On Tuesday, environmentalist demonstrators broke through a Michigan fence housing the Canadian oil-transportation firm Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline in the effort to sabotage it. The demonstrators closed an emergency shutoff valve, temporarily halting the transportation of natural gas and other fluids to Michigan and beyond.
These demonstrators were not shadowy subversives. They filmed their actions and posted the video to social media. They contacted Enbridge before their actions “out of an abundance of caution.” They claimed they were acting “in accordance with” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order to shut down the pipeline—an action the Canadian government claims violates international treaty and is presently before the courts. What’s more, they adopted the fashionable language of victimization favored by social-justice activists. “I know my life is in danger from the risk of a spill and from the contributions to climate change,” wrote one of the activists with the group that released the footage of this vandalism. You see, the exploitation of natural resources is a direct threat to life and liberty. As the prolific eco-terrorist, Jessica Reznicek, told DemocracyNow! in 2017, the extraction of oil from the earth “is violent.” Therefore, a preemptive strike against those who engage in this practice is only self-defense.
This signals a change in the rules of engagement around acts of property destruction and vandalism in the name of environmental activism. In an earlier age, civil disobedience, sabotage, and even violent acts of ecological terrorism were exclusive to activists with an unbridled contempt for authority—commercial, political, or otherwise. By contrast, these activists are appealing to authority. They believe themselves to be the instruments of legitimate political power, which is unduly constrained by conventions like the law. They are appealing to the linguistic trappings of a faddish movement not only to justify their actions but to benefit from the sympathy such displays generate among elite opinionmakers. And the tactic is working.
In September, two women were convicted of the November 2020 sabotage of railroad tracks near the U.S.-Canada border in Washington state just before a train carrying crude oil was set to cross. The pair set out to place a shunt—a wire that mimics train signals and can disable crossings or cause trains to automatically break—across the track with the aim of halting the train. Indeed, this was one of dozens of shunting incidents that occurred in 2020 alone and the FBI is investigating it and other cases like it. This episode was particularly disastrous. Two tanker cars decoupled, drifted apart, and caused a crash that derailed ten train cars, three of which burst into flames. The act of sabotage was followed just weeks later by an even more nightmarish attack. In what federal authorities deemed a terrorist event, another crude-oil train was derailed when saboteurs disabled an air-brake system while it was stationary and unattended. Five cars exploded, 29,000 gallons of oil spilled into the surrounding environs, and 120 people were evacuated.
According to some activists, these attacks are a welcome show of support for indigenous communities that oppose the development and transport of natural resources like fossil fuels. “To see that supporters of Wet’suwet’en sovereignty are facing up to 20 years in prison tells me that the state is very fearful of Indigenous resistance and those who support Indigenous resistance,” wrote Molly Wickham, a spokesperson for an anti-pipeline group.
This is precisely the sort of thing that is being legitimized in mainstream leftwing venues by the likes of author Andreas Malm. His book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, provides the intellectual justification for aspiring environmental saboteurs. “Here is what the movement of millions should do,” Malm wrote. “Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.”
This inciting tract has enjoyed ambivalent-to-favorable treatments in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Vox. Malm’s “intelligent sabotage” advocacy prompted a bout of chin-stroking by the hosts of the New Yorker’s podcast. At most, pseudo-intellectual frameworks justifying violence in the name of conservationism are gently criticized not for their objective immorality but for the counterproductive political consequences that could tarnish the public perception of environmentalist activism. “Plenty of readers will react (as I did) with a sort of instinctive skepticism to Malm’s case that only widespread property destruction can forestall civilizational suicide,” The New Republic’s Benjamin Kunkel conceded, “but his case deserves a hearing.”
And it has been heard—loud and clear, apparently, by the zealots for whom violence is just another tool in the activist’s toolshed. The degree to which the anarchically inclined are mimicking the linguistic tics and mental gestures of the environmentalist intelligentsia is a new feature of the eco-terrorist movement. That flattery appears to be working on its intended targets. We’re sure to see more violence.