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Burning Questions: Should we blow it all up?
Sep 13, 2023
Season 3 | Episode 2

Burning Questions: Should we blow it all up?

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A look into the roles of pacifism and property destruction in the climate movement.

Climate activists like Andreas Malm, author of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, ask audiences to reconsider which act is more violent: building an oil pipeline or destroying it? In this installment of Burning Questions, host Amy Scott talks with two filmmakers who adapted Malm’s book for the big screen. They explore how climate activism and bolder acts of resistance have escalated as the climate crisis continues to intensify. Check out the video below to see the full conversation.

OPINION: The moral case for destroying fossil fuel infrastructure – Andreas Malm

WATCH: TED – The fairy tales of the fossil fuel industry — and a better climate story – Luisa Neubauer

STREAM: How to Blow Up a Pipeline (Film)

INTRO 

Amy Scott: Hey everyone. I’m Amy Scott, host of How We Survive. And today’s episode of Burning Questions explores a controversial idea, the use of sabotage in the climate movement. In this book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm argues that peaceful protest isn’t cutting it and climate activists need to step up their tactics and damage or destroy the physical things that are hurting the climate, including taking the air out of SUV tires, or even blowing up oil and gas pipelines. It raises some pretty provocative questions. And this year, a film came out inspired by the book. It’s a fictional story about eight people who band together to blow up a pipeline in Texas.

 

How To Blow Up a Pipeline (Trailer 2023): How to stop the pipeline from being built on my property. Poisons the air. Water. We have to show how vulnerable the oil industry is by hitting something big.

 

Amy Scott: Today, we’re gonna hear from two of the filmmakers, director Daniel Goldhaber and writer, producer and lead actor in the film, Ariela Barer, about how they made the movie and this question of whether sabotage has a role in the climate movement. 

 

Music: How We Survive Theme song.

 

(Title card saying “How We Survive: Burning Questions” appears)

 

Amy Scott: So our burning question today is, should we just blow it all up? And by blow it up? I mean, what role if any issue of violence have in climate activism?

 

Daniel Goldhaber: I think the first thing that I would say in response to that question is, is even just the way it’s framed and the usage of the word violence. I think it is a really pertinent one, because I think that there are so many ways that the language that we use in the way that we just discussed the basics of climate change has framed the debate in a way that I think is actually unwinnable. You know, why is it that an oil refinery that pollutes the air and the water and blitzed the earth and creates a system of energy production, that is leading to the catastrophic warming of our planet, is not seen as a violent piece of infrastructure. But an act that might sabotage or, you know, shut down that violent piece of infrastructure is, in fact, seen as the violent act. I think that we live in a moment in which the very basic ideas that underpin our sense of legality, ethics, and morality have been dictated by, you know, capitalism and the fossil fuel industry. And I think that one of the questions that we’re posing in the film, is this question of what is violence? And what is self defense? And the movie follows characters who believe that the destruction of this piece of oil pipeline is for each one of them in individual ways, an act of self defense?

 

Amy Scott: Ariela, what do you think? Should we blow it all up? Whether you see sabotage as violence or whether it’s justified violence? Is that inevitably part of the answer?

 

Ariela Barer: I mean, I disagree with what Daniel said. And I think ultimately, like we as artists interrogate that question through the film, and I don’t know how much clearer I want to be about my personal feelings about it. But I think, I think you can find the answer in the film and through the dialogue, especially between Alicia and  Xochitl was something that I was very passionate about writing these two characters in conflict and and also just like community with each other, how they go about this ecosystem of activism that has to exist for any progress to be made.

 

Amy Scott: Ariela I saw an interview you did where you said, you don’t feel like an activist for having made this film. But I wonder if for you it was a way to be active. And to do something about that existential dread that I think so many of us have been feeling these past several years.

 

Ariela Barer: Yeah, definitely. I think cultural production has also always been a part of movements and how those movements and disinformation is disseminated across you know, whatever platforms and how far reaching it can be. Yeah, I’m hesitant. I wouldn’t call it activist because I think there’s been this false equivocation between the media about the work being the work and people had to call it in a day there was there are people putting their lives on the line right now to do that work. And I would never try to say that we’ve done anything close to what they’re doing. I hope that this movie, this movie can serve the movement and the people that are out there putting their bodies on the line, I hope that you know, when things escalate, or things are already escalating when property is burned, when things like this happen, not necessarily a pipeline blowing up. But when infrastructure or property is attacked, this *********new fee conserve it’s like cultural context to conserve********, to just ask the question of Could you understand why people would feel the need to do this and why people might consider this self defense? Could you consider this self defense? And asking that question on a larger scale, I hope can do some good for the movement.

