Two anti-fossil fuel activists throw tomato soup at a Van Gogh, lean against a wall and ask, “Which is worth more: art or life?” And just like that, Saudi Arabian Oil (Saudi Aramco), PetroChina (PTR) and China Petroleum and Chemical (SNP) shut down their oil companies, leaving behind a thank you note to Just Stop Oil.
Just Stop Oil is a group of senior members of climate organizations such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Insulate Britain, whose aim is to urge the UK government to stop new licensing and production of fossil fuels. Unlike XR, which relies on individual and public donations, Just Stop Oil doesn’t wait for approval to take drastic – and sometimes controversial – action. However, this does not mean that their actions are successful.
It is naïve to expect large-scale change from a disruptive protest. As such, activist groups strive to find innovative and long-term strategies to make their voices heard. However, as the environmental crisis grows more critical with each passing day, environmental protesters’ frustration with the general inaction may lead to eagerly planned protests that don’t do justice to the history, power and importance of climate activism.
Protests that aim to spark widespread media outrage rather than combat the issue at hand are detrimental to the image and cause of activism. Vandalizing museums for any reason, while a quick way to get public attention, hurts how people perceive activism and fails to attract attention. attention of entities responsible for climate change. By taking questionable actions, activists draw criticism on themselves and climate activism rather than on the companies they intend to fight, making those companies more legitimate in their refusal to negotiate with activists or change their practices.
Take climate activism in sport, for example. In March 2022, a Just Stop Oil protester walked across the pitch of a Premier League football match in a bid to end fossil fuel extraction. Yet last September, the UK government proposed new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea, despite widespread climate concerns from many other environmentalists, including Greenpeace. Why was the goal of the protest to achieve maximum media coverage rather than raising legitimate concern about the effects of the sports industry on the environment?
During the 2022 French Open tennis semi-final, a climate activist from the French organization Last Renovation tied herself to the tennis net. The protester wore a t-shirt with the phrase ‘We have 1028 days left’, a reference to a recent UN climate report which marks 2025 as the deadline to avoid the catastrophic ecological consequences of rising global emissions . Since the French Open attracts over 1,500,000 viewers, this activist’s goal seems to have been to get as much of the public’s attention as possible.
“We don’t need more activists telling us how bad the world is.”
Conversely, at the end of Paris Fashion Week, an XR climate protester entered the Louis Vuitton catwalk while holding a piece of fabric that read “OVERCONSUMPTION = EXTINCTION” in response to the role that the growing luxury apparel industry plays in the rapid promotion. fashion trends at the expense of the environment. In this case, the protest explicitly relates to ecological destruction and addresses the neglected responsibility of the fashion industries – a much more effective approach to protest.
XR’s values critique, aside from the anarchist-vegan-hippie cliché that the right tries to paint, refers to the organization’s refusal to blame neoliberal capitalism as the culprit for climate change. Additionally, the group’s approach of promoting mass arrests and prison-filling tactics ignores the harsh reality of police racism, making protests a privilege for white protesters. When a movement fails to be inclusive and intersectional, or strays from its core purpose, eco-activists are infantilized and it becomes easier for the media to mock an entire climate organization. Some argue that the purpose of vexed and “radical” protests is to ridicule protesters and their causes. Since well-known groups such as XR, Just Stop Oil and Animal Rebellion are funded by billionaire oil heirs, the intent of their actions could be simply Propaganda.
For some groups, winning public appeal is not a priority, meaning blocking streets or confronting citizens is seen as necessary to spark important conversations about the climate crisis. Following the Van Gogh incident, a Just Stop Oil representative said, “We’re not trying to make friends here, we’re trying to make changes, and unfortunately that’s how changes happen. produce. Research, however, says otherwise. Simply “enabling a conversation” and attracting media attention is not enough for an activist movement to succeed. Protesters need to lobby political leaders, be present in real environmental negotiations, and get influential figures on their side. Ultimately, real government policies – not publicity stunts – will bring lasting change.
There is a critical difference between protests that have a proactive purpose and those that have a retroactive purpose. An example of retroactive activism is that of parkour protesters in Paris, who use their climbing skills to turn off lights outside shops at night. This approach is effective insofar as it has a practical and real impact on our daily lives, even on a small scale. The heroic act of rebellion against energy waste could be seen as a violation of traders’ property rights, but it nonetheless serves as both a symbolic protest and an effective form of action against climate change that does more than just complain.
But who can tell when climate activists have gone too far? Take the example of Tire Extinguishers, a British climate group now widespread around the world, which deflates the tires of four-wheel drive SUVs in order to actively combat climate change. On their website, the eco-activists state: “Ask politely and protest for these things [climate change, air pollution, and unsafe drivers] failed. It’s time to act. In fact, “SUVs were the second largest contributor to rising global carbon emissions from 2010 to 2018”, so climate protesters are rightly becoming increasingly divisive as their calls for change are largely ignored.
Another provocative case is that of Tash Peterson, a vegan activist who campaigns against the consumption of animal products. In videos posted to her Instagram account, her sometimes “aggressive” protests include spilling fake blood on herself at restaurants like KFC. Shocking actions like this may attract attention, but that doesn’t mean they’re effective in inciting action. They have the potential to lead the public into overwhelmingly negative perceptions of veganism and undermine people’s comfort in identifying as vegan.
The question comes back to the two eco-activists of Just Stop Oil and the purpose of their demonstration; you could say the protest was against the carbon footprint generated by museums and art galleries. Nevertheless, one of the protesters recently explained in an interview that their motives were not to destroy the painting, knowing full well that it was protected by glass, but to emphasize the need for civil resistance in case of need. urgent. Actions to get media attention, they said, are proven by history to be the fastest way to get people talking about a pressing issue. An analysis of protests that took place between 2006 and 2020 showed that direct action protests “can have a significant impact on reframing debates and bringing issues onto the global political agenda”.
What is also proven by history according to social scientists, however, is that successful social movements “must include the constituency base they represent in decisions about goals and tactics.” They must “cultivate ‘conscious’ interest groups – sympathizers, celebrities, patrons – who may not directly benefit from the aims of the movement but who are willing to contribute in terms of money, facilities, equipment , access to media and other resources.
We don’t need more activists telling us how bad the world is. The spread of unproductive, copycat protests centered on social media puts years of work that climate activists have put into convincing the public to take them seriously. People are more likely to change their behavior when the alternative is presented as relatively easy, so the role of activism should shift to making behavior change easier by providing accessible options – for example, in the case of veganism, information about and access to affordable non-animal products.
Throwing canned tomato soup at this innocent Van Gogh definitely sparked outrage and garnered media attention. But rather than affecting permanent changes, it has only added to the growing list of controversial climate protests that are being received increasingly poorly by the media. Activism can and must do better. Protesters should strive to make climate activism accessible to the general public, so that there can be a collective push for change before it’s too late.