How to Blow up a Pipeline, an Explosive Take on Climate Activism

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How to Blow Up a Pipeline, 2023
How to Blow Up a Pipeline, 2023(Film still)

Fusing political theory with the pleasures of a heist movie, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a thrilling look at contemporary climate activism. Here, its creators talk about radical activism

In How to Blow Up a Pipeline – a cinematic reimagining of climate scholar Andreas Malm’s book of the same name – there is a section of oil pipeline in Texas that rises above ground like the belly of a serpent. Xochitl (co-writer and actor Ariela Barer), the ringleader of a group of eight people who have come together for the express purpose delineated in the film’s title, lays her palm on this exposed segment of steel pipe: a synecdoche for the immense killing apparatus of the fossil fuel industry, currently ferrying human and non-human life on a conveyor belt towards extinction.

Yet there it is, the pipeline, that black blood gurgling through it: tangible, vulnerable as an artery, as concrete a target as any. Fusing political theory with the pleasures of mainstream genre cinema, How to Blow Up a Pipeline adapts a non-fiction climate manifesto into a deliciously entertaining heist movie. It is thrilling, sexy and imagination-expanding in its delivery of urgent vocabularies into the mainstream – unfazed by taboo, purity politics or seeking easy answers. 

AnOther caught up with filmmakers Daniel Garber (editor), Daniel Goldhaber (director) and Jordan Sjol (writer) to talk tactics: mass-appeal messaging, making radical political theory feel good, and hope.

Xuanlin Tham: A familiar jab about Malm’s book is that its title is a bit of a misnomer – it tells you why you should blow up the pipeline, not how. Your film, however, is almost entirely focused on ‘how’. 

Daniel Garber: I think our job as filmmakers is to get people involved emotionally – I don’t think we should be tasked with conveying everything in Andreas’ book. I hope that people go out and buy the book after watching the film, and engage more deeply with its ideas. But you identified the areas that were most difficult. There were other versions of what the aftermath of this action could be. Getting the exact balance right – so we weren’t painting too rosy a picture, but also weren’t trying to discourage people from thinking about this as a viable tactic – seemed like an impossible balance to strike. 

XT: The film encases radical political theory within the mass appeal of a genre flick. How did you decide to tell your story this way?

Daniel Goldhaber: There is a reasonable incredulousness towards mainstream media forms, because they’re so often used for evil. But ultimately, mainstream entertainment is just a way of connecting with people. Something that ends up narrowing the cultural reach of the progressive movement is that it doesn’t make an effort to engage the mainstream in a way that’s actually radical. We want as many people as possible to engage with the central question behind this film. To do that, we’re going to make something that’s entertaining, while not compromising on the ideas at the centre of the movie. 

XT: Jordan, you work in academia, and I felt some personal frustration might be reflected in that scene where the university students are talking about divestment – Xochitl’s anger with this kind of climate action, its lack of urgency.

Jordan Sjol: Radical political theory is something I find very exciting, very enlivening. Yet there seems to be some sense that consuming lefty media should be like eating your vegetables: if you don’t feel bad while you’re doing it, it’s not actually good work. What was so exciting about Andreas’ book is that it feels good when you read it. It has affective and emotional charge. So turning it into a movie, finding a way for that charge to also come through, was an extremely exciting prospect. 

XT: The film proposes that property destruction is not as unthinkable as most mainstream narratives would like it to be. Yet people remain scandalised by Just Stop Oil throwing soup over a painting, or defaced statues during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests. Do you think there will ever be mass support for the types of action depicted in the film?

Daniel Garber: The argument that Andreas would make is that you don’t need mass support for it to succeed. If anything, people objecting to it but still being exposed to it has real benefits: if a more radical wing of a movement is willing to engage in extreme tactics, that makes compromise with the less extreme wing of a movement palatable. 

Jordan Sjol: Believing that property destruction should never be a tactic benefits people who own the most property, right? And that taste has to be formed: people have to ingrain it in you somehow. A point that Andreas makes in his book is that successful social justice movements have always incorporated property destruction. I think having a heist movie in which it can be exciting that people are blowing up a pipeline is a way of battling on that terrain of taste.

XT: Xochitl’s declaration “this is an act of self-defence” closes the film. How important is it to reorient our understanding of these tactics around self-defence instead of offence, given that people are keen to depict such actions as terrorism? 

Daniel Goldhaber: The destruction of other people’s property is something that we socially accept to be wrong, except if you’re defending yourself, and that’s where it gets interesting. The notion that destroying an oil pipeline without significantly damaging the environment could be an act of self-defence completely dismantles most notions about contemporary climate activism. Because if that is a justifiable form of self-defence, why is that not the only tactic we’re engaging in, with the timeline being what it is? The IPCC report [issued on the day of this conversation] was talking about this on the order of, we have six to nine months left to avoid 1.5C [of warming]. Self-defence is at the core of our cultural ethos

XT: But something that the film captures so well is that when you feel despair, you turn to people, and hope lies in collective action. Do you have any moments that you draw on for hope right now?

Daniel Goldhaber: [Writer] Rebecca Solnit talks about [how] when disaster strikes, community comes together, and that being a very natural human impulse. She talks about being in Puerto Rico after the hurricanes [in 2017] and watching this celebration, almost, as people start putting their lives back together, until the international aid community tells everybody to stop working so that they can assess the damage – and all of a sudden, trauma [sets] in as people are no longer able to move and act. 

I think a lot about that story because I believe there will be new forms of community and new ways of organising ourselves that will emerge from the other side of this crisis. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be an unimaginable level of destruction and loss of life as we move through it. But I feel hopeful that we’re able to learn lessons and construct a more equitable and sustainable future on the other side.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is out in UK cinemas now.