4 May 2022. Climate | Business
The case for blowing up pipelines. Why businesses drift into failure.
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Over at The New Republic, Benjamin Kunkel reviews Andreas Malm’s recent-ish book How to Blow Up a Pipeline. First things first: despite the cover imagery, it is not a manual. But it is, in Kunkel’s description, “a brief, intense argument in favor of destroying fossil fuel infrastructure”.
(Photo: Verso Books)
The rationale of the book is based on what we already know about both carbon emissions and our prospects of staying within 1.5 degrees of global warming:
Malm cites a study by the University of California climate scientist Dan Tong and her colleagues in China and the United States, which concludes that carbon released by power plants already in operation—not counting CO2 resulting from other sources such as transportation and deforestation—would by itself suffice to heat the planet above the 1.5 degrees Celsius that the Paris accord of 2016 enshrined as the limit of tolerable warming. “Combined with proposed plants,” Malm summarizes, “they would nearly exhaust the budget for the amount of carbon that can be released while still giving the world some chance of staying below 2°C.”
In the face of this data, governments are doing little, even though they have pledged to reduce emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2050. So the thrust of Malm’s book is to make the case that climate activists should remove this carbon emitting infrastructure, by direct action.
The climate movement should itself enact, through direct action, that prohibition on new fossil fuel infrastructure, and that dismantling of existing pipelines and power plants, which governments have so far refused to take on. Only if such equipment is damaged often and badly enough as to make its continued operation unprofitable does the stabilization of the climate stand a chance. For climate activists to confine themselves to peaceful protest is meanwhile to watch the earth become less and less hospitable to human life.
As Kunkel acknowledges, it’s an extreme position that leaves many unsympathetic. He says he reacted to it “with instinctive skepticism”. Would widespread property destruction forestall civilizational crisis? But: he also says that the argument is worth a hearing.
One of the arguments that sits behind the book is that the 21st century has been marked with huge popular and peaceful demonstrations—starting with the protests against the Iraq war—which have had pretty much zero effect. Climate change protests have also been large, and the result has been, as it were, blah, blah, blah.
Instead (says Malm), “the movement must learn to disrupt business-as-usual.” Some tactics that are already in use—blockades, occupations, sit-ins, and school strikes—impede the everyday functioning of a fossil-fueled civilization rushing toward ecological collapse. Property destruction would be the next step.
Malm talks in the book with some admiration (Kunkel’s phrase) about the Houthi drone attack on Saudi Aramco facilities in 2019. At a stroke, 7% of the world’s global oil supplies were taken out of commission. Because one of the secrets of the fossil fuel economy is that while emissions are everywhere, fossil fuel infrastructure is relatively concentrated—and often in isolated places.
The second purpose of such destruction is to make peaceful protests seem much more reasonable. He’s effectively trying to shift the “Overton window” for climate protest:
Malm contends that it would contribute to the morale of the climate movement, and make nonviolent petitions for governmental action look mild and reasonable by comparison. The blowing up of pipelines would, he argues, constitute increasingly effective propaganda for climate justice. Naturally, critics will wag their fingers at the saboteurs of fossil capital—so be it... They should act as a vanguard that will eventually lead a large part of the public to the same goal that they have: “They should walk ahead.”
Kunkel points to the animal rights discourse in the USA, which has unfolded along these lines since the early 2000s.
But one of the characteristics of the climate movement has been a strong preference for ‘strategic pacificism’—informed by a view that says that violence committed by social movements takes them further from their goal. This is a strong tenet of Extinction Rebellion in the UK, for example, even stated explicitly in its handbook.
To rebuke this reading of history, Malm examines the use of violence and property destruction in a series of emancipatory movements... Malm’s contention is not that property destruction should replace peaceful demonstration as the principal tactic of the climate movement, but that nearly all successful social movements have employed both peaceful and destructive means, and that there is no reason the climate movement should provide an exception to this rule.