 

Amy Scott: I’m wondering if there are how you thought about the role that each character would play. I’m thinking about Alicia, in particular, who’s really kind of the, in some ways, the moral voice of the story asking about the downsides and the risks of sabotage who might get hurt, you may be hurting the working class people who need gas to drive to their jobs, and not the people who are most responsible for this crisis.

 

Scene from How To Blow Up a Pipeline (2023): We should acknowledge that what we’re doing is actually going to hurt a lot of people. It’s not going to hurt anyone. We’re not hurting anyone. We’re spiking oil prices. Revolution has collateral damage. Yeah, but who’s the collateral? You want to burn it down in an hour? It takes like a lifetime to build something new.

 

Amy Scott: How did you think about developing those voices through the individual characters?

 

Ariela Barer: Alisha was an incredibly important character for me to have in the film, because while we were in some ways, as the book does, criticizing what’s going on in the climate movement, we in no way ever wanted to say the people that are out there doing the work are wrong, you know, like the work is being done on so many levels. And we wanted someone to embody that someone who to embody, like being actively part of the community and doing all of this like work that you could say the movie would be criticizing, and yet she is the one who is thinking the most about the people and, and she is the one who is dedicating herself to this every day of her life. Alicia just has so much heart and so much to give. And she’s just someone who I think really grounds the film and who I came to care about a lot in the writing process.

 

Amy Scott: So arguably, one of the criticisms of the book How to Blow Up a Pipeline is that you don’t actually learn how to blow up a pipeline. It’s a call to action and a philosophical, sort of mulling of, you know, the use of violence in social change. But there’s, you sort of refer to that, there’s a moment where I think Shawn is reading the book in a bookstore, and Logan comes up to him and says, you know, he doesn’t actually tell you how to do it. Was this a direct response to that you want it to? Because you do show people pretty in detail how to blow up a pipeline.

 

Ariela Barer: Yeah, that line was like an offhand joke. We made in the writing process that I was like, there’s no way this is gonna make it in the movie. Somehow it stayed in the movie.

 

Daniel Goldhaber: Because they definitely that was like, that’s like people’s favorite thing to say about the book, and it’s definitely a title that is more about great marketing than being extremely descriptive.

 

Scene from How To Blow Up a Pipeline (2023): Listen, if I touch or even jostle this primer too much. Could you just take this 20 yards back? If anything goes wrong, don’t come unless I tell you to. Unless you see fire. Don’t come in. Got it.

 

Amy Scott: How did you research how to build a bomb without attracting the attention of law enforcement officials? Or did you?

 

Daniel Goldhaber: We have a friend of a friend you know is homemade explosives expert. And basically, he’s a big bomb nerd and very much outside of the limits of his job description. You just walk us through how to do it. None of this stuff is particularly difficult to look up the recipe for it’s pretty difficult to do without hurting yourself which is something that the movie pretty actively engages in. But I think for us, it was really important that everything that is in the film was kind of exactingly accurate, because part of the provocation of the movie, and the political question of the film is like, there’s something that’s so accessible about that. And so we’re tangible about it and mediate about it. That I think that it causes you to think differently about just what the climate fight actually could look like, potentially.

 

Amy Scott: Well, what you said about, you know, talking about or showing the work is not the same as doing the work reminded me of the scene in the film that’s super uncomfortable, I think for journalists like me, where there’s a documentary film crew, interviewing the character, Dwayne about the situation with his land and the trauma he’s gone through. Daniel, I wonder, do you have some experience working on documentaries? I wondered if that came from your personal experience, and maybe your own discomfort about the role of the documentarian or the artist, versus the people who are actually involved directly.

