The art of climate action

Just Stop Oil throw tinned soup at Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers at the National Gallery, London, on 14 October 2022. 

Activists are facing repression and the fossil economy is fighting to grow - there is no point crying over spilt soup.

With the scale of colonial murder and suffering resulting from continued fossil fuel use, how can people continue to bumble around art galleries like nothing is wrong?

People might see sunflower seeds sprinkled on their soup in the gentrified cafes now in most British cities. It is less common to see soup on Sunflowers, but these are the strange days we live in. 

A lot of attention has been taken up by the actions of Just Stop Oil (JSO) activists who threw a can of soup over the famous Van Gogh painting.

The stunt grabbed the headlines of traditional news media nationally and internationally - and it has also certainly generated a lot of online discussion.

Struggle

Many were quick to condemn the action as divisive and damaging to the environmental movement, some even going as far as to insinuate that JSO activists were funded by fossil fuel companies or state agents. 

Yet, the action has in many ways been a major success. The video, where the activists involved put their argument forward clearly and succinctly, has been viewed across the world.

It has leaped to the top of most news media coverage. On a day where the UK chancellor is fired a mere month into the role, this action has been able to compete for air time. No mean feat. 

The logic of the action is coherent too. With the scale of colonial murder and suffering resulting from continued fossil fuel use, how can people continue to bumble around art galleries like nothing is wrong? Surrounded by unfolding violence, is it not right to scream ‘wake up’?

Despite this, the action is far from perfect. There is a question of the extent this actually radicalises new people, bringing them into the climate struggle, or merely acts as a weather vane attracting already active environmentalists to JSO. 

Economy

Similarly, the extent that this actually disrupts the fossil fuel economy is clearly minimal: it neither undermines companies nor their financiers or state enablers. Yet, to demand that all actions do this is somewhat trite.

Ultimately, the environmental movement is at a crossroads, unsure of how to proceed. Yet the rapidity by which this action was condemned shows a dangerous tendency in the wider ecosystem of progressive politics. 

When JSO launched, it began with escalating actions disrupting key fossil fuel distribution points in Britain.

This was not a tactical escalation from Extinction Rebellion strategies - which have often gone for cultural spaces and had a charming flamboyance - it was merely better targeted to directly undermine the fossil fuel economy. 

Such front line actions were in many ways exactly what critics of JSO’s soup action and similar press stunts have actually called for in the past.

Solidarity

However, the consequences for those that participated in these early actions has been catastrophic. State repression has been leveraged heavily against these activists, with many now embroiled in protracted legal cases and several JSO activists held in custody waiting for a trial, without bail. 

Consequently, there is a question of how long JSO can sustainably organise actions targeting fossil fuel infrastructure when facing such severe legal consequences.

Thus, these actions targeting paintings, football matches, and F1 races all have a related logic of being possible with a smaller crew of activists, facing less severe legal consequences, and potentially bringing new people into JSO. 

There is potentially one critique of JSO’s soup action that does stick. This is the concern that these cultural actions not only fail to bring new activists into the movement but also act as a block to a mass politicisation on climate change. Only time will tell what the result will be of this. 

There needs to be an ability in wider progressive circles to have frank and serious disagreements, while retaining a commitment to basic solidarity.

Blockaded

I may disagree with the extent that JSO actions disrupting cultural spaces can build a mass climate resistance, but I understand the urgent need to stand with activists facing massive state repression and tackling fossil capital. 

The environmental movement, as broad as it is, is like a dysfunctional family. We are forced to recognise, time and time again, that these are ‘our people’ despite our disagreements.

The wider silence in progressive circles in the face of escalating fines and bail conditions is damning in this regard. 

In the same week that activists from JSO targeted Sunflowers, there were two massive cases of direct action against fossil fuel infrastructure in Europe.

In Czechia, activists with Limity jsme my successfully blockaded the Svoboda coke plant, preventing this piece of coal infrastructure operating.

Colonial

Similarly in Belgium, CodeRood activists blockaded two oil and gas sites used by Total Energies, managing to grind this producers’ efforts to a stop. 

In Iran, as massive protests are unfolding against the state, oil workers at several plants are reported to have joined the uprising, refusing to go to work. In France, a strike wave is spreading from TotalEnergies workers across the country to related industries. 

There is something here, an escalating wave of struggle that could be mobilised against the fossil fuel economy. Even in these worrying times, there are untapped solidarities and amazing actions occuring across the world. 

The environmental movement is always going to be broad, encompassing a dizzying variety of groups and tactics. For those with a commitment to climate justice and the struggle against colonial fossil capital, there is a wing that can be strengthened and built.

Soup

A quickness to denounce others does little to build a mass movement. The scale of the environmental crisis and the crossroads position movements means there will be stranger and more frustrating actions to come. Things will get weirder before they get better. 

For those of us committed to a vision of climate action which encompases the need for worker power, reparations, and intersectionality, this action does very little for us.

But then our responsibility is to build the wing of the environmental movement that share these commitments, including people in JSO, into a mass movement.

Put simply, don’t like the soup action? What would you like to do instead? Are you doing it? With activists facing repression, states in crisis, and the fossil economy fighting to grow, there is no point crying over spilt soup. There’s work to do.

This Author

Harry Holmes is a climate organiser and writer based in London. 

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