By Wallerand Bazin and Elisabeth Darrobers
‘We need compelling stories to imagine the radical climate movement ahead,’ insists Andreas Malm, climate activist, researcher at Lund University, and great novel reader, who confessed that he only reads dull climate-fiction novels out of professional duty. In his contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Anthropocene (2021), Malm criticises most climate-fiction for being set in ravaged post-apocalyptic landscapes where effects are amplified, causes concealed and revolutionary action absent. Recent responses to this call have included Racine carrée du verbe être (2022), a play by the Lebanese Canadian writer Wajdi Mouawad. Amongst four imbricated narratives surrounding the 2020 Beirut explosion, the play stages the fictional struggle of two young activists who, having tried everything to prevent five ancestral ginkgo trees from being cut down, determine that only one solution remains: self-immolation.
This fictional account may foreshadow an escalation of tactics within the climate movement. The ‘econoclasm’ of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring by Just Stop Oil activists, desecrating paintings to echo the destruction of natural beauty, or the sabotage of water tanks by what French right-wing politicians call, ‘eco-terrorists’, are still fringe action. In the mainstream, the movement remains dominated by a fetish for non-violence. Arriving at a conference at Oxford University on November 9th, Andreas Malm was uplifted by a packed room of zealous students voicing their support for direct action.
The unique discipline of human ecology, which he describes as ‘a void where I can do whatever I want’, favours freedom of thought. Spanning on a little over a decade, Malm’s academic career has provided a genealogy of the climate crisis. It includes lucid analysis of what we might do about it, and, without any degree of passivity, proposes a pragmatic and clairvoyant plan for when the 1.5-degree threshold is exceeded. Finding such an unintended coherence across his prolific academic work made him smile.
An environmental historian by trade, Malm originally investigated the historical and ideological roots of the climate crisis. His seminal Fossil Capital (2016) argued that politics and class conflict forced the hand of the 19th century transition, turning the British economy away from water to become dependent on fossil fuels. He makes the conceptual case for a ‘Capitalocene’ which roots capitalism as the cause for the climate crisis. By dating the genesis of our current crisis back to the English industrial revolution, he concurs with Henri Bergson who presciently quipped in 1907 that James Watt’s 1787 invention of the steam engine ‘would come to define an age’.
Expanding on this rereading of the industrial revolution, Malm brilliantly shows that the replacement of water (which was cheaper, more plentiful, and more efficient) by coal was motivated by political, rather than technological factors, since the invention of reservoirs had solved the spatial fixity and intermittence of watermills. Rather, social and managerial reasons explain why the then rising industrial bourgeoisie settled on coal, with strike action culminating in the Ten-Hour Act of 1847 chief amongst these: the Act disadvantaged watermills which could not accelerate the speed of natural water flow to make up for the shortened working day. Coal also did not require cooperation amongst industrialists, whereas watermills involved logistical cooperation between mills along the same river.
Fossil Capital stands as the keystone and matrix of Malm’s work. He conceptualises climate change and our reaction to it as inherently political. Wary of the effect catastrophism can have on the public, Malm lays bare the human decisions behind the impending catastrophe, thus providing a more solvable outlook. Moving counter to the consensual turn in climate politics, that seeks to move climate politics beyond partisan initiatives, Malm suggests that ‘the ecological transition will happen through intense polarisation and confrontation, or not at all’. In White Skin, Black Fuel (2021), Malm and colleagues from the Zetkin Collective explore the ideological barriers to a just socio-ecological transformation. Fossil fascism and green nationalism, two sides of the same coin, feed on a fetish for both fossil fuel extraction and pristine nature conservation. Borders have gone ‘green’, to paraphrase John Hultgren, as border securitisation is now rolled out to preserve from outsiders the supposed harmony between nature and national identity.
The focus on the West isn’t arbitrary: it is the cradle of both the Capitalocene and fascism. Far-Right values continue to be undergirded by the fossil economy; particularly since 1990’s merchants of doubt (read: oil companies) have progressively been replaced by populists and neo-fascists. Trump might have become a figurehead of climate change denial, yet this phenomenon is far from being solely an American one. ‘Borrowing from psychoanalysis’, Malm affirmed that the ‘continuation of the crisis can only exist because of denial’. Its endurance is perhaps explained by the term’s malleability. It takes different shades: literal (refuse the facts), interpretative (accept the facts but under-appreciate the importance) or implicatory (fail to act) denial.
