Just Stop Oil’s soup-based protests garner plenty of attention in the media. But to get real action on climate change we need a mass movement.
It was just another typical Friday for most, but if you started your day off scrolling on Twitter, you might have noticed something a little unusual. Between the talk of the previous day’s January 6th hearing and the news that North Korea was testing missiles, you may have noticed a video of two young women tossing Heinz soup onto Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” Hasn’t Vincent suffered enough?
Just Stop Oil is a UK-based beneficiary of the Climate Action Fund, an organization founded just three years ago in 2019. The group, which has major financial backing from oil-heiress Aileen Getty, along with the support of celebrity contributors like Abigail Disney and Adam McKay, specializes in these provocative acts of civil disobedience. Some have theorized that Getty’s involvement with this group, in combination with the groups style of protest, signals that this might be an insidious plot to make climate change activists look bad. However, there is not any evidence to support this claim, and at the very least, the ground-level activists seem to be sincere in what they believe.
Some of the groups previous acts have included invading a football pitch and zip-tying themselves to a goalpost, storming the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, damaging gas pumps, gluing themselves to public roadways, and gluing themselves to a copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” Their main goal is to get the UK government to stop extracting new oil and gas resources. The group believes that these forms of protest are the best way to bring public awareness to the issue of climate change.
In terms of garnering attention, Just Stop Oil is definitely accomplishing their goal. Between reporting and discourse on the story, to opinion pieces in major outlets either offering support or bashing the protesters, this is the most talked about climate change protest of the year – in a year when a man lit himself on fire on Earth Day outside of the Supreme Court. But is all publicity good publicity?
The reaction to the soup-throwing was mixed at best. Top journalists at the BBC, academics, and seemingly everyone on Twitter had an opinion on this. All over the place there were both passionate supporters and detractors of the protest. While many of the criticisms of this action have been made in bad faith by conservative elected officials and media figures, there are real issues with this protest.
Throwing a can of soup at a piece of artwork is unlikely to persuade any government to stand up to the oil lobby and take the side of the planet. For the art-gallery, this might have been a mild inconvenience, but the UK government did not feel this act.
Raising awareness is a noble goal, but that should be done concurrently with a more concrete plan to affect material change. The best – and only – way to actually affect material change is a mass movement. Large protests are attention grabbing, as we have seen with protests in Iran over the police murder of Masha Amini for not wearing her hijab properly, in France where over 100,000 people have taken to the streets over rising costs of living, and in Haiti over increased energy prices and general anti-government sentiment.
This type of mass action grabs headlines, but it is also the most effective way to apply pressure on lawmakers. Mass demonstrations are also harder to frame as “wrong” by conservatives, meaning that the conversation around the message won’t get muddied for the general audience. Furthermore, a less controversial action would make it in-excusable for lawmakers who are sympathetic to the cause not to listen to the demands of protesters and begin pushing climate change legislation. These wilder forms of protest makes it more politically expedient for elected officials to dismiss the protest as a “stunt” than to actually make climate change a central focus of their next legislative session. The Left should focus on establishing an international movement, with the goal being the end of the extraction of fossil fuels, and not on small, antagonistic actions.
The fight for our planet is a long and grueling struggle. Organizers have to compete with a global world order that is built upon the extraction of natural resources that are destroying our planet. Organizers have to compete with a massive amount of funding from oil and gas companies, hell-bent on turning a profit no matter the cost to the general public. For climate change activists to succeed in saving the planet, we need a mass movement, a movement that is impossible for the government of any and all states to ignore. A mass movement is what is most likely to work in terms of getting lawmakers to put aside their corruption for just a day. A mass movement is our best chance at stopping climate change. With the future of our planet at stake, a mass movement is the only viable option.