Ecoterrorism: The explosive question of when violence becomes necessary

Ecoterrorism: The explosive question of when violence becomes necessary

2023-06-06 13:09:46

Dhat a film like this is shown in the big cinemas in the USA and now also in Germany can be considered a miracle. Or as a scandal. After all, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” by Daniel Goldhaber is to be understood unequivocally as a call for violence. The book of the same name by the scientist Andreas Malm hit like a bomb in 2021. Neither in the non-fiction book nor in its fictional film adaptation does one learn how it works to build a bomb or blow something up. Maybe it goes like this: You write a book, you shoot a film and in doing so you shatter all moral certainties.

Malm’s urgent question, which is increasingly becoming ceterum censeo in activist circles, is: “So when do we escalate? When do we come to the realization that it is time to resort to other means? When do we start physically attacking the things that are ruining our planet, with our bodies, destroying them with our own hands? Is there any reasonable reason that made us hesitate for so long?”

Smoking does not help against the downfall


In view of the repertoire of measures that the climate activists claim for themselves – blockades, strikes, protests – Malm is surprised that they continue to uphold the principle of non-violence like an iron law. As, according to the scientist, “an exercise in active repression”, as “a sanitized history, without a realistic assessment of what actually happened and what didn’t, what worked and what went wrong”.

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Militant actions of the past—Nelson Mandela’s targeted attacks on infrastructure to abolish apartheid, or the property demolitions of suffragettes who blew up villas, hotels and theaters because they failed peacefully to win the right to vote for women—would today swept “under the carpet of civility”. Always with the argument of strategic pacifism, which believes that violence is not wrong per se, but counterproductive because the movement loses important support from the population as a result.

The effect of radical edges (“radical flank effect”) is controversial. Do they delegitimize more moderate movements and contribute to greater policing, as has happened as a result of the RAF? Or, on the contrary, do they even give greater legitimacy to the more moderate movements? The latter can be done, for example, by demarcation in order to appear comparatively harmless (Martin Luther King referred to the threat posed by Malcolm X in order to persuade the government to make concessions).

Dangerous propaganda?

If everything else doesn’t work, shouldn’t there be a phase beyond peaceful protest, asks Malm, and Goldhaber lets his protagonists in the film answer the question with a resounding yes. Right at the start, Xochitl (Ariela Barer, also co-writer and co-producer) is seen puncturing SUV car tires. Later, with a group of like-minded people, she will destroy two oil pipelines. The deed is preceded by concerns: If gas prices rise as a result of the destruction, won’t the poor population suffer the most? Will they be called terrorists themselves? An important convention is not to hurt people, even if it means putting themselves in danger.

In comparison to the book, the philosophical-historical debate in the film naturally takes up less space and more time is spent building the bomb. Goldhaber’s film can no longer only be understood as a moral justification – critics like Armond White in the “National Review” call it “sociopathic filmmaking” and “propaganda” – but also as a sober description of the present.

Plans are made around the campfire

Plans are made around the campfire


The cinema scene for climate issues has recently tended to be in the genres of science fiction (“The Swarm”), horror (“Knock at the Cabin”) or even comedy (“Don’t Look Up”). Goldhaber proves that such an exaggeration of reality is not necessary to draw attention to the urgency of action, as he clings almost documentary to the sobering, little photogenic reality. One learns the motivations, considerations and fears of the activists. Xochitl from California lost her mother to a heat wave. Her best friend Theo (Sasha Lane) has nothing to lose anyway because she has leukemia, which she blames growing up near an oil pipeline. Dwayne (Jake Weary), a Texas family man with a truck and gun, is incensed that a pipeline runs across his property.

As a viewer, you’re on their side the whole time, the sympathies are clearly distributed, the other side hardly gets a chance to speak, at most in the form of pipeline workers or police officers, and when everything ends up well in the end, you breathe a sigh of relief. For once, in the genre of the eco-thriller, an unbroken happy ending is not suspected of being kitsch – it’s the most radical thing a director can dream up. Because he builds in no protection, no irony, no cynicism, no skepticism, not even a sacrifice to make for the greater good. The seemingly naïve and one-dimensional is the real provocation here.

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It’s been almost 20 years since a 28-year-old inscribed himself in cultural memory with his low-budget film “The fat years are over”. In 2004, Hans Weingartner showed the activism of a group calling itself The Guardians, which 30 years after the RAF was overcome by an uneasiness about the former rebels who had become lethargic. The fact that the characters, unlike in the “Fat Years”, remain rather pale in “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” seems just as programmatic as the renunciation of technical hyperrealism: nothing should distract from the mission. In terms of both form and content, the will to limit wins. Ambivalences that still prevailed in the “Fat Years” are reduced to a minimum here.

It’s an old question how a film should be conceived so that it doesn’t give its viewers a short-term, relieving feeling of resistance and thus confirms the status quo in the long term, but rather that it leads to action. Goldhaber has an ambiguous answer ready. One of his activists, Shawn (Marcus Scribner), is a documentary filmmaker who uses artistic means to draw attention to the dangers of climate change. While filming, he is angrily rebuked by Dwayne, who says he doesn’t need a film, he wants his country back, a healthy family. How could a film help him? He couldn’t, says the documentary filmmaker and leaves. At night he comes back, this time alone, without his team. The film was just an excuse to get to know people from the area. Because he’s up to something. So the film is what is permitted, but can only be a first step, the occasion for actual action.

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