In the midst of a worsening environmental disaster, protests matter more than ever.
Last week, two Just stop the oil activists threw tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting in London part of a broader push to halt new fossil fuel projects – something the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describes as crucial to preventing climate catastrophe.
The Sunflowers the painting, sheltered behind a sheet of Plexiglas, remained entirely unscathed and was exhibited again the same day.
The stunt followed other artistic protests, during which activists glued themselves to works by Botticelli, Boccioni, Van Gogh and other old masters. In Melbourne, Extinction Rebellion activists targeted the Picasso massacre in Korea.
No one was hurt. No art was damaged. Yet conservatives around the world have lost their collective spirit.
To take a rather random example, as early as July, Dan Petrie of News Corp spoke in the Courier Mail about activists alienating their own supporters, explaining that gallery protests would increase insurance premiums and therefore ticket prices for exhibitions. . .
My God, wait until he hears about what climate change will do!
by Dan Petrie tactical advice might, of course, be more convincing if all the other strategies employed by the environmental movement had not also been ridiculed by News Corp columnists.
In 2019, for example, the same Courier Mail published photos of Extinction Rebellion supporters under the headline: “Faces of Brisbane’s serial climate activists revealed.” These protesters had not targeted any art, but the newspaper still blamed them for “bringing[ing] misery” with “their disruptive tactics”.
When schoolchildren organized for an entirely peaceful climate strike, Tim Blair of the Daily Telegraph said they were going have “profited from the ridicule,” opposing them unfavorably to the far-right activist (and domestic abuser) Avi Yemini.
In the Australian newspaper, Kevin Donnelly complained that “ideology and emotion replace reason and objectivity”, since the young strikers are, he said, “deeply steeped in leftist cultural ideology and the politics of liberation, of self-emancipation and establishment of a new world order”.
Clearly then, street protests of all kinds are really, really bad. What about a group of eminently moderate adults delivering a climate message to Australia’s federal parliament?
It’s even worse.
In May, Australian Greg Sheridan dubbed the Teals, with their “extremist stance on climate change”, as “destructive and dangerous” – “a direct threat to our national security, no less”.
In his Chronicle on Van Gogh’s waterfall, Andrew Bolt gave the match. After the usual abuse of climate activists (“barbarians”, “their only love seems to be the love of power”, yadda yadda yadda), Bolt said that “global warming…has actually helped us to make grow record crops, because carbon dioxide is plant food.”
In other words, he not only dislikes Just Stop Oil because of their tactics, but because of their goals.
They want to prevent climate change. Bolt no.
In a previous column, I noted how, as environmental disasters escalate, governments around the world are introducing draconian anti-protest laws. Overt repression has been accompanied by an ideological demonization of protests of all kinds.
This is why it is wrong to be obsessed with what we might call the manifestation of Goldilocks. We cannot conceive of a “just” action that will somehow satisfy apologists for the status quo.
On the contrary, the more effectively we mobilize against fossil fuels, the more hysterical they will become.
Which isn’t to say that strategy doesn’t matter.
In these columns, and in a recent bookI advocated for a bottom-up orientation, based on mobilizing and empowering ordinary men and women who suffer the most from climate change.
In contrast, stunts by small groups or individuals reinforce the sense that workers are a passive constituency dependent on others to protest on their behalf. This is why collective mass action is preferable to stunts directed largely against the media.
Of course, every social movement in history harbors differences – and every movement makes mistakes.
With the environmental disaster accelerating day by day, it’s easy to get frustrated.
In one of his poems, Bertolt Brecht speaks of the man “no one listens to”, declaring:
He talks too loud
It repeats itself
He says things that are wrong
It is not corrected.
Climate advocates know what it is.
Nevertheless, with part of Australia again under water, it is far better to speak too loudly than to be silent, just as protests of any kind are preferable to apathy or cynicism.
To put it another way, if you don’t like gallery protests, organize something better.