Malm’s book was finished in March 2021, and it’s also possible that its underlying hypothesis—that governments won’t do it so activists must—may have been overtaken by developments since then. As Kunkel notes:
Inevitably, the authors of urgent manifestos give hostages to fortune, unable as they are to anticipate the events that will have taken place by the time they publish.
And certainly the economics of renewable energy production get more attractive by the week, and governments have in the past year made much more sweeping commitments to emissions reduction:
As David Wallace-Wells recently observed in an essay in New York magazine, the costs of solar-energy generation have fallen so far that the International Energy Agency now estimates that India will construct 86 percent less in the way of coal-burning power plants than was forecast only a year ago. As for governments, as Wallace-Wells notes, since the start of the pandemic, Japan, South Korea, the European Union, and China independently made “new net-zero pledges, far more ambitious than those offered at Paris.”
Malm himself says that it’s not about privileging one tactic over another. Protest needs an ecology of tactics if it is going to achieve its goals. Kunkel concludes his review:
We should blow up no more pipelines, and drone-bomb no more refineries, than is necessary—but also no fewer. It’s not, after all, that property rights don’t matter. It’s that the contest is between the property of a few—the awful ensemble of fossil fuel infrastructure—and of the many, which is the commons of this earth.
I know that futurists should never say that something is inevitable. But that particular conflict between the long term interests of literally everybody, and the short term interests of a few, placed against the loud ticking clock of climate change, has for some time persuaded me that we will see direct action against emissions infrastructure and the fossil fuel economy. I suspect it’s only a matter of time.
At his Roblog blog, Rob Miller has a short and engaging post on why businesses fail over time. I’m not sure it’s right, but it’s certainly interesting, and he tells the story through three diagrams.
He argues—following the work of Jens Rasmussen—that successful businesses operate in a safe space that sits between economic failure, on one side, lack of safety, on another, and overload, on a third.
The safe space, in other words, looks like this:
(Source: Rob Miller/ Roblog)
But he has a fabulous quote from Sidney Dekker (not known to me, but there’s a link in the piece) who says that businesses drift towards failure, pulled towards these unsafe places:
“Drifting into failure is a slow, incremental process. An organisation, using all its resources in pursuit of its mandate… gradually borrows more and more from the margins that once buffered it from assumed boundaries of failure… Thus, it is the very pursuit of the mandate that creates the conditions for its eventual collapse. The bright side inexorably brews the dark side – given enough time, enough uncertainty, enough pressure.”
Managements who try to increase economic performance without changing the conditions in which the work is done push the business towards overload and/or cutting corners:
(Source: Rob Miller/ Roblog)
And workforces that are put under that sort of pressure tend to push back, which may send the business back towards economic inefficiency or to being slack about safety.
(Source: Rob Miller/ Roblog)
I said at the start that this was interesting, but I wasn’t sure about it. There’s a couple of reasons for that. One is that I’m not sure that the three boundary conditions are quite right. For example, businesses that become overly safety conscious can drift towards economic failure, but through rigidity rather than work overload. There are, equally, lots of cases, as well, where profit seeking behaviour and safety cause business collapse without overloading staff, as BP and Boeing demonstrate.
The second is that language about ‘efficiency’ immediately pushes you towards a particular type of business model, of short run cost, which is prone to this kind of collapse. Indeed, the model seems to be quite a static one.
Effective businesses, on the other hand, are monitoring their environment, and responding to it by changing their behaviours. They do things differently in response to external change—for example by changing their cost structure through business model innovation.
And to be fair to Rob Miller, he says that the solution is to get better at working with complexity:
Two factors increase our ability to do that: diversity and creativity. The more diverse an organisation is, the more perspectives there are and the more likely someone is to spot something going wrong... The more creativity is encouraged within an organisation, the more likely it is to adapt to changing circumstances.
It is possible, in other words, ‘to drift into success.’
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