Let’s talk about…Just Stop Oil’s stunts

Just Stop Oil protests: climate fight needs solidarity, not attention-seeking

The Bank Holiday weekend is behind us, May Day on Monday having marked the start of summer at long last. For most of us, I’m sure May Day was spent relaxing, or getting ready to get back to reality on Tuesday, but across the water in London, for some 90 or so climate activists from Just Stop Oil (JSO), the Bank Holiday Monday was spent protesting, with slow marches taking place in four different locations across the city.

It’s worth noting that Monday’s action forms only a small part of JSO’s ongoing protesting efforts. The group have vowed to march from Parliament Square, by the Palace of Westminster, every weekday and Saturday until the UK government “abandons its dangerous attempt to licence over 100 new fossil fuel projects”. And true to their promise, the slow marches have been taking place like clockwork since the start of last week.

These marches have earned the group a fair bit of attention for their cause, but the exposure garnered from them pales in comparison to the publicity they’ve received from their more dramatic demonstrations. Most people will recognise JSO’s name not off the back of these slow marches, but because of the more headline-grabbing stunts the group has pulled in previous weeks.

Less than a month ago for example, the group was in the news following their stunt at the World Snooker Championships in Sheffield. A man representing the group climbed onto the table, emptying a packet of orange dye onto the cloth, while another protester attempted to glue herself to the other table before being stopped. Play was able to resume as scheduled after a bit of a clean-up, but the event nevertheless caused enough controversy to get the group and their cause more exposure, which was undoubtedly the aim.

But perhaps the most memorable demonstration people are sure to think of when they hear the name ‘Just Stop Oil’ occurred at the end of last year, when two of the group’s protesters threw tinned tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s iconic 1888 painting, ‘Sunflowers’. The painting was, of course, covered with protected glass, a fact known to the protesters; the aim wasn’t to damage the piece, but to generate attention for their cause – and that it did.

In a matter of hours the stunt drew worldwide attention towards the group and their cause, and despite the controversy, did manage to succeed in starting some sort of conversation. Despite being perhaps the biggest issue of our time, a lot of people have ‘signed off’ from engaging in news about the climate crisis – and it’s not hard to image why, considering how depressingly dire coverage of it so often is nowadays – but the sensational nature of JSO’s stunt brought the subject back into topicality for a lot of people.

The group is not unaware of how their more dramatic stunts may come across as needlessly disruptive to the public. One of the October protesters, Pheobe Plummer, commented after the soup-throwing incident: “I recognise that it looks like a slightly ridiculous action. I agree