Malm sees the rise of the far-Right and climate change as one. So does Tiago Rodrigues (recently appointed director of the Avignon Theatre Festival) in Catarina or the Beauty of Killing Fascists, (2020), that Giorgia Meloni had tried but failed to ban in Rome, asks whether violence against fascists is legitimate in the struggle for a better world. Ending with the 30-minute monologue of a fascist kidnapped by radical activists, it leaves the audience to either deny or reckon with his misogynistic, homophobic, racist and xenophobic harangue. There is no conclusion: once done speaking, the fascist simply leaves the stage. The public reacted in various ways: some yelled, others stomped or simply left. Like the stage-director, the researcher sets the scene and entrusts the reader to act accordingly. But Malm pushes forward in explicating what we can do about it.
Building on Frantz Fanon’s work on black alienation in Black Skin, White Mask (1957), Malm stresses that the ‘cleansing force’ of revolutionary struggle provides the cure to many forms of alienation. Malm expands on this claim in How to Blow up a Pipeline (2021), which is by far his most provocative book. 'My peers wanted to disavow it and push me to say that I wrote it in my spare time', he recalls. The book attacks mainstream historiography for fetishizing the non-violence of emancipatory movements. He cites the suffragettes shattering the windows of London shops or Nelson Mandela’s post-1960 switch towards violent action after the Sharpeville Massacre as two examples of emancipatory movements made successful by violence.
Similarly, eco-sabotage can break the mental economy of fascination that wraps the fossil fuel complex in a shroud of untouchability. Malm has spent considerable time since John Lanchester asked in 2007, ‘where are the eco-terrorists?’ theorising what he calls the Lanchester’s paradox: when the climate crisis requires drastic physical tactics, commitments to moral and strategic pacifism paradoxically increase. In true Malmian style, he claims that ‘[t]here has been a time for Gandhian climate movement; perhaps there might come a time for a Fanonian one’.
’How’ is not so much the question in How to Blow Up a Pipeline – Malm is more concerned with why we should begin to think seriously of violent action. Daniel Goldhaber’s recent film adaptation of the book ‘overcompensates’ this limitation, Malm said, as ‘the filmmaker has apparently been in touch with bomb experts in the US military’. The distinction he makes between violence against people and that against private property is a much-needed theoretical contribution, but the absence of scrutiny for how violence can get out of control has been taxed as an 'astonishing abdication of responsibility.' Malm is keen to define himself as ‘an activist that happens to do research’, and not the contrary; his days roaming the streets of Sweden deflating SUVs are not so far away. After being interviewed by BBC Scotland during COP 26 in Glasgow, the radio decided not to broadcast the talk, confused as to whether Malm was preaching terrorism. Even though Malm isn’t afraid of being called an eco-terrorist, he evidently rejects the term.
Dialoguing with Malm, Alexander (Sasha) Arridge, a philosophy doctoral student, rigorously demonstrated that eco-sabotage, as an instance of ‘effective and proportionate defence from climate aggressors’, is, in one way, justified. Arridge defines eco-sabotage as the ‘intentional destruction of property conducted with the aim of furthering environmental aims’. Malm praised his philosophical method, which the book lacks, as well as the conceptual incisiveness of linking ethics and efficacy – the ethical argument being generally under- appreciated in most of his talks on the subject.
Eco-sabotage is still at a trial-and-error stage. ‘The climate movement is in a phase of experiment,’ Malm warned, and ‘we must remain humble and restrain from fetishizing a technique but rather continuously re-evaluate its efficacy’. The time scale required to assess efficacy is the core of the problem, as highlighted by Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics. She raised the caveat that we cannot yet know whether or not deflating SUVs or throwing soup is effective. Malm agreed, concluding that ‘embracing uncertainty is what activism is about’. He isn’t so ‘fond of the vogue of throwing things on paintings,’ which he calls a ‘spectacle or nihilistic strategy’ only aiming to provoke attention by any means. ‘Would an orgy on Trafalgar Square one day be included in these unsystematic and untargeted events?’ he jokingly wondered.
Instead, he urges all actions of sabotage to focus on one goal – getting rid of the fossil fuel industry – through defined targets: fossil investments and infrastructure as well as luxury carbon consumption of the top 1%. It’s too early to assess the long-term efficacy but proxies can be found. For example, he mentioned the 2007 dip in SUV sales following campaigns of deflating tires with lentils, a contemporary David vs Goliath struggle, reinforced by The Telegraph paradoxically recommending its readers not to buy SUVs any longer.
Malm argues that we need to debunk the idea that we are all in the same boat, with a collective interest in stopping the climate crisis. The apocalypse will be uneven: ‘at 7 or 8 degrees of warming, we would all be roasted, but at the current rate of 2 to 3 degrees, the rich will be exempted’, he reminds us. The line between victims and perpetrators is increasingly evident as the crisis exacerbates. Think of the recent floods in Pakistan and Nigeria, countries whose historic emissions are no way near that of developed economies. Drawing a parallel with the Black Lives Matter movement, Malm argues that there is a lack of accountability: ‘perhaps things would be different if a video was released showing the CEO of ExxonMobil holding his knee on the chest of a drowning Pakistani’. Since the ‘violence is mediated through the atmosphere’, Malm says, victims are far apart from aggressors and can’t rebel against them. This leaves activists of the Global North with a moral dilemma, having to act ‘on behalf of’ those suffering in the Global South.
