“What is worth more, art or life?" climate activist Phoebe Plummer shouted to visitors in room 43 of the National Gallery in London last month, just moments after throwing a tin of Heinz tomato soup over Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The moment, which was filmed and shared on social media, has since been viewed millions of times, causing mass debate.
The divisive stunt has been mirrored elsewhere: two climate activists in Germany doused Monet’s Haystacks with mashed potato, and others in Vienna threw oil over Gustav Klimt’s painting Tod und Leben. This recent spate of art attacks followed another viral protest: when Sir Captain Tom Moore’s memorial was drenched in human faeces.
These protests – which often result in dozens of activists being arrested at a time, like Plummer, has been charged with public nuisance and criminal damage – are intended to shock and bring awareness to the escalating climate crisis, but have instead led to conversations and debate over the chosen methods. Last week, for example, Just Stop Oil blocked the M25 to disrupt the flow of traffic by flying banners from the gantries and glueing themselves to the tarmac, leaving many people's journeys in chaos.
But, shouldn't disruptive action be exactly that? Unsettling protests designed to cause upheaval and draw attention to a very real and concerning issue that will impact us all? Or are these increasingly controversial demonstrations leading to such debate that they are distracting from the emergency they were designed to pull focus on?
In a recent Cosmopolitan UK poll, 78% of you said you understand why climate crisis activists are protesting, but only 29% support the current methods. Furthermore, 68% of you said you would prefer protests to be less disruptive, with one reader commenting: "I understand why [the protesters] felt drastic measures were needed. We’re at breaking point. But, you can’t smack a person in the face and expect them to listen." Another reader added, “They need to disrupt the people who can make the decisions.”
There are also those who agree that a bold approach is necessary, after decades of inaction. “The whole point is that they need to be disruptive and controversial otherwise no one will care. The climate emergency is the biggest threat to our society at the moment, the fact people are more concerned about some art just shows how much more people have to learn about the situation,” responded one person.
Another referenced the radical action taken to secure the vote by the suffragettes, who went on hunger strike, smashed windows and stormed the streets for some women’s right to vote. Famed suffragette Emily Davison even lost her life, running in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, carrying a suffragette scarf and demanding women’s enfranchisement.
Scientists continue to highlight how we are fast approaching an environmental ‘point of no return’, and experts predict this could happen anytime between 2027 and 2045. So... what protest or action – peaceful or otherwise – can help us make a difference and roll back the climate catastrophe clock? Is more division likely to turn people away from this apocalypse-signalling cause?
We speak to four environmental activists about why they believe there’s no time to quibble – and that change has to happen now.
“The government will have to listen to all of us – they won't be able to arrest us all”
– Anna Holland, Just Stop Oil
“We use peaceful civil resistance as history has shown it is the most effective way of creating the level of systemic change that we need in the timescale we have,” says Holland, who threw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers alongside Plummer.
Just Stop Oil's Holland says that other, less divisive methods of protest haven’t worked. “I have dedicated years of my life to those organisations; I've helped to organise marches and petitions; I've written more letters to my Member of Parliament than I can count. But none of that made any difference,” they said.
During the recent M25 Just Stop Oil protest, eyewitness reports and video footage showed emergency service vehicles delayed by the protests, but Holland assures that: “Just Stop Oil has a blue lights policy and we let all ambulances through.”
They say that, in that example, the ambulance was delayed for three minutes because the siren wasn't on and then two of Just Stop Oil's "supporters guided it through the roadblock."
Rising global temperatures are a focus for the group as a wider health concern, too. “In contrast, this summer the UK experienced 48 hours of 40-degree heat which put ambulances on black alert. People died trying to get to hospital – that disruption was very real, and very dangerous.”
Holland adds that “mass civil resistance” is the best method to get both the public and the government on board to tackle the climate crisis. “Why are people still getting angry at us instead of directing that anger to the […] oil companies and our government?”
The primary goal remains for Just Stop Oil: to raise awareness of rising temperatures, sea levels and other urgent climate concerns and to do this through the cessation of the use of all fossil fuels.
“The government will have to listen to all of us – they won't be able to arrest us all. It is a tactic that has been historically proven to be successful and using it we will win.”
“These tactics may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's hard to disagree with their argument”
– Areeba Hamid, Greenpeace
“There's no magic formula to crank out successful campaigns – different tactics work at different times for different purposes,” says Areeba Hamid, co-executive director at Greenpeace.
Last week, the environmental organisation projected a clip of families facing fuel poverty onto Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s £1.5m Yorkshire mansion on the eve of the Autumn Statement. Hamid says this was done “to remind him that millions of UK households are really struggling with soaring energy bills.”
Greenpeace has “always been a 'Swiss army knife' type of organisation – we'll try whatever tactics work as long as they're peaceful and in line with our principles,” she adds, saying that “it's hard to single out one form of activism that works better than any other.”
