'How to Blow Up a Pipeline' weighs whether environmental extremists are revolutionaries or terrorists

'How to Blow Up a Pipeline' weighs whether environmental extremists are revolutionaries or terrorists
Chris Kaye/Insider
  • "How to Blow Up a Pipeline," a heist thriller, follows activists planning to sabotage an oil line.
  • Director Daniel Goldhaber told NPR the film grapples with questions of morality around property destruction.

In "How to Blow Up a Pipeline," Director Daniel Goldhaber explores the line between environmental activism and terrorism.

The heist-thriller film, inspired by the controversial 2021 book of the same name by activist and academic Andreas Malm, follows young climate activists as they plan a massive act of infrastructure sabotage, build bombs to execute their plan, and discuss how they will be judged for their actions in the future: Will they be seen as revolutionaries or terrorists?

Ultimately, as Goldhaber told The Los Angeles Times, "the spoiler's in the title," but the film aims to explore the age-old question of whether the ends justify the means.

"I think that one of the things the movie is grappling with is this question of whether or not the destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure is violence," Goldhaber, who also directed the 2018 psychological thriller "Cam," told NPR. "For the eight characters that the movie follows, this is an act of self-defense."

Representatives for Goldhaber did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.


"How to Blow Up a Pipeline" had its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2022. It was released to US audiences on Friday, in what critics have praised as a provocative film, "not afraid of seeming to endorse" the activists' ideas, according to Roger Ebert editor Matt Zoller Seitz.

Environmental issues and climate change are particularly mobilizing issues among youth activists, according to the Pew Research Center, with demonstrators taking up controversial tactics to draw awareness to climate issues.

Last year, provocateurs who threw soup on Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" made international headlines for their method of protesting oil use. In January, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, a "mud wizard," and thousands of additional protesters occupied a small, abandoned village and faced off against German cops to stop a coal deal with the country's largest energy company.

As climate change demonstrators have become more active, concerns around eco-terrorism have been raised by critics who argue their methods go too far, pointing to incidents involving more extreme acts, such as a climate activist setting himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court last year.

"Terrorist acts have included the spiking of trees to present hazards to loggers who would cut the trees, the dismantling of an electrical transmission tower, and the sinking of ships involved in whaling and drift net fishing," according to a 1996 DOJ report on eco-terrorism. "Eco-terrorists have also issued death threats against targeted individuals and even attempted to murder individuals deemed threats to their cause."


While the characters in the film don't plan to directly harm any individual, threats against infrastructure are often seen as acts of violence, Goldhaber acknowledged to NPR, though he hoped "How to Blow Up a Pipeline" would provoke a conversation around "what kind of tactics are necessary and defensible to prevent a climate apocalypse."

"We don't call the existence of a fossil fuel plant, of a fossil fuel refinery a violent piece of property, but that is nevertheless a piece of property that creates mass death and mass destruction," Goldhaber told the outlet. "And so I think that one of the fundamental things that we are interrogating in the film through the eyes and the experiences of our characters is this fundamental question of, what is that line?"