‘We are all integrated in the capitalist structure,’ Malm concedes, ‘coherence does not necessitate total moral purity’. The first feminists were to some extent ‘sharing their bed with patriarchy,’ he added, yet we can still point to specific perpetrators: ‘We do not hold sailors on slave ships, or the workers consuming sugar from slave plantations accountable for slavery, but rather the slave masters or those investing in the trade’. Individual responsibility can be mitigated since it is constrained by markets or laws, whereas that of large corporations cannot, their sheer economic size shaping the system.
Addressing the objection that eco-sabotage can do little against capitalism, Malm retorted: ‘suppressing capitalism is too ambitious; the Left has been trying for the past 200 years and we are now further from success than ever before’. For now, eco-sabotage must focus on only one target: the fossil fuel industry, ‘whose rising profits and investments are big bets against the future’, he adds. Imparting some historical wisdom, he reminds us that campaigns targeting too many problems at once are vain: ‘the logic of the Bolshevik revolution started with bread, land and peace – not the end of capitalism’.
Pragmatism suffuses his current research, which will be published by Verso in 2023 under the title of Overshoot: Climate Politics When it is Too Late. For Malm, it’s clear that the 1.5-degree target is out of reach and will be crossed. That premise isn’t far-fetched: to have a roughly one-in-two chance of meeting the target, oil and gas production in the Global North must end in 12 years’ time and 40% of existing oil fields must be left untouched. So, we must critically engage with the politics of overshoot, which aims to restore, before the end of the century, temperatures below the temporarily exceeded target. Enhanced adaptation, carbon dioxide removal and geoengineering technologies constitute the toolbox of ‘technological optimists’. Although most of them agree that those techniques should be used with care and be paired with the curbing of fossil fuels consumption, Malm remains sceptical of these techno-fuelled solutions. Even after a historical record in the increase of total emissions in 2021 – after 26 COPs and seven IPCC reports – these boundless optimists still invoke human 'rationality'.
Those measures translate the unwillingness of states to go after the genuine causes of the issue, preferring to alleviate its symptoms, whilst protecting the capitalist hold. Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) using natural carbon sequestration, by planting trees for instance, requires enormous amounts of land. Its mechanical alternative, Direct Air Capture, or DAC (yet another ‘acronym garbage from all the time wasted in COPs’ sighs Malm), is equally energy consuming. Moreover, Malm warns, DAC is likely to ‘protect old branches of capital accumulation’ – oil majors are both injecting captured CO2 into exhausted oil fields to extract remaining resources and obtaining carbon credits from it – ‘and sprout brand new ones too’. As new commodities are created with ‘sequestered’ carbon for fizzy drinks, discussion is no longer centred on carbon elimination but around carbon management: ‘they aren’t capturing carbon, they are sequestering exchange value’.
Malm’s eco-Leninism offers a concrete proposal of ecological state-planification by seizing the means of carbon removal. Malm may be capitalophobic but he is not a technophobe. When someone in the room maliciously asked if we should be blowing up DACs as well, Malm replied in the negative. His proposal is to ‘nationalise oil and gas companies and give them the task of cleaning up the atmosphere with DAC’. Malm reminds us that we cannot put off the development of DAC until the moment of need, and therefore state-backed innovation is required to deploy this technology at such a large scale.
But Malm recognises the limits to a transformation achieved through state planning. In Corona, Climate and Chronic Emergency (2020), Malm recognizes that opportunities for structural reform as a result of crises like 2008 or Covid-19 have too often been used to entrench neoliberalism and shore up existing property relations. But Malm is no dogmatic historian, refusing ‘to accept historical success or failure as the ultimate criterion of judgement or meaning.’ If he were, he would not be devoting his future research to war communism, whose ‘roads from just terror to brutal degeneration and tyranny’, he acknowledged, ‘have proven short indeed’. Andreas Malm does not portray Marx as an oracle. He even opposes ‘those that cherry pick the Marx they like best and claim that no other Karl can be found’.
WALLERAND BAZIN just graduated from an MPhil in Geography and ELISABETH DARROBERS is finishing her MPhil in Comparative Literature at the Sorbonne. His parents are quite anxious about the ecotage subject they chose; hers aren’t, they think she is interviewing Thomas Mann’s grandson.
Art by Ruby Davies