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What a Climate Heist Movie Can Teach Us About Alliances

A talk with the creators of the new movie “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” about high-functioning climate coalitions.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
Heatmap Illustration/NEON, Getty Images

“There is something suspicious about total tactical conformity,” writes Andreas Malm in How to Blow Up a Pipeline, his provocatively titled 2021 manifesto that, rather famously, “doesn’t actually teach readers” how to do it.

The film adaptation of the book, out Friday, bears little overtly in common with its IP: For one thing, it more or less does show you how to blow up a pipeline; for another, it’s an original fictional narrative, not an academic treatise or documentary.

But the film’s philosophical allegiance remains firmly rooted with Malm, who believes diversity of opinion and approach in the climate movement — including the evolution of a more radical splinter — are essential for progress. In the film, this materializes as the story of eight aspiring saboteurs who join together to plot an attack on a West Texas oil pipeline. The characters come from diverse cultural backgrounds (college-educated; Christian; Indigenous; vegan, etc.) and follow wide-ranging paths to radicalization (mutual aid work; a pollution-related cancer diagnosis; sticking it to a rich dad) — but for the most part, they get along with little more disparagement of each other than an occasional “weird kid!” comment.

Cynically, this can feel a bit like movie magic — a rose-tinted coalition-building fantasy. As everyone knows, leftists can only agree on one thing: that all the other leftists are wrong. It seems unlikely that the array of ideologies that come together in the film could ever be in agreement for long enough to actually carry out a pipeline-sabotage operation.

But somehow, How to Blow Up a Pipeline never feels false in this regard. Constructed like a heist film, it extends the “perfect crime” to the perfect team of criminals, and in doing so, stakes an optimistic political position that has nothing to do with crime. What if, the script seems to ask, this kind of coalition isn’t actually so far out of reach?

To many, though, leftist movements have never felt more broken. “The progressive advocacy space … has, more or less, effectively ceased to function,” Ryan Grim wrote for The Intercept last June. “The Sierra Club, Demos, the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, the Movement for Black Lives, Human Rights Campaign, Time’s Up, the Sunrise Movement, and many other organizations have seen wrenching and debilitating turmoil in the past couple years.” Group tensions, fighting between groups, and fundamental disagreements over courses of action are what have caused the blog to identify “movement infighting and politics” as one of the primary “battlefields” of the climate movement. “When we are struggling to see fruits borne of many years of labor,” the publication writes, “we are more prone to point fingers.”

How to Blow Up a Pipeline’s four-person “film by” team — made up of writer-director Daniel Goldhaber, co-writer and actress Ariela Barer, co-writer Jordan Sjol, and editor Daniel Garber — weren’t ignorant of the “snake-eating-its-tail internal political struggles that ... often tear leftist movements apart,” as Goldhaber told Heatmap. Rather, it was an aspect that they were “very consciously ... trying to engage in.” One obvious example: that four-person film-by credit, a subtle but important meta-testament to successful collaboration.

The writers also spent “months trying to build a larger understanding of the kinds of cross-sections that exist in the climate movement in the U.S.,” Goldhaber said. An early approach to the script involved thinking about what a pipeline attack would look like “if it was us and our friends who did this,” Barer added. “We started talking to anyone who would talk to us and realized that, no farther than like one degree of separation, all of these characters existed in our lives already.” Just because the characters existed at one degree of separation didn’t mean they actually occupied the same orbit, though. As one activist advised the filmmakers, the characters in How to Blow Up a Pipeline shouldn’t all directly know each other before the sabotage team begins to assemble.

Once it does, the relative harmony is also well-researched. “We wanted to tell a story that was aspirational … where the group doesn’t fall apart and doesn’t fall victim to infighting,” Goldhaber said. “We’d actually been given some pointers by some people who do engage with direct action movements about what it takes to really successfully build a group like that.” Malm likewise stresses in Pipeline that heterogeneity of thought, while necessary for progress, makes movements vulnerable to “internal tensions” — a reality, however, that “no movement that has altered the course of history" has avoided.

It’s nevertheless true that in the current moment, “it sometimes seems more important to legislate those differences of values or opinions or even culture than to organize around material interest,” Sjol, the third co-writer, told Heatmap. But while Goldhaber agrees that “to some extent, yes, this is a Hollywood movie that traffics in aspirational ideas,” the team doesn’t see the coalition-building aspect as that far-fetched. In fact, the whole point of the film project was to make it identifiable — to offer a “point of entry to it if you were [in the] mainstream climate movement; if you were a climate radical; if you were a conservative land-rights person; if you were somebody who engaged in mutual aid work” — and thereby possible. You can see yourself in a character, and from there imagine working in a functional coalition of differing viewpoints.

“I think one of the reasons that climate doomism is so pervasive is because it feels impossible to actually figure out how to attack the problem,” Goldhaber said. But “show a bunch of kids building bombs that can directly attack the fossil fuel industry and all of a sudden that just that opens up a sense of empowerment.”

Empowerment … to blow up a pipeline? I’ll leave that read up to you. Certainly, though, it oils the gears of a movement that has felt stuck in its divisions: “We do hope and believe,” said Goldhaber, “that people will start thinking, What can I do?

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    Jeva Lange

    Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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