‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ Unintentionally Indicts Fringe Climate Activists
How To Blow Up a Pipeline is an effective film in more ways than one. Not only is it a tense, terse, small-budget heist-style thriller, more indebted to Reservoir Dogs than An Inconvenient Truth, it’s also a subtle—if entirely unintended—indictment of the climate movement’s violent fringe activists.
Adapted from Andreas Malm’s 2021 nonfiction polemic of the same name, How To Blow Up a Pipeline isn’t a step-by-step guide to destroying oil company property, but rather a depiction of what it would take for a small group of climate radicals to build and detonate explosives intended to block the flow of oil, driving up the price of fossil fuels, and—they hope—inspiring copycats who will further increase the cost of business as usual for the fuel industry.
As such, the movie takes two tracks. The first is essentially mechanical, with a clandestine band of diverse young eco-activists gathering together in West Texas to build a series of oil drum–sized bombs that they intend to use against a pipeline. The movie derives considerable suspense from the physical basics of the process, which are always fraught with the possibility that, rather than their intended targets, the bomb makers will blow up themselves.
The second, however, is psychological. Each of the activists gets a backstory, explaining how they came to believe that violence was necessary. Inevitably, the backstory shows that they are neurotic, anxious, distressed, and hopeless about the state of their own lives and the larger world. They doomscroll, they drink, they wear ski masks and trash property in Portland, they pick pointless fistfights with random energy company employees in North Dakota. They insist that fossil fuel companies are responsible for the deaths of billions and believe that peaceful protests are futile.
Some, at least, have grief that is specific to the fossil fuel industry, including a Texas man who lost his family property to an oil company via eminent domain. But even in the most sympathetic cases, it’s not remotely obvious how blowing up a pipeline would actually help their own specific issues. It’s an act of rage and retaliation, not a solution to their problems.
And their ultimate plan is frankly ludicrous: Not only do they intend to inspire copycats, they plan to get caught, go to court, and make the case that their actions were justifiable as self-defense, establishing a legal right to further eco-terrorism.
How To Blow Up a Pipeline may not be intended as an explicit justification for violence by climate activists. It does, at times, note the likely costs of such action. But the filmmakers are clearly sympathetic to their cause, to their plight, to their belief in the necessity of violence, and it treats its little army of activist protagonists as heroes. But in the process of psychologizing their decisions, what it demonstrates is that the fringes of the climate activist movement are populated by delusional, too-online, apocalyptically-minded depressives who have chosen to blame fossil fuel companies for their own despondency. There’s real truth to this portrayal of agitated neurotics pointlessly lashing out, but it’s not the rousing call to arms the filmmakers seem to think.