For Hamid, the challenge of tackling the climate crisis is “so huge” that a collective response is needed.
“Sure, disruptive protests can be an inconvenience, especially if you're stuck in traffic because of activists sitting on the road. But most people understand that inconvenience is nothing compared to the catastrophic consequences of climate breakdown – crops failing, entire countries drowning under the waves or turning into deserts, mass extinction,” she says.
“These tactics may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's hard to disagree with their argument. Protests are disruptive by nature, and while they might be inconvenient, disruption is often what makes change possible. And the larger the threat looms, the stronger the outrage against government inaction will grow, along with the number of people willing to take action."
“This is an urgent situation and the window of opportunity to act is closing quicker than ever”
– Jaz Vorraso, The Climate Coalition
“This is an urgent situation and the window of opportunity to act and protect the people and places we love is closing quicker than ever,” says Jaz Vorraso, a 27-year-old campaigner at The Climate Coalition. “However, we have the solutions to tackle climate change and protect nature, we know the vast majority want action to be taken, and we have all of the tools available to us.”
As for what those tools are, Vorraso explains that The Climate Coalition opts for “direct political lobbying” as well as “virtual and mass lobbies of parliament”. Most recently, The Climate Coalition’s Time is Now campaign – which saw thousands of people meet with MPs in 2019 to call for urgent action on the climate crisis – resulted in then-PM Theresa May signing the UK's net-zero emissions target into law.
Despite the differences between The Climate Coalition and more ‘disruptive’ organisations, like Just Stop Oil, Vorraso highlights that their goals are the same. “Though it has made lots of headlines and sparked lively debate, I think it is important to remember why people felt the need to do this [soup] stunt in the first place,'' the campaigner stresses. “As I’ve mentioned, it comes from a place of seeing a failure of politics and leadership to address the climate and nature crises.”
“We know that people are justifiably worried about the impacts of climate change – they see these effects playing out in their communities and around the world,” Vorraso says. “So, it's not surprising that some people turn to more disruptive actions when politicians aren't living up to the climate crisis.”
“The disruption caused by protest groups is nothing compared to the catastrophic disruption happening around the world”
– Imogen McBeath, Extinction Rebellion
21-year-old Imogen McBeath, who has been campaigning with Extinction Rebellion since 2019, sees similarities between Just Stop Oil’s approach and their own ideals. “I would compare Extinction Rebellion’s awareness tactics to raising a fire alarm," they said. "A fire alarm is noisy, disruptive and can be very annoying, but it wakes you up to the glaringly obvious crisis that is happening – we’re sounding the alarm.”
“These disruptive actions are necessary and in keeping with the climate emergency at the forefront of our consciousness,” McBeath adds, “so often the only times the climate crisis is discussed is through these disruptive actions.”
Four days prior to Just Stop Oil’s soup stunt, an activist smashed all of the windows at the Cambridge research centre of Schlumberger – the world's largest offshore drilling company. “Surely the world’s largest investor in fossil fuel companies is a legitimate and obvious target,” they ask, adding that the stunt got far less media coverage than the art attacks and motorway blockades.
“The disruption caused by protest groups here in Britain is nothing compared to the catastrophic disruption happening around the world as we speak, and nothing compared to the disruption we hope to avoid,” McBeath says.
“A big thing people get wrong [about climate crisis protesters] is that we like causing disruption, we don’t. We do it because it is necessary to create change. We’ve tried petitions and marches and emailing MPs – it’s not working.”
Extinction Rebellion is probably one of the world's best known climate action groups, attracting both global attention and mass vilification for rebellious demos and shutdowns, like the weeklong shut down of London's Waterloo Bridge.
McBeath believes that some of the most successful movements in history have come as a result of disruptive protests, from the suffragettes to the civil rights movement, and anti-apartheid protests. They believe that the answer to making change is by forming Citizens Assemblies – a collection of people that come together to discuss and debate complex issues pertaining to a population.
“We need our political system to include deliberative democracy and allow people who know what it’s like to live in the world today and face crises to be part of the decision making.”
“I am 21 years old and terrified for my future and for the present reality of millions in the global south, but I refuse to give up hope. Giving up is not an option.”
So… What’s next?
Based on the public’s reaction to Just Stop Oil’s recent protests, and the government’s approach to the climate crisis – PM Rishi Sunak almost didn’t attend this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, the COP27 summit, which saw global leaders come together to address the issue – it seems there’s still a long way before protestors, the pubic and those in power are unified enough to tackle what’s going on.
Until then, despite their differences, climate organisations like Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace and Just Stop Oil among others, will not abandon their mission – which now includes bringing people of the world together to save it. The Climate Coalition’s Vorraso sums up their collective sentiment: “We need to focus less on what divides us and hinders progress, and more on what brings us together to create the change needed to limit warming, protect nature and ensure that generations to come have a safer, greener future to look forward to."
You Might Also Like