‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ and the Catholic case against eco-terrorism
In a barren West Texas desert, eight young climate activists, fed up with government inaction and armed with homemade bombs, conspire to sabotage a large oil pipeline they believe is killing our common home. The planet’s unfolding climate catastrophe—rising temperatures, melting ice caps, severe weather events—have brought them here. When they’re not getting in fights or brandishing firearms, they’re hurriedly building improvised explosives. And they see themselves as revolutionary vanguards in the 21st-century climate war, as radical disciples of Martin Luther King Jr. or perhaps Christ himself.
“Jesus was a terrorist,” says one activist.
Adapted from the 2021 book of the same name by the Swedish professor and human ecologist Andreas Malm, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline”feels dangerous, provocative and unafraid—the hallmarks of a good political thriller. But its moral stance, which characterizes strategic nonviolent protest as hopelessly utopian and bound to fail, misunderstands the potency of sustained nonviolent resistance and trades long-lasting change for swift consequences.
“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” misunderstands the potency of sustained nonviolent resistance.
In his book, Malm advances the argument that serious climate activists should reject nonviolent action in favor of property destruction. Malm states that nonviolence, with its strict reliance on treaties and diplomacy, has not done enough to halt the march of global warming or rising carbon emissions. Fossil fuel companies, he would argue, are not threatened by such tactics. “I am in favor of destroying machines, property—not harming people,” Malm said to David Remnick in September 2021.
But to what extent is property destruction nonviolent? In the annals of Catholic activism, many anti-nuclear advocates and anti-war protesters have repeatedly engaged in the direct, organized (and certainly illegal) vandalism of government property. In May 1968, nine Catholic activists, including Daniel Berrigan, S.J., and his Josephite brother Philip Berrigan, used homemade napalm to illegally burn 378 draft files in a Catonsville, Md., parking lot.
Their nonviolent demonstration against a bloody war in Vietnam was condemned by prominent Catholic voices of the era. Christian pacifist Dorothy Day disavowed such action; Trappist monk Thomas Merton expressed concern that it “bordered on violence”; and the novelist Walker Percy compared the activists to the Ku Klux Klan. A majority of American Catholics disapproved of the burning of draft files.
“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children,” wrote Daniel Berrigan in a public statement at trial.
Historically, the “fracture of good order” has been an important part of nonviolent Catholic protest. In September 1980, eight anti-nuclear activists trespassed onto a General Electric facility in southeastern Pennsylvania and damaged nuclear warheads. This action, a response to the prophet Isaiah’s directive to “beat their swords into plowshares,” inspired dozens of similar actions over the following decades (Is 2:4).
Most recently, seven Catholic peace activists entered a Georgia naval base and defaced the area with their own blood. In October 2019, the Kings Bay Plowshares group—which included Martha Hennessy, a granddaughter of Dorothy Day; and the Jesuit priest Stephen Kelly—were convicted of conspiracy, trespassing, depredation and destruction of government property.
From a Catholic perspective, the ethical issue is not with property destruction per se, but with the film’s denigration of the nonviolent tradition and its call to engage in violence as a means to an end. (On Instagram, the film’s distributor has promoted the picture with taglines like “Nonviolence is no longer an option” and “It’s time to burn it all down.”) Nonviolence, the film’s characters argue, takes far too long and does not necessarily result in substantial social change. Theirs is a morality of immediate results and fast solutions to remedy complex problems.
Nonviolence, the film’s characters argue, takes far too long and does not necessarily result in substantial social change.
Throughout his life, Daniel Berrigan strongly rejected this morality of results, a utilitarian ethic that sought only to achieve a goal and achieve it now. “We need to live our lives in accord with the deepest truth we know, even if doing so does not produce immediate results in the world,” he once wrote. For him, nonviolence was not simply a political tactic; it was a way of living—a spirituality that acknowledged Christ’s resurrection as the divine triumph over death.
Obviously, Jesus was not a terrorist, as one fictional activist proclaims, but he did take immediate action against money changers in the temple plaza. The Gospels describe Jesus in Jerusalem, flipping over tables and fashioning an impromptu whip to eject the “den of thieves” who transformed a holy site into a marketplace.
While Christ’s turning over of tables could be, in modern parlance, considered a form of property destruction, nowhere in his public ministry does Jesus advocate violence or even violent self-defense under extreme circumstances. Confronted by armed captors in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus, aware of his pending arrest and brutal execution, chastises Peter for drawing his sword and cutting off Malchus’s right ear. “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword,” commanded Christ of Peter (Mt 26:52).
In Kantian philosophy, a way to judge the morality of an action is to universalize it. Ask yourself: “What would happen if everyone acted in the way I seek to act?” What if everyone, convinced of their moral rightness, detonated bombs on their intended target? What if everyone, judging their circumstances to be life-threatening, resorted to violence in pursuit of their goals? You get the picture.
Despite its focus on saving the planet from human folly, the film is a missed opportunity to highlight real examples of climate change. As I write, New York City is shrouded in a thick fog as smoke plumes from Canadian wildfires spread across the Northeast. Last month, at least 14 people were killed by devastating floods in northern Italy, with scientists tying an uptick in severe weather events to a “climate emergency.” A 2023 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights how human-driven climate shifts have increased food insecurity, worsened human morbidity rates due to extreme heat, wrought economic havoc on the agriculture and fishing industries and led to a rise in food-borne illnesses.
“With every increment of global warming, regional changes in mean climate and extremes become more widespread and pronounced,” reads the report. President Biden has characterized the 2020s as the key decade for the United States to “avoid the worst, irreversible impacts of the crisis.”As “Pipeline” rightly contends, climate change is a clear and present danger that requires committed action. But employing violence to protect life on earth is contradictory and unlikely to improve our situation without unintended consequences
“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is available for rent on Amazon or Apple.