrorism!” and leverage those fears to accelerate their creeping fascism. Tucker Carlson would label all climate advocates “Green ISIS,” and the MAGA crowd would mobilize machine-gun-toting vigilantes to patrol their local pipelines. Most Democrats—sensing their constituents now associate climate action with instability, radicalism, and bombings—would back away from the issue, and policies like the Green New Deal would be pushed further out of reach. Even if the rest of the climate movement were to distance itself vocally and repeatedly from the saboteurs, it seems unlikely this could overcome the narrative gravity of an actual explosion, let alone the opportunistic efficacy of the right-wing propaganda machine.
Meanwhile, dozens of otherwise effective climate activists—most of them young, with a lifetime of organizing to do—would be imprisoned for decades. The resultant lawsuits could establish legal precedents that would render fossil fuel corporations even more insulated from public protest. And as for the acts of destruction, the state would clamp down immediately. Given the sophistication of the US intelligence apparatus, it seems highly improbable that a grassroots sabotage campaign would be allowed to reach a scale where it could dent overall emissions, or even affect the decisions of energy investors.
For the sabotage to succeed, it would need to ratchet up the political pressure. And for that to work, the saboteurs would need to be seen as heroes by large swaths of the public. Within the frame of our current Overton window, they’re more likely to be seen—however unfairly—as terrorists.
Some on the left argue that we shouldn’t choose our tactics based on our opponents’ likely response. But of course we should. Politics is chess: If you don’t anticipate the countermoves, you’re going to lose—badly.
When faced with this kind of strategic choice, it’s worth remembering that as recently as 2009, business-as-usual fossil fuel consumption had us on track for as much as 6 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. Through a combination of movement muscle, government action, and technological development, we are now on a path to just under 3 degrees. That is still an unacceptable outcome, but the trend line doesn’t warrant fatalism. We should be pulling harder on the nonviolent levers, rather than risking it all on a long-shot tactic that could set the climate movement back a decade.
That said, I believe this is a worthwhile debate for the movement to have. The fact that the conversation has gone public could itself prove useful. Politicians should take it as a warning: If governments cannot protect their citizens from fossil fuel oligarchs, then those citizens will turn to other means of self-protection—regardless of their strategic merit.