A newly released film depicting a group of activists planning the destruction of a Texas oil pipeline has reignited a longstanding debate about violence in media — if violent portrayals in movies and other art forms lead to real-world violence in turn, and whether or not artists should be deemed responsible in such cases.
The movie “How to Blow up a Pipeline” draws its title and premise from a 2021 book by Swedish writer Andreas Malm. In that book, Malm suggested that environmentalists should consider aggressive, violent destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure to fight climate change’s purported effects.
Daniel Goldhaber, who directed the film, said he and his partners sought to create a movie that “wouldn’t necessarily be calling for action, or telling audiences to go and (blow up a pipeline).” Instead, he said, they worked to “depict characters for whom the destruction of the infrastructure is an act of self-defense.”
“We understand that if there is a gun to your head and someone is intending to pull the trigger and kill you, you have a right to take the gun away and dismantle it,” Goldhaber said. “Proverbially, the fossil fuel industry has a gun to the head of the earth,” he said. “So the question is, do we have the right to take the gun away and dismantle it?”
Max Abrahms, an associate professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston specializing partly in the study of terrorism, said “How to Blow up a Pipeline” does “raise some very real ethical questions.”
“The vast majority of people who have even extreme eco-goals, they’re not very violent,” Abrahms said. But if the film “would increase the chances of people moving into the violent category, that would be potentially problematic.”
James Forrest, a criminology professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who studies homeland security and critical infrastructural protection, said it’s “hard to say whether this recent film would stand out as exceptional in any way” compared to other films that depict violence and/or terrorism.
Extremists “can already access a variety of instruction manuals online and via bookstores,” he said, “and there are countless YouTube videos showing how to make IEDs, IIDs, chemical weapons and much more — so it’s not like they would need a film like this to give them any kind of information they don’t already have.”
Forrest pointed to a longstanding tactic of attacking infrastructure like pipelines, including most recently the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea.
In the United States in recent years, activists have also been known to target SUVs, pickup trucks and other large vehicles, deflating their tires in a protest of cars that consume large amounts of fuel. One such act is depicted at the beginning of “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.”
Amy Cooter, a senior research fellow at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., said, “Property destruction and attacking energy sources (of multiple kinds) are already in the repertoire of more than one group, so it’s unlikely that a film would be a lone cause for such an attack.”
“We generally have very broad protections for freedom of speech,” she said, “so if, hypothetically, someone did execute an attack based exclusively on inspiration from a film, it would be incredibly unlikely that the filmmakers would face any kind of legal repercussions.”
The film has been warmly received in critical circulars, though not without caveats. Rolling Stone called it “the hottest date movie of the season,” while Variety dubbed it a “taut indie drama.” The L.A. Times begged readers: “Please don’t blow up a pipeline after seeing this film.”
Others have sharply criticized the movie’s potential for inspiring violent action. Craig Stevens, president of the group Grow American Infrastructure Now, said the film “glorifies the dangerous and criminal act of eco-terrorism.”
Oil and gas “are the lifeblood of our modern economy and way of life,” Stevens said, pointing out that without fossil fuels, “we couldn’t drive; heat our homes; or power our schools, businesses, hospitals, or homes.”
Of course, whether the film will ultimately lead to violent environmental action remains to be seen. Critics have long attempted to draw a line between violent media and violent behavior, such as repeated claims by now-disbarred lawyer Jack Thompson that violent video games inspire violence in the youth that play them.
Goldhaber, the film’s director, called such allegations “spurious from the beginning.”
“The people who may try to condemn this movie are afraid of the conversation around the film,” he said. “I would ask: Why talk about this film? Why not talk about the billions of lives that are on the line due to climate change right now?”