Don’t get angry at climate activists. Get angry at climate inaction

Critics of the Just Stop Oil protesters who threw soup on a cherished Van Gogh painting completely missed the point

October 18, 2022
Protesters for Just Stop Oil in the National Gallery this weekend. Image: Just Stop Oil
Protesters for Just Stop Oil in the National Gallery this weekend. Image: Just Stop Oil

“We are going to see millions of people dying from heat stress. Areas of the planet will also become unliveable due to heat stress. The series of crises that will begin unfolding by mid-century is going to mean the end of the global economy as it is now. And as that comes to an end, emissions will follow very, very rapidly. Too late, too late.”

These dire warnings were spoken by David King, the UK’s former chief scientific adviser in The Oil Machine, Emma Davie’s haunting documentary about the pervasiveness of fossil fuels in our economy and politics. As a society, we should all be listening to experts like King, and coming to terms with the radical changes that this era of climate disruption and energy transition will require. But we aren’t.

Based on current trajectories, humans may well survive this new age of collapsing eco-systems, which has already seen a 68 per cent decline in animal populations since the 1970s. Much of what we think of as civilisation, however, might not.

Civilisation is a big word. Of its many meanings, we could do worse than to define it as the difference between a picture of a vase of sunflowers with a purely functional value, and a picture of a vase of sunflowers freighted with ideas about life, pain and beauty. In contrast, the sound of cold soup splattering across such a picture—followed by a panicked cry for “security” and the wavering cadence of a young activist shouting slogans—were, surely, the sounds of barbarism.

Organised by Just Stop Oil, the action which led to two activists throwing tins of tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London’s National Gallery might have used a similar grammar to that of 20th-century revolutionary artists, like the Situationists. But Just Stop Oil’s message was altogether more succinct. There was no desire here to expose the shallowness of bourgeois culture, no demanding of the impossible. As with other environmental groups like Insulate Britain, Just Stop Oil’s goals are clear-cut.

In less than two-minutes, on a day of unprecedented political turmoil in the UK, two young people armed only with super-glue and tins of soup reminded millions that our life support systems are collapsing, and that our government is increasingly positioning itself as a rogue energy state. But still, the slap of cold soup felt like a slap in the face for many who feared something sacred had been defiled. Broadcaster Andrew Marr tweeted: “Right. They’ve absolutely lost me. Forever.” Marr did not clarify whether he now supported the British government’s policy of granting hundreds of new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea, despite stark warnings from the International Energy Agency, the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It would only emerge later that the painting itself, protected by glass, was unharmed.

In the Guardian, Claire Armitstead wrote that actions in galleries have become more common but that, unlike “the targeted explosion of rage” that have defined other instances of iconoclasm, they now run the risk of becoming clichéd. The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents many workers in the cultural sector, issued a statement expressing sympathy with Just Stop Oil, while at the same time claiming: “Attacking our shared national heritage is not a constructive way to achieve these aims.”

But the premise of these statements misunderstands both the gravity of the situation and the character of previously successful non-violent social movements.  

Protest, performed by groups from suffragettes to the civil rights movements, encompasses everything from subdued vigil to acts of illegality, sabotage, vandalism and disruption. The tactical reality is that for many groups, it’s not a case of either restrained protest or attention-grabbing sabotage; it’s both.  A social movement’s core resource—its moral righteousness—depends on the existence of an anarchic, meddlesome, confrontational fringe that will test the boundaries of legitimate protest. The tactic of groups like Just Stop Oil is, like that described by suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, to “upset the whole orderly conduct of life”. In the case of the UK’s environmental movement, previous use of undercover “spy-cops” against peaceful protests targeting fossil-fuel infrastructure has surely informed this most recent phase of civil disobedience, which is now more random, spontaneous and dispersed. Radicalisation is a two-way street.

Many of these actions will be mistaken, abortive, confused or counterproductive. But the sum total of the current wave of non-violent resistance draws on one stark and unavoidable reality: gridlocked political institutions are incapable of meaningfully address fossil-fuel dependency.

“I believe that what we do over the next five years will determine the future of humanity for the next millennium,” says King. The British government is using up this precious window to march decisively in the wrong direction, making it increasingly harder to reach the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5°C.

The actions of Just Stop Oil are easily read as irrational and absurd—but that’s only because they are a response to a politics detached from reality. Any rational assessment, grounded in scientific knowledge, tells us that the real radicals are not activists terrified about what the coming decades will bring, but rather those holding the levers of power. They are the ones intent on risking societal collapse in order to preserve the immense profitability inherent in fossil-fuelled capitalism. If two tins of soup can muster just a fraction of the outrage this government’s actions ought to provoke, they have surely not been spilled in vain.