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Are Just Stop Oil’s protesting tactics effective?

A week ago, Just Stop Oil made headlines after two of its members threw soup over a Van Gogh painting. Ever since, the internet has been divided over the activists’ radical means of drawing attention to the climate crisis, some calling it ‘alienating,’ others ‘justified.’ 

Last Friday, controversy sparked when two young activists threw tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London.

‘What is worth more, art, or life?’, they asked, as security scrambled to detach them from the wall they’d glued themselves to. They were later arrested for criminal damage and aggravated trespass.

Members of the Just Stop Oil protest group, 21-year-old Phoebe Plummer’s and 20-year-old Anna Holland’s radical actions were part of a campaign to ensure that the UK government commits to ending all new licences and consents for fossil fuel production.

‘Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice?’, they continued. ‘Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?’

In the week since, the answer to this question has been clear.

Although the painting is behind a pane of glass and was unharmed, politicians have flagrantly condemned what they call ‘attention-seeking vandalism’. Social media platforms have been flooded with outrage towards the attempted destruction of a cultural icon valued at $85 million.

The main critiques of the demonstration are that it was ‘overly performative’ and alienates those sympathetic to the cause by attacking a much-loved and significant piece of art.

Amid these claims, however, the Gen Zers’ bravery has not gone unnoticed by advocates across the globe who deem their radical means of raising public awareness about the severity of the climate crisis wholly justified. For them, the situation has effectively shone a light on society’s value systems.

More importantly, given how ignorant the world remains despite scientists’ repeated warnings that we’re hurtling towards planetary tipping points, they stress that tactics like these are simply a last-ditch attempt to safeguard our future.

That we no longer have any other choice following decades of failed efforts to galvanise those in power to bring about tangible change.

In this way, the protest symbolises a growing generational rift and the apathy of political and financial elites who hold the reins in making large-scale shifts across sectors to cut emissions.

So, with the internet divided over whether or not Just Stop Oil is right to have taken things to such a controversial level, we wanted to break it down even further and let you decide.


The argument that radical activism loses people to the cause

‘Dear eco-warrior brats, your abominable act of vandalism on a magnificent painting only made me want to use more oil,’ wrote Piers Morgan for Sky News on October 20.

‘That’s my big problem with these clowns. Far from convincing the public to join their campaigns, they make most of us want to do the complete opposite.’

Now, as shocking as Morgan’s starkly negative commentary is, it echoes a sentiment that’s been frequently vocalised online by Just Stop Oil’s critics since Friday. That radical activism is counterproductive and only angers the very people it’s trying to appeal to.

Simply put, as has been shown by the visceral reaction on social media, non-radicalised people are now beginning to associate activism with sensationalism and theatre, instead of optimism and passion. In their opinion, protests should be directed towards the systems of power that cause injustice, rather than targeting something precious which offers a momentary escape from reality.

Another argument is that merely getting publicity for a cause doesn’t automatically translate into generating support for it. This has been debated extensively, with many questioning the connection between a painting with no obvious environmental focus and the message portrayed.

‘The issue needs to be addressed in a way that doesn’t overshadow the point,’ muses Marsha Lederman for The Globe and Mail. ‘Has this led to meaningful conversation about the climate catastrophe? Or just a bunch of finger-pointing at these Gen-Z activists who are being painted as having no respect for fine art and the institutions that preserve it?’ In part, Lederman is right.

As she alludes to, PR stunts can only get so far. They can inspire a core audience, but they can further entrench differences too. The more newsworthy and controversial a tactic, the less willing those beyond the protestor’s circle of influence could be to stand in solidarity with their goals.

For this reason, it’s understandable why the general consensus at present is one of disagreement.

‘Climate justice is bigger than public opinion’

To begin with, after the protest crackdown in the UK’s Public Order Bill, climate campaigners have been hard-pressed to hold the public’s attention.

That’s why, for many, rather than a false flag operation, Just Stop Oil’s non-violent stunt felt like an act of desperation, creating a feeling of urgency that’s gradually filtering through the opposition.

And, although having people stop listening was a concern, winning them over was never the priority. As spokesperson Alex De Koning explains, the aim was purely to disrupt – to have demands met – no matter the consequences.

In fact, very few social justice movements throughout history have been popular with the general public.

The most recent example of this being Extinction Rebellion which, despite facing continued disapproval, has successfully roused a palpable sense of emergency (following their protests, polls showed that more people considered the climate crisis a priority) among the population.

‘Those who complain that the Just Stop Oil protesters are immature, misguided, or simply too cryptic, need to think about the bigger picture,’ writes The New Statesman‘s India Bourke.

‘Safe protests such as this alert us to the urgency of our ever-worsening climate crisis, and the complacency and complicity of our government. So let them throw soup.’

As Plummer and Holland later confirmed, they never would have gone through with their plan had Sunflowers not been protected.

On this note – acknowledging that nothing and no one was hurt – was there really any harm in their performance?

‘People need to listen to the activists – there’s plenty of videos explaining why they are taking specific actions and they knew they wouldn’t harm the painting,’ an advocate tells the Guardian.

‘I wish more people could understand that climate justice is bigger than public opinion. You don’t have to like them or their tactics, but you do have to listen to them. You and your children are facing a catastrophe like we’ve never seen.’

What this refers to, is the fact that there is no art on a dead planet.

That if we keep spewing billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere each year while further destroying its ecosystems, then cultural icons including Van Gogh’s risk becoming worthless because there will be no one around to value them.

And this is exactly what Just Stop Oil has succeeded in conveying.

After all, the target wasn’t art. It was using art as a platform to force onlookers to ask why we’re allowing the wealthiest governments, often controlled by corporate interests, to ignore tireless calls for change and it caught the world’s eye because it used a tactical innovation: tomato soup.

‘In terms of press coverage, the Van Gogh protest may be the most successful action I’ve seen in the last eight years in climate movement,’ says Margaret Klein Salamon, executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund.

‘It was a breakthrough, it succeeded in breaking through this really terrible media landscape where you have this mass delusion of normalcy. It’s time to wake up.’

Regardless of whether or not the act has been vilified or praised, it’s prompted many to consider what this kind of destruction could actually feel like.

Particularly given two young people have gone to such great lengths, potentially jeopardising their freedom and future prospects, to avert a far more troubling threat to both.

In the words of the protestors themselves: ‘we cannot take more oil and gas; it’s going to take everything we know and love.’