Higher Education

‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ is required reading in OU class

March 28, 2024

Ray Carter

Since its publication in 2021, Andreas Malm’s book How to Blow Up a Pipeline has been a source of controversy.

The book encourages environmentalists to engage in acts of violence and destruction that target the oil-and-gas industry.

At the University of Oklahoma, the book is required reading for ENGL 5703, a graduate-level seminar on “Special Topics in American Literature.”

That leaves many Oklahomans who work in the energy industry shaking their heads.

“For an institution of higher education in America to be promoting a book that talks about blowing up pipelines is problematic, but for an institution in Oklahoma—who has largely been funded by donors from the oil-and-gas industry—is off the charts,” said Mike Cantrell, a longtime oilman from Ada.

“It’s disappointing to me that a school that takes state dollars in the state of Oklahoma would allow such a book to be required reading,” said former state Sen. Zack Taylor, an oil-and-gas producer from Seminole who is a member of the Oklahoma Energy Producers Alliance. “Because there are quotes that I read that it does call for violence. It does call for harming an industry. And it would be harming a very important industry to the state of Oklahoma. And whether they believe it or not, not only is it important to the state of Oklahoma, but it’s important to our nation. In my opinion, if the green energy can’t stand on its own without trying to destroy another industry, then it’s really not viable.

“Really, I’m just disappointed that a school that our tax dollars go to support would advocate such a thing,” Taylor continued. “And I don’t understand what could be learned from it, even from a literature standpoint.”

‘I Can’t Guarantee That It Won’t Come with Accidents’ 

In his book, Malm advocates violence in the name of environmentalism.

“So here is what this movement of millions should do, for a start: announce and enforce the prohibition,” Malm writes. “Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.”

He credits similar militancy with the successful effort to grant women the right to vote, writing that the women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain did things such as “forcing the prime minister out of his car and dousing him with pepper, hurling a stone at the fanlight above Winston Churchill’s door, setting upon statues and paintings with hammers and axes, planting bombs on sites along the routes of royal visits, fighting policemen with staves, charging against hostile politicians with dogwhips, breaking the windows in prison cells.”

He writes that the suffragette movement engaged in a “systematic campaign of arson” that included setting fire to or blowing up “villas, tea pavilions, boathouses, hotels, haystacks, churches, post offices, aqueducts, theatres and a liberal range of other targets around the country,” and holds those activities up as a model for modern environmentalists.

“Over the course of a year and a half, the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) claimed responsibility for 337 such attacks,” Malm writes. “Few culprits were apprehended.”

In a Jan. 16 New York Times interview, Malm acknowledged that pipeline violence could result in deaths.

“I want sabotage to happen on a much larger scale than it does now,” he said. “I can’t guarantee that it won’t come with accidents.”

Most Course Readings Stress Nonviolence

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is among the materials students are required to read if they take the graduate-level “special topics” seminar at OU. The seminar is taught by Associate Professor James Zeigler, who holds a PhD in English with an Emphasis in Critical Theory from the University of California, Irvine.

Zeigler also leads graduate-level seminars on “Cold War Sexualities & Queer Theory,” and teaches undergraduate courses, including the introductory courses for new majors, American literature surveys, “Anthropocene Stories” (on writing about climate change), and a course on the graphic novel.

Zeigler is the author of the book Red Scare Racism and Cold War Black Radicalism, which “demonstrates how black radicalism became an incisive and effective political heuristic for challenging the red scare.” Zeigler writes that a chapter he contributed to another book “is an example of how I use a cultural rhetoric studies approach to demonstrate that the discourse of anticommunism in the United States has been and remains a resource for anti-Black racism.”

When reached for comment, Zeigler said the current graduate seminar on “Forms of Protest” examines “various kinds of documents and activities that were created to advocate for political change,” and indicated that How to Blow Up a Pipeline is being studied alongside texts such as Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

“After giving his book a fair hearing, we will open our discussion to counterarguments and criticisms.” —Prof. James Zeigler

“Nearly all of our readings and examples of direct action are devoted to non-violence in principle and as a matter of strategy,” Zeigler said. “Andreas Malm’s book is an exception, though he professes to support attacks on property and never people.”

He stressed that Malm’s book does not include instructions about explosives “but is instead a long essay that proposes ‘strategic pacifism,’ as he calls it, has failed to deliver sufficient remedy for the mounting problems caused by climate change.”

Zeigler said students will be expected to “treat charitably the reasons and evidence” that Malm “offers in support of using property damage (i.e. sabotage) as a strategy of protest. After giving his book a fair hearing, we will open our discussion to counterarguments and criticisms,” including whether Malm’s “rejection of any violence against people can be assured when setting off bombs.”

Oil and Gas Fuel the State Economy

Energy officials in Oklahoma are not the only ones to object to students at state colleges being required to read How to Blow Up a Pipeline.

Officials with the International Natural Gas Association of America in Ohio recently urged officials to stop mandating the book as part of college courses in that state.

Malm’s book has drawn criticism from more than oil-and-gas officials. Even some voices on the environmental left have criticized the book.

A reviewer in one left-wing publication, Jacobin, wrote, “I am very skeptical that political violence, once unleashed, can be effectively corralled within these very specific limits. Political violence has a fundamentally interactive quality that Malm largely fails to account for, and under conditions of intense political contestation, it is all too easy to move from advocating violence against property to violence against people.”

As OU students are reading a book advocating the destruction of oil-and-gas industry infrastructure, they are doing so in classrooms and buildings that are substantially funded by the oil-and-gas industry in Oklahoma.

A study performed by RegionTrack and commissioned by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board found that the oil and natural gas industry employed more than 200,000 workers with $31 billion in household earnings in 2023, meaning about one in every five dollars of total statewide income was generated by oil and natural gas.

The oil and natural gas industry contributed $55.7 billion to the state’s GDP in 2023, which accounted for 22 percent of all statewide economic activity, according to the study. The industry contributed $2.9 billion in total taxes in 2023.

The report found the oil-and-gas industry contributed $47.1 million to the Higher Education Capital Fund that year and provided $834 million to K-12 public schools.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Oklahoma was the nation’s fifth-largest producer of marketed natural gas and the sixth-largest producer of crude oil in 2022.

University officials continue to seek ever-larger appropriations from state taxpayers, even as they also continue to dramatically increase student tuition and fees.

After conducting a national review of public universities, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that between 2002 and 2022 enrollment at OU increased 15 percent but tuition increased by 36 percent even after adjusting for inflation. Once student fees were included, the combined rate of growth ranked among the highest in the nation.

 “At the University of Oklahoma, per-student tuition and fees rose 166%,” the Journal reported, “the most of any flagship.”

[For more stories about higher education in Oklahoma, visit AimHigherOK.com.]