How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a taut thriller about a group of highly motivated stupid people who decide to do something dangerous. The film, and its protagonists, are inspired by the Swedish left-wing academic Andreas Malm’s 2021 nonfiction manifesto of the same title, which calls on climate activists to abandon nonviolent protest in favor of violence and sabotage. In the book as in the movie, blowing up a pipeline is supposed to do two things: discourage investors and reveal that Big Fossil can be put out of business … somehow. Perhaps unintentionally, the movie reveals a great deal about the dark heart of climate extremism.

The emotional core of the How to Blow Up a Pipeline is revenge. Most of the characters are drawn to terrorism through tragedies seemingly adjacent to fossil-fuel production. The ringleader, a working-class Latina named Xochitl (Ariela Barer), loses her mother to a “freak heatwave” in California. She then drops out of the University of Chicago to take direct action against fossil-fuel companies to avenge her mother as well as her best friend, Theo (Sasha Lane), who contracted a rare form of leukemia from the refineries they grew up near.

These tragedies are supposed to supply the emotional rationale for their mission. It’s a familiar moral logic of recent times: Something bad happens to you, which is supposed to grant you license to do whatever you want, because bad things happen only to the innocent. Rules don’t apply to those who suffer. This view lends itself well to ideologies primed to lionize victims and long for martyrs.

The only character who seems to be aware that the mission is a self-serving ego-trip is Theo’s girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson), who warns Theo that Xochitl is just another college girl who read a book and found the answer to saving the world. After confronting Xochitl for roping in Theo, Alisha tells her that bad things happen to everyone and that her mother’s death is no excuse to try to tell everyone else how to live their lives. Xochitl retorts that Alisha’s attempt to dissuade Theo from joining the group is no different. Strong stuff.

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