 

Daniel Goldhaber: I think that the problem that I saw kind of being a part of those organizations in those spaces, and especially that very corporate minded NGO type of work, is that there was such a low ceiling on what it could do. Because, you’re out there, and you’re essentially screaming from the rooftops like, “The world is ending, the world as we know what is ending! And here’s all this proof.” Then people go, “My God, that’s the most terrifying thing I ever heard. What can I possibly do?” And the answer on the other side of it has been change your lightbulbs, don’t forget to vote, maybe buy an electric car. People have known that’s like a very unsatisfying answer. And I think that what it’s contributed to is a strong sense of inaction, and doomism, because the moment that we had to really spur people to action with awareness, we kind of squandered and we squandered it, because the answer to the question is, we need to fundamentally rethink the way that we’ve organized our society on planet earth from the ground up. We have to completely rebuild our civilizational foundation, we have to rethink capitalism. That’s it. That’s the answer. The problem is that the systems that supported that cultural moment of awareness raising were the exact same systems that were fundamentally ultimately being challenged. That’s where I think some of my, I think discomfort, with documentary comes from at its core, and more practically, it does come from anything within Arielle was saying about filmmakers, I think confusing. Making a movie about something with doing that thing. And then more broadly speaking, audiences confusing consuming a piece of media about something for having been actually engaged in it.

 

Amy Scott: Yeah, and I have to say, I actually felt better watching the movie. You know, there was something therapeutic about it.

 

Daniel Goldhaber: Feeling better is the goal.

 

Ariela Barer: Feeling better without feeling like, and now everything’s fine. Feel it. I think those small victories, and we’ve had some conversations with activists and organizers, where when they talk about their actual moments of radicalization, a lot of the times it’s just like, getting that small victory with the community of people is the thing that keeps you going. And if this movie can feel like that small victory that keeps a movement going, like that’s everything I could add, that’s great. Yeah.

 

Amy Scott: How did your understanding of movements in the past change as a result of reading the book, and maybe also the research you did for your film, I mean, Andreas, mom makes the case that we think of a lot of social justice or social movements as being about non violence, when in fact, they weren’t. And we’ve sort of had this revisionist history of the suffrage movement of the civil rights movement. And that actually, many of those were violent.

 

Ariela Barer: We started writing this kind of on the tail of the BLM movement of 2020. And we had both been kind of on the ground at protest for both the BLM and like climate change movement stuff in 2019. I think my first protest was like 2014. And there was very much this attitude that to be taken seriously, there could not be any violence, property destruction and any escalation. And kind of you know, over the course of the six years between my first protest and the more recent protests, the conversation within those spaces really started shifting into like, but is attacking capital a very legitimate form of protest when you are operating under a government that values capital over the lives of its people. And so that had already been kind of a conversation we were having. And then when Andreas came out with this book, it just became like a great text to point to, that had kind of compiled all the evidence and all of the history to argue for that case.

 

Amy Scott: So since how to blow up a pipeline, that book came out, we have seen some incidents of sabotage, from the protesters who threw tomato soup on a Van Gogh, that’s, you know, really more of a stunt, I guess, but also attacks on gas pumps in England last year, and there was a group that sabotage a pipeline in British Columbia. Do you feel like there is a shift happening in the movement?

 

Daniel Goldhaber: The movie itself was inspired by acts of sabotage that predated you know, look at the case of Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya who sabotaged the Dakota Access pipeline.

 

The Des moines Register (July 24, 2017): We began in Mahaska County, Iowa, using oxy acetylene cutting torches to pierce through exposed empty steel valves, successfully delaying completion of the pipeline for weeks.

 

Daniel Goldhaber: When there was not even oil running through it, which is essentially an act of simple vandalism. And they turned themselves in and they admitted to their crime, and they were given six and eight years in prison with a charge of terrorism. You know that that’s something that predates the movie. And I think that there are lots of acts that we know about, and lots of acts that we don’t know about. And frankly, what I’m significantly more concerned about than any single act of environmental sabotage is the unjustifiable and unimaginable crackdown from the police that’s happening. Look at what’s happening in COP city, where the city is destroying a forest to build an illegal police training ground. So they’re-

 

Ariela Barer: Effectively fully militarized the police.

