Comment writer Emily Potter discusses the tactics of environmental group Just Stop Oil, suggesting a more moderate approach to climate action

Written by Emily Potter
Images by congy yuan

Van Gogh’s painting ‘Sunflowers’ is one of the most recognisable pieces of artwork throughout the world. It is less recognisable – and far less beautiful – with tomato soup all over it. Perhaps it is this notability of the painting that inspired it as the choice for Just Stop Oil’s recent protests. On the 14th of October, two activists from Just Stop Oil entered the National Gallery, covered Van Gogh’s work in tomato soup and glued themselves below the painting. One of the activists, Phoebe Plummer, age 21, was filmed declaring “what is worth more, art or life?”.

With this question, Plummer seems to be attempting to relate the action to the climate protest. The action of damaging artwork has led many to question its motivation, and its relevance to general climate activism. Arguably, the backlash the action received – regardless of the fact the painting was protected by a layer of glass – demonstrates that in response to Plummer’s question it is art that is worth more than life. People are rarely scandalised or moved by selfish actions of corporations or politicians that enhance climate danger. Yet clearly, they are outraged by the apparent destruction of precious artwork. Was this the point of the action? To simply prove the immorality and twisted priorities of the British public?

The action of damaging artwork has led many to question its motivation, and its relevance to general climate activism

Although Plummer may have highlighted this rather depressing reality by her question, the purpose of Just Stop Oil’s actions goes beyond this. It simply concerns publicity. The very fact that this article – along with numerous others – is being written suggests that their manoeuvre was successful. In an interview with Frieze, Anna Holland justified the action by referring to a range of other historical movements: ‘We take inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement, the Suffragettes, the queer movement. I’m sure you’re aware that the Suffragettes used to slash paintings as a form of protest. Our method of just throwing soup at the glass is a less violent gesture than that, but I like to think just as attention-grabbing.’ The continued actions of Just Stop Oil in previous weeks, such as spray-painting MI5, the Home Office, and the Bank of England orange, show that they believe in the success of this more radical approach.

It is indisputable that their actions are getting a conversation started. But their actions are also isolating people in favour of climate action, not willing to involve themselves with disruptive action. It is dividing the climate movement. The ongoing debate within the movement over how extreme actions can and should be is causing tensions to rise. The radicalism of certain groups has been justified by the immediate need for things to change, given the irreversible threat climate change will soon pose. However, more moderate groups such as MP Watch fear the demonising of climate activists if these disruptive actions continue.

The difficulty is defining where to draw the line. The notability of the slippery slope argument may be inspiring anxiety towards these actions. Moreover, the disruption for the general public when Just Stop Oil blocks major roads and streets is inspiring anger. Whilst these actions are igniting a conversation, frequently it is not a conversation in favour of climate protests. 

A conversation is needed, and it is needed as soon as possible. However, it must not be a conversation of anger or resentment. Climate activists must demonstrate themselves to be willing to politically engage in rational debate and conversation if political change is going to happen. As Watch MP have noted, Just Stop Oil are making themselves too easy to villainise. Indeed, the number of Just Stop Oil activists arrested demonstrates that the government is not listening to them, they are suppressing them.

Just Stop Oil are making themselves too easy to villainise

Awareness has been raised, and a conversation has begun. Perhaps therefore, Just Stop Oil have achieved what they set out to do with a tin of soup and a famous painting. Perhaps now they must reform their tactics to garner support, rather than animosity. Climate activism is a cause that does have wide-spread support. Just Stop Oil is not a cause that has wide-spread support. It is integral they reflect on how their actions detract from their message. The extreme nature of their strategy draws focus to the actions themselves, rather than their deeper meaning. It is this deeper meaning that must be prioritised and advertised.

Right now, the future of climate activism is too murky to determine whether in 30 years we will praise the vandalisation of paintings as the thing that spurred social and political change. Thus, right now, it is difficult to either condemn or praise the actions. Their morality will be determined by their success or failure. It is therefore a waiting game to decide the fate of Just Stop Oil’s legacy. 

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