Fighting in a World on Fire

The next generation’s guide to protecting the climate and saving our future

by Andreas Malm and adapted by Jimmy and Llewyn Whipps

In their book, Jimmy and Llewyn Whipps make the following observation:

The point is that conditions are always changing.  We are writing from the past….The question of which tactics are most useful can also never fully be answered in the moment. Only with the passage of time.  This book offers one perspective (and one that is often suppressed), but it is not the only one.  No one can know what the future holds, what will actually work to shift minds and change possibilities—and anyone who says they know is lying.  All we can do is keep our eyes and ears open, study the past, look to our triumphs and failures, and keep trying….

Among the myriad of debates ‘out there’, we can classify this one as ‘fight, flight, or freeze’.  In the tactics required to protect the climate and prevent climate crises, how feasible is a flight to Mars?  How effective is it to freeze and do nothing? Andreas Malm argues for fight!  Jimmy and Llewyn Whipps were so impressed by Malm’s 2021 book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, they collaborated with him to produce this book “geared toward youth activists and anyone who wants to take action to halt climate change.” (Page X)

Malm argues that in the past and present, there’s no such thing as successful peaceful change without ‘synergistic and complementary’ ‘resistance partnerships’ between ‘mass street protests and strategic violence’ (p106).  Counter this with an opposing side arguing for peaceful gradual change as in the book Gradual: the case for incremental change in a radical age by Greg Berman, and we have a debate.

Malm wins this debate, hands down.  The environmental stakes are too high, the timelines toooooo short to implement ‘gradually’.  What is required is [Seniors for] Climate Action Now!  And that action includes ‘strategic violence’ notably against property, not people.  He advocates for unarmed collective violence that disrupts civil order [sabotage!] and so raises the costs for capitalists to continue ‘business as usual’, so busy will they be in repairing those pipelines, recouping capital losses, and eventually they would have to quit environmental degradation.

Malm debunks ‘Moral and Strategic pacifism’ supported by other environmentalists like Bill McKibbon and Roger Hallam of Extinction Rebellion (XR) who follows Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, authors of Why Civil Resistance Works.

I can tell you that civil resistance works, until it doesn’t.  I can counter that book with one written in 1980 by William Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom.  More like ‘Civilities OR Civil Rights’–can’t have both when those in power demand civil discourse (i.e., deference) ostensibly before considering any possibility of substantive change.  Capitalists set the rules of engagement.

Malm carefully debunks the myths of successful pacifism exemplified by Gandhi and Malcolm Luther King, neither were complete pacifists.  He places Arab Spring, Syria, South African Apartheid, the end of slavery, and the American Civil Rights movement and others, within the context of ‘armed self-defence’ and the ‘assertion of civil rights’.  What sparked and sustained these revolutionary movements were events of violence.

Such veneration of Gandhi and MLK as pacifists warps the view of history in favour of those in power. It leaves the impression that mass movements are ineffective, that capitalism [tied to democratic ideals] has no alternative, and that wide-scale change may be impossible without capitalism.  “In this way,” writes Malm, “capitalism is simultaneously killing the planet as well as our will to revolt against it.”  Malm’s best historical analogy with the environmental movement is German fascism (p111).  He likens today’s environmentalists with antifascists in the 1930s working to prevent the danger we see coming since ‘we don’t have much time to act’.

“Pacifism has perhaps never existed in a real sense.  What exists is the ability, or not, to distinguish between different forms of violence.  What makes pacifism peculiar is that it gives its followers a sense of self-righteousness, which springs from the worship of one type of tactic—without acknowledging that pacifism, like another tactic, is useful only sometimes.  If pacifism remains the dominant form of protest, then it will ensure that the climate movement remains, at best, the distant, well-mannered cousin of social revolt in the 2020s.” (Pages 208-09)

Those are fighting words!  If I were a risk-taker, instead of sitting and writing this review on my laptop, I could be mightily inspired by the chapter “Breaking the Spell”.  It’s all about those environmental and political activists who have indeed sacrificed much, gone to prison, undergone hunger strikes—Suffragettes, Luddites, Palestinians, the Houthis of Yemen, and many others worldwide.  And yet, and yet, they have mightily made a difference and had life-altering adventures including those Tyre Extinguishers (Malm writes quite a story about sabotaging SUVs and their owners’ reactions).

That chapter on “Breaking the Spell” could be an inspirational read.  Malm draws attention to those tactical groups that commit strategically disrupting sabotage causing property damage (and only on property, not personal injury).  He points out how that has accelerated change and even addresses the lessons that he learned as a ‘warrior’.   Is he counselling criminal activity?  I don’t think so.  The book is about the history of collective actions.   While the destruction of property is criminal,  ‘collective action’ to damage certain forms of property is viewed by some environmental groups (and presumably Malm included) as morally and strategically justified.

If I were to follow a “path on the outer edges of what we consider thinkable,” I’d have to first break the spell of aspiring to be like the rich and imitating their values of consumption. As Malm writes, “We live in a society that encourages us to be like the rich, and makes it very hard not to continue consuming at the same rate.” (Page 157)

The most important part of the book for everyone whatever our generation, whether we read the entire book or not, is Malm’s last chapter on “Fighting Despair.”  This saved me from reading Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene! Climate fatalists, like Scranton, have given up the fight against climate change because they cannot ‘muster their own will’ to reduce the excess of their own consumption and their consequent ecological footprint and fossil fuel emissions.  Malm points out that this does not mean that it would be impossible for him or others to do so.  Climate fatalists like Scranton are dangerous because they seek to influence others to give up as well, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Pages 226-7)  I would also add that climate fatalists shore up arguments for the status quo.

After reading Malm’s book, I don’t have to give into ‘Climate Fatalism’ and the climate grief that comes with it.   Collective action is where hope is at!   I did not think it possible, but Malm has described and explained the logic in hope.  That chapter alone is a must read to continue the fight in whatever capacity we have.

Kate Azure is a recuperating policy wonk who enjoys being a member of SCAN!.

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