A Modern Eco-Sabotage Manifesto

By Max Wilbert

The woman places an arrow on her bow, draws to her cheek, and fires.

The arrow arcs over a high-voltage electrical transmission line, carrying a non-conductive rope. She jogs to her arrow, and begins to reel in the rope. As she pulls it over the lines, a conductive cable is revealed to be attached to its end. As the cable bridges the three-phase power lines, a short-circuit ripples down the lines. Miles away, an aluminum smelter grinds to a halt.

This is the opening of the new film Woman at War from director Benedikt Erlingsson. The film follows a one-woman ecosabotage campaign against the Icelandic aluminum industry.

Whenever I watch a film, especially a film grappling with the ecological crisis, I expect it to disappoint me. Ethan Hawke’s First Reformed, for example, started with a promising premise and then veered into self-flagellation and misogyny.

Woman at War, however, did not disappoint. Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir gives a masterful performance as Halla, a happy middle-aged woman who appears content with her life as a choir director in an Icelandic city. She moves about her life with grace and serenity, riding her bicycle through the streets, swimming in the ocean, and talking with her sister and other friends.

But Halla leads a double life. Her apparently tranquil existence hides her true mission, a campaign against heavy industry that is destroying Iceland. A portrait of Nelson Mandela hangs on her wall at home, a constant reminder that yesterday’s terrorists may become the freedom fighters of history. This is, no doubt, a reference to the ANC sabotage campaigns that Mandela helped to lead in Apartheid South Africa beginning in 1961.

In his testimony when he was sentenced, Mandela describes his reasoning: “I do not deny that I planned sabotage,” he said. “I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people by the whites.”

The same reasoning is true for eco-saboteurs today. In the era of climate chaos and government inaction, “extreme” acts like ecosabotage are not extreme at all. They are, in fact, some of the most reasonable responses imaginable.

The argument for sabotage in Woman at War is as undeniably real as the industry it tackles. Iceland’s abundant geothermal energy and hydropower extraction give it very low electricity prices, and has made it a global hot spot for aluminum smelting. The three aluminum smelters in Iceland use a full 73 percent of all electricity generated in the country.

Their power is supplied by geothermal energy harvesting facilities as well as a highly controversial hydroelectric dam that was opposed by environmental and community groups in the courts, via protest, and with direct action and ecosabotage. The smelters themselves are major polluters linked to birth defects, cancer, and bone deformations in nearby communities.

In the film, Halla’s attacks are not spontaneous. Like Mandela, she has obviously conducted a rigorous assessment of the situation. Her actions are meticulously planned. She receives intelligence from a friend high in the Icelandic government. She operates carefully, intelligently, implementing reasonable security precautions while avoiding wholesale paranoia.

At one point, Halla evades her face being recorded by a drone by wearing a Nelson Mandela mask, in an echo of Mandela’s words in his book Long Walk to Freedom: “Living underground requires a seismic psychological shift,” Mandela wrote. “One has to plan every action, however small and seemingly insignificant. Nothing is innocent. Everything is questioned. You cannot be yourself; you must fully inhabit whatever role you have assumed… The key to being underground is to be invisible.”

Like any effective underground figure, she follows the maxim that “Clandestine operational activity must be compartment[aliz]ed, it must be planned, it must be short in duration, and it must be rehearsed (or at least, composed of habitual actions).”

Rebecca Solnit, who has written some wonderful things, critiques Woman at War, writing that “our largest problems won’t be solved by heroes.” But Solnit then lauds Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, an organization which (like the entire American environmental movement) has failed to stop even the growth of fossil fuel burning. McKibben’s entire approach hinges on a transition to green technology that, as I explain in my forthcoming book Bright Green Lies, has thus far failed to reduce emissions even by a fraction.

In contrast, eco-sabotage groups like MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) have reduced oil output in Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer, by up to 40 percent on a sustained basis.

So which approach is really effective? Show me a country in which mass action has significantly reduced carbon emissions, and perhaps Solnit’s argument would hold more weight. Just two people conducting eco-sabotage against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) were nearly as effective in slowing the construction as tens of thousands were at Standing Rock. Imagine if a few more people had joined them. And a few more. And more.

As director Benedikt Erlingsson said of Halla in a recent interview, “She’s not a terrorist, she’s not creating terror, she’s not harming people. She’s only sabotaging structures. But she is doing what all fighters have been doing: for non-violent protest to work, it always needs to have an economic fist.”

Petitioning those in power to change things simply isn’t working. To have a chance of planetary survival, we need the most direct of direct actions.

Practically, there are a few lessons to be learned from Woman at War. For example, the film showcases perhaps the high end of effectiveness for a single saboteur. By acting in coordinated groups or securely linked cells, a larger number of people could be more effective. Additionally, the film shows the importance of building a culture of resistance. Halla is saved early on by a nearby farmer who detests the transmission lines and police crisscrossing the land his family has lived on for a thousand years. This element shows the importance of building a support network that can house, feed, transport, and otherwise support underground resistance—and won’t ask too many questions.

There is much to love about this film. Aesthetically, it is beautifully done. The music is superb. The Icelandic tundra, glaciers, rivers, hot springs, and stones are a presence all their own, and Halla inhabits this landscape throughout, repeatedly pressing her face into the thick moss as if into the embrace of a dear friend. She also demonstrates quite clearly that, in an asymmetric struggle, bushcrafts, physical fitness, and wilderness travel skills are a serious advantage for clandestine eco-resistance.

Woman at War bypasses American sexualization, casting a strong female lead acting on her own terms, without a hint of objectification. It even tackles prison well, showing that (to quote Mandela once again) “The challenge for every prisoner, particularly every political prisoner, is how to survive prison intact, how to emerge from prison undiminished, how to conserve and even replenish one’s beliefs.”

Ending a movie like this is hard. In reality, revolutionary work is likely to end with prison time, death, or international exile. But Woman at War closes deftly, in the same way it tackles tricky topics like morality, jobs, and family. Halla visits Ukraine to adopt a young girl, and on her return to the airport, is forced to carry her through a slowly-rising flood that has blocked the road. It is tranquil but daunting slow-moving emergency submerging the entire world. A fitting metaphor, then, for the theme of the entire film.

As I finish writing this review, spring is in full bloom. The birds are singing outside my small cabin in the Oregon woods. But I know that the slow-moving floods of climate change, species extinction, toxification, overpopulation, habitat destruction, and refugees are rising. Year by year, we are slipping into a nightmare. Woman at War is not exactly a template, but it is a great beginning point for a movement that could save us from the worst of what is coming, if only we are ready to listen.

Max Wilbert is a third-generation organizer who grew up in Seattle’s post-WTO anti-globalization and undoing racism movement. He is the author of two books.

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