How To Write About Pipelines

Writing about Indigenous rights or climate and environmental justice movements as a non-Indigenous person is difficult and complex. The magnitude of difficulty becomes manifold if the authorial voice falls somewhere on the white, western knowledge spectrum. What we have to say matters less than what we have learned in thinking with the Indigenous people and their knowledge forms. For non-Indigenous scholars, there is a constant need to be alert to the possibilities of reproducing colonial power structures and epistemic frameworks while engaged in knowledge production. The only way out of this conundrum is to constantly learn from Indigenous voices and epistemologies and be sensitive to structural inequities and epistemic injustices that have marred the academe. It is not adequate to merely provide nodding acknowledgement to the idea of environmental justice. Interrogating the colonial and settler colonial structures within environmental movements must be a continuous process. Particularly, the idea of Indigenous environmental justice is yet to assume the place it deserves in the literature on environmentalisms, environmental activism, or even Marxist ecology. While Black-Green solidarity and alliance is an indispensable condition for the flourishing of the environmental movements, the work towards achieving it has been disappointingly slow. These concerns resurfaced as I read Andreas Malm’s new work How to Blow Up a Pipeline.

While I do not intend this to be a book review, there are certain elements of How to Blow Up a Pipeline that demanded a response of another kind – an interrogation of the nature of the writing itself. Some of us who had been familiar with Malm’s earlier work, Fossil Capital, which was most articulate about the vicious capitalist economic relations that bind and sustain fossil economy, had great expectations about How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Well, as far as titles are concerned, the book (manifesto?) was promising. The associational space for pipelines is firmly within the vast expanse of climate justice movements and Indigenous resistance to anti-capitalist and anti-colonial expansion. Malm could have situated his work anywhere within this space. Surprisingly, after finishing the book, it is difficult to answer what the book aims to do, who should blow up the pipeline, or worse, who is it addressing. The first thing one notices about the book is the startling whiteness of the authorial gaze and voice. The book critiques the environmental movement’s reliance on non-violence and how it is quite ineffective, despite the apparent advantages of strategic pacifism. Malm builds a sound foundation for his arguments of why amplifying violence is a non-negotiable, especially because “ruling classes will not be talked into action” (p.20). He also uses a bevy of white philosophers who have ruminated about violence and non-violence in environmental movements (John Lanchester, William Smith, Steve Vanderheiden). The core of the book draws from some of Malm’s anecdotal experiences – geographically limited to Sweden – where he participated in deflating the tyres of SUVs until the winter hit that year (p.84) and storming the compound of a power plant once, which gave him an unparalleled “rush of exhilaration” (p.159).

It is difficult to believe that one can write about environmental activism with two vague references to Indigenous people in the passing and no mention of settler colonialism. The framework of violence, non-violence, and sabotage is meaningless if one is irreverent to the long tradition of Indigenous resistance, which has fought against the exploitation of the land by throwing their bodies in the way. The narrative violence is scripted on Indigenous bodies as much as it is on the land and its resources. While arguing for escalation of tactics, there is also a need to remember that Indigenous land defenders are slaughtered for merely asking the right questions and resisting the state’s iron hand. One must only look outside of Sweden and Berlin to realise that sabotage cannot be done softly. If only Malm had looked, Sami people’s resistance to mining and environmental destruction would have been instructive of how resistance is a way of life and not an episodic adventure.   

There is something terrifying about the citational practice, which fondly studies immaculate theories of white men, but describes the resistance to Dakota Access Pipeline through scattered news reports (again, no reference to long-standing Indigenous struggle against extractive capitalism that precedes even the pipeline). Is it possible to talk about pipelines in the Anthropocene without understanding how capitalism can draw oil from the ground only when settler colonialism draws the life out of Indigenous people? The #NoDAPL and Standing Rock movement emerge from a historical and violent dispossession and erasure perpetuated by the settler state. One must understand how the Water Protectors of #NoDAPL resisted the pipeline while also resisting the ongoing destruction unleashed by the state against their bodies, the land, the river, and the very notion of indigeneity. When the pipeline ends, Indigenous movements want to know what happens with the land – their land. Without answering this question, a climate justice movement sounds hollow. Writing about it sounds even more vacuous when one does not refer to a single Indigenous scholar on the topic.  

The Water Protectors of the First Nations did not sabotage the pipeline. They built the camps, they insisted on living in the face of extreme violence that visits every Indigenous anti-capital, anti-colonial resistance. Not remembering them or not learning from them before we set out with grand notions of revolution is a reproduction of settler colonial erasure. Although, this time, it is in the sophisticated garb of knowledge production. Fighting for the environment, while being allies to those who bear the full brunt of capitalism and settler colonialism does not leave individuals in a self-congratulatory elation. Working towards justice, with and for Indigenous people, leaves one drained and exhausted. Indigenous peoples’ collective struggle for sovereignty and self-determination makes room for mourning and grieving the losses endured in the process of resistance as much as it sets its sight on defeating capitalist, colonialist forces. Those who resist the mines and the pipelines have been maimed, killed, subjected to surveillance. Nevertheless, they persist, for their struggle is for the land and their identity. It is a struggle that cannot be defeated by a mere onset of winter or lack of interest from those involved in the movement.  

As Ojibwe activist and lawyer Tara Houska recently pointed out, if you have the privilege and the platform, use it to be a good ally. Use it for speaking about the land defenders fighting a more meaningful fight against capitalism and settler colonialism. Nick Estes concludes Our History is the Future with: 

“The Water protectors also ask us: What does water want from us? What does the earth want from us? Mni Wiconi – water is life – exists outside the logic of capitalism. Whereas past revolutionary struggles have strived for the emancipation of labor from capital, we are challenged not just to imagine, but to demand the emancipation of earth from capital. For the earth to live, capitalism must die.”

Environmental movements are about justice – they must directly address climate and Indigenous environmental justice. Even settler courts are beginning to understand the primacy of Indigenous voices in environmental protection. It would be unfortunate if those who use Marx prolifically fail to see this elementary point. To talk about radicalism or revolution while being white demands a careful awareness that in the process, one should not be talking down to Black, Indigenous, people of colour who have been subjected to and resisted the combined forces of capitalist and (settler) colonial violence as long as the land can remember.  

Sakshi Aravind is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, working on Indigenous Environmental Justice in Australia, Brazil, and Canada. Previously, she graduated from the University of Oxford, where she studied for the Bachelor of Civil Law (2014-15), specialising in criminal law and evidence. Her research areas include legal and indigenous geographies, comparative environmental law, multispecies justice, and political ecology.

This post was originally published at Progress in Political Economy.

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