 

Daniel Goldhaber: And they’re taking away you know, what some of the last green space from a community predominantly of color. And you have people engaging in completely legitimate and, you know, widely accepted forms of protest and nonviolent resistance, who are being beaten, arrested and charged with terrorism and the evidence being presented as if they had dirt on their shoes, because that meant they were that they were essentially part of some sort of illegal operation, the criminalization of speech and political expression, when it comes to environmental in this country, environmentalism in this country is absolutely terrifying. And I think it is significantly more concerning at the moment, and then any sort of other escalation of tactics.

 

Amy Scott: Well, I also wonder if that makes it even less likely that there will be escalation if peaceful protest is being criminalized.

 

Ariela Barer: I think that’s what they are trying to do. I think that’s probably the idea behind the crackdowns, but also at a certain point, when people are being attacked for doing nothing, why not do more?

 

Daniel Goldhaber: That feeling of not, I have a moral responsibility to act, but I literally have no future. So who cares? I’ll do what I want. I’ll do what I can out, act out my rage, and take it out on a justified target is something that we have seen young people do throughout history. And I certainly think that we’ll see it in the climate movement, those responses will escalate, as the planet boils us alive.

 

Amy Scott: I understand that, as filmmakers, you’ve laid out kind of the argument for people to draw their own conclusions. I do want to raise the question that a lot of people have, which is the concern that sabotage can backfire, because the public recoils. And you know, in the case of destroying infrastructure, it gets rebuilt, and therefore it emits more carbon in the process. And I just wonder, you know, how much you’ve thought about that? How might you respond to those questions?

 

Ariela Barer: In regards to the first one about a public backlash. I mean, that’s an argument that’s very clearly laid out in the book of just that radical flank, existing to almost give leverage to a more center left being something that is a value to a progressive movement in itself.

 

Amy Scott: Right, because it makes them look more rational and reasonable. Yeah.

 

Daniel Goldhaber: Wielding this hypothetical public backlash to prevent a kind of, you know, genuine, resistance movement is also nothing new. And that’s something else the book kind of digs into is that, you know, we forget that people thought that Martin Luther King Jr. was too extreme for his era. And he was the moderate. This has always been the argument that has been wielded against progressives to prevent change, and to kind of spook people from actually acting. I think the same thing you know, could go for any act of resistance or any act of war. are, you know, like, why blow up the Bridge on the River Kwai, they’re only going to rebuild it. It’s like, yeah, but because that’s what you do. Like, that’s how you fight back like, like this, this notion that somehow you know what we’re going to predict three or four steps down the line and recognize that, you know, there’s one thing isn’t going to solve everything. That again, is is the way that they, they want us to think but when you look at what the other side is willing to do, they certainly don’t care about a hypothetical public backlash, they know that it’s they just keep the pressure on the heat on eventually people will buckle to their will. And if we don’t adopt the same kind of attitude, we certainly can’t expect to gain even an inch of ground.

 

Amy Scott: Is there anything either of you would want to add or make sure people take away from this conversation?

 

Daniel Goldhaber: Maybe just almost the place that we started, and it’s something that I’ve just been noticing more and more and that I just keep wanting to return to from the standpoint of language, which is just the use of this word violence. Because I’ve it’s really occurred to me that we only really use the word violence in these capacities to describe the resistance, and to not describe the kind of militant police arm of the state. And we kind of we talk about that in the passive voice we talk about that, you know, is kind of necessary for peacekeeping. We don’t talk about what the police and what the state are doing, and what the fossil fuel industry is doing as violent. And I think that indisputably when it comes to things that are harming human lives everyday on Earth. That is where the violence is coming from. And I think it’s really important that we start branding resistance to violence as violence, and that we think a lot about how we deploy that term. Because I think that even subconsciously, it’s used as a way to discourage action.

 

Amy Scott: Daniel Goldhaber and Ariela Barer. It’s been great to talk to you. Thank you so much. 

 

Daniel Goldhaber: Thank you

 

Ariela Barer: Thank you for having us.

 

OUTRO

 

Amy Scott: Thank you so much for watching How We Survive Burning Questions. And if you liked what you saw, don’t forget to subscribe. If you’re looking for more climate coverage, we have so much more to share on How We Survive podcast. Go check it out.

The team

Amy Scott Host
Caitlin Esch Senior Producer
Hayley Hershman Producer
Grace Rubin Assistant Producer