'How To Blow Up A Pipeline’ serves an existential sucker punch

'How To Blow Up A Pipeline' serves an existential sucker punch

The new adaptation of Andreas Malm’s non-fiction book on ecoterrorism is screening at the Houses from 23 April. Here, Hanna Flint explains why it’s essential viewing

Saturday 22 April 2023   By Hanna Flint

They say you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. That idiom is never truer than when it’s applied to social justice. The ‘breaking’, however, is more often metaphorical. Our collective history is filled with proponents of non-violent affirmative action who have helped to break down the barriers built by systemic, patriarchal oppression – from Abolition to Suffrage and various civil rights movements over the last 100 years. Yet violent protest and forceful action is often erased from the history of these successful revolutionary crusades. Now, a new eco-thriller has arrived to present the argument for literally breaking eggs – well, an oil pipeline – in order to achieve environmental justice.

How To Blow Up A Pipeline is directed by Daniel Goldhaber, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol, and takes inspiration from Andreas Malm’s non-fiction book of the same name. Malm makes the argument for deploying more radical action to combat climate change – by sabotaging the production of fossil fuels – while also providing historical receipts of revolution against tyrannical regimes, apartheid and oppression through violent direct action over strategic pacifism. The Swedish author, lecturer and climate activist was inspired to write the book after witnessing the growing efforts from the Fridays for Future movement and Extinction Rebellion in 2018 and 2019. ‘I felt elated and encouraged by the wave of activism,’ he told Bookforum. ‘At the same time, I was frustrated. Although there were more of us on the streets, we were still behaving extremely politely.’

The film adaptation uses Malm’s manifesto as a jumping off point, intimately weaving his argument through the individual stories of eight young people coming together in West Texas to destroy a pipeline in two locations. I haven’t felt so personally moved by a film grappling with the subject of ecoterrorism since Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. That film questioned the morality of bringing a child into a world when the ravages of unchecked climate change will soon make the planet uninhabitable. Don’t believe me? Ask Sir David Attenborough who hasn’t stopped talking about planet Earth’s deteriorating ecological state, or the UN who last year reported that it is unavoidable that the world would become ‘sicker, hungrier, poorer and more dangerous in the next 18 years.’ 

'How To Blow Up A Pipeline' serves an existential sucker punch

First Reformed certainly made me question whether I wanted to have a biological child that would add another environmental burden when there are so many children already in need of a loving parent. So, I empathised with the film’s radical environmentalist’s abortion position. Goldhaber’s film similarly inspires sympathy for a cause that would seek to destroy property and fuel infrastructures in order to drastically shift our social, capitalistic and global reliance on non-renewable resources. 

When I was a kid at school in the noughties, we were taught about sustainable power delivered through solar, water and other such environmentally friendly measures, yet we continue to be ruled by capitalist superstructures that demand societies rely on non-renewable supply chains at the expense of our personal and environmental health. The film benefits from slow-releasing character studies that examine the varied motivations of each climate crusader; one has developed leukaemia from growing up near a chemical plant, another has seen their indigenous lands taken and polluted. Their efforts are anxiety-inducing to put it mildly. 

An intense feeling of uncertainty underscores every scene: will they blow themselves up building these bombs? Will the bombs do the job? Will they be caught first? Can they all be trusted? Will they do more harm than help? Will they be remembered as terrorists or heroes? Will this spark the change the world needs to save itself from itself? The grounded, emotionally charged performances from a diverse cast – including co-writer and producer Barer, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck and Marcus Scribner – keeps you invested and in their corner, even as they question themselves and their plan. These people aren’t comic book villains, they are human beings who have suffered the real-world ramifications of climate change and no longer want to feel powerless. ‘The idea of empathising with characters who take action like this, without ever condemning them for taking it too far, is something I don’t see in the media,’ Barer told The Guardian. ‘[The book] felt like an unapologetic push for a radical flank.’

The film’s eco-warriors cannot predict the future, but their personal risk might help secure the world’s reward. In art, as with life, maybe that’s worth breaking a few eggs for.

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