Protest is a constitutionally protected activity that seeks to influence the behavior of powerful groups such as governments, universities and corporations. Andreas Malm, a human ecologist who teaches at Lund University in Sweden, has written a provocative new book about the role of protest in the climate movement: How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
But first, here's a few notes about Malm and his books. His earlier Fossil Capital is an interesting exploration of the reasons why Britain moved from a reliance on water power to coal power at the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Malm makes a strong case that the switch occurred not because of cost differential, but due to capital's insatiable need to control and crush labor. It's fair to add that Malm's a Marxist who tends to interpret every scenario according to that dynamic. Also, the book is an expansion of his Ph.D. dissertation and therefore a bit dry in places. Beware the equations. For $9.99 on Kindle, though, it's not a bad buy. Secondly, How to Blow Up a Pipeline doesn't actually include instruction of pipeline destruction. The lurid title may be an attempt to goose sales. That gambit failed with my library system, which has chosen not to carry Malm's explosive book.
Successful protest movements, Malm argues, succeed not because of their devotion to peaceful protest in the style of Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King. In particular, the American Civil Rights Movement succeeded because of MLK and rabble-rousing, violent groups led by individuals such as Malcolm X. Malm believes that radical protestors functioned as a powerful counterpoint, compelling the protectors of the elite status quo to make concessions to the peaceful protestors. Historical hagiography, he contends, has largely erased the key function of these extreme groups.
Hence, regarding climate activism, Malm rejects the single-minded recipe of non-violent protest espoused by many climate leaders. (He seems to revel in taking potshots at the self-righteous invocations of Bill McKibben.) The Climate Movement, evidently, needs at least the threat of exploding pipelines and violent street clashes in order for fossil-fuel addicted interests to pay due attention to the demands of "reasonable" protestors.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a lively, quick read, available on Amazon. You decide if the passionate Swede has a point. Just be careful reading this book on a park bench in Red America.
In the process, a natural sorting takes place between organizations who care about the crisis and those, ultimately, who don't. The same occurs on the micro level, as individuals decide whether or not to purge dirty stocks from their retirement funds. Fortunately, in recent years, renewable energy stocks have largely outperformed the likes of Exxon (oil) and Peabody (coal), so that makes the act of conscience somewhat easy to enact.
But how, exactly, does climate divestment impact fossil-fuel corporations? Green groups contend that divestment "sends a message" and "raises awareness," and that's all well and good if hard to quantify. But does divestment hit target corporations in the pocketbook? Do their stock values suffer after an enlightened retirement fund here and a liberal arts college walks away? The money doesn't just disappear; when a green-virtuous person sells a stock, someone with a different set of scruples may buy it. The ups and downs of the stock market are a tangle of curious causes and effects, divorced in mysterious ways from the real economy.
So the answer to the cold-hard-cash question is maybe, maybe not.
What's certain is that private equity groups, controlling mega-billions in capital, are very invested in fossil fuel companies. They're betting on them; shorting the planet, so to speak. For a scary read, see this recent article in The New York Times detailing how private equity, by "bottom fishing for bargain prices...are keeping some of the most polluting wells, coal-burning plants and other inefficient properties in operation."
They simply don't care; private equity operates as a kind of financial Borg from Star Trek, strip mining sectors from real estate to nursing homes to fossil fuels for profit. The slim-suited mandarins in charge of these amoral organizations will not be amenable to the "think of your grandchildren" rhetoric of divestment enthusiasts. Nothing short of brute-force government regulation and taxation -- or to channel good Dr. Malm, world revolution that collapses the capitalist system once and for -- will bring such creatures to heel.