July 6, 2023
In early 2021, a shocking new book by Andreas Malm caused a stir in environmental policy circles. Titled How to Blow Up a Pipeline, this clarion call for the climate crisis analyzed past social movements — everything from women's suffrage and the fight against Apartheid to a wide range of democratic revolutions — to pose the question, "With the stakes so high, why haven't we moved beyond peaceful protest?"
Despite the eye-catching title, the book itself does not, in fact, provide a blueprint for blowing up pipelines, but simply a moral framework to render such acts reasonable, indeed rational. Malm's intent was to be provocative, not incendiary. The book argues that real social change cannot depend on nonviolent organizing and peaceful protest alone; revolutions have always come as a result of property destruction (or at least the threat of it). According to Malm, once we "follow the science" and recognize the existential threat that climate change poses, we must accept the case for carbon reduction by any means necessary — even if that means destruction of the titular pipeline, or more. (In addition to being a prize-winning author and scholar, Malm is a self-proclaimed "saboteur of SUV tires and coal mines.")
Two years later (with, needless to say, little progress in reversing the crisis; global CO2 emissions and temperatures continue to rise), Malm's title is being repurposed as a film with renewed vitality and a sense of burning urgency (gallows-humor pun intended). Rather than an adaptation per se, the film How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a work of fiction inspired by the book. It's a clever switch, exploiting the power of storytelling to move us from "what if... ?" to "why not... ?," escalating the original provocation to a whole new level.
Written and directed by Daniel Goldhaber, the story follows eight young eco-warriors as they hatch a plan to (spoiler alert) blow up a pipeline. Through flashback sequences we see them meet and struggle through the moral, personal, and political implications of what they are considering, albeit somewhat clunkily. (But hey, ethics are not easy to talk about, youthful passion is always a bit awkward, and subtlety can be tricky when you're also trying to be persuasive and exciting in just 90 minutes of screentime). Once resolved to act, the group must first plan — not exactly like the planners likely to be reading this review, but more like a tactical military team coordinating a strategic strike: part terrorist cell, part revolutionary vanguard.
Despite the bleak circumstances driving this desperate attempt, the narrative is surprisingly animated. The pacing is more like a heist movie than an eco-parable or dry documentary.
Perhaps the cleverest plot contrivance is the group's insistence that they strike the blow against Big Oil without causing unnecessary environmental damage or harming anyone in the process (directly, at least), two requirements which greatly complicate their task. To avoid polluting the very Earth they are trying to save, the team is forced to manage some complex logistics that planners will appreciate, knowing how tricky it can be to site straightish pipes, roads, rails, and other lines across real three-dimension unruly topography.
The team decides they need to break the pipeline in two places, not just one, (to ensure that it's not dismissed in the media as a fluke), and so are forced to identify a particular stretch where the local conditions cause the pipe to jog slightly up over bedrock ledge (in one case, even above ground, for easy access). When the pipe is blown, they reason, the excess oil will pool in the adjacent lower sections, rather than draining out into the landscape. (It's true that some product will inevitably spill out due to the explosion, but — as the Texas local on the team reminds his anxious wife — it'll be less than typically leaks out through normal operations, a reminder of just how toxic this industry can be.)
As for the desire to prevent harm to people, that's a thornier issue: destroying pipelines will disrupt oil flow and increase gas prices. That's the whole point. But anything that raises the cost of gas and oil will, of course, disproportionately affect low-income folks, an issue the team struggles with but never fully resolves. (Again: ethics are hard, right? To give these questions due consideration, pick up the book version.)
In a similar vein, the narrative doesn't spend much time actually explaining the science or policy behind climate change. (For that, see An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Chasing Ice (2012), Bidder 70 (2012), Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018), or I Am Greta (2020), all of which — along with dozens of other films and books and Ted talks — do a much better job of explaining how we got here and advocating for policy solutions.) And yet, in many ways, that's the point: All the science and understanding and speeches and demonstrations and teach-ins and movies aren't moving the needle enough. (There's even an amusing bit in the film that takes a jab at well-intentioned filmmakers producing earnest-but-ineffective documentaries while the world burns.)
In essence, this realization is where the original DNA of Malm's book springs to life on the screen. Goldhaber's film is a loud boom of a wake-up call: We can no longer continue to ignore the alarm and keep hitting snooze as the world burns. As explained by one of the characters with steely determination in the face of unbeatable odds, "I'm not thinking about it, I'm doing it."
For the eight characters desperately in search of a solution, these feelings of powerlessness and futility are transformed into commitment and a form of fatalistic heroism. Beyond environmental and existential arguments, they all have very personal reasons for this fight: their land, their communities, and their very bodies are being poisoned by petroleum and climate change. Theo, who grew up in the shadow of a refinery, is slowly dying from pollution-caused leukemia; Michael boils over with anger about the effects of fracking on his ancestral native lands in North Dakota; Xochitl lost her mother in a recent heat wave; Dwayne's Texas homestead was taken by eminent domain to make room for the very pipeline they intend to destroy.
For planners, the film will be an important reminder of what Martin Luther King, Jr., dubbed "the fierce urgency of now": when gradualism and incremental approaches may lead to "too little too late." If we can rise to the moment and engage the pressing need — moving forward, together — we have an opportunity to demonstrate the bold visions, grand plans, and progressive solutions that many people still associate with planning.
"Make no little plans" was our original brand slogan, after all.
"How to Blow Up a Pipeline" opened in theaters on April 7 and is currently available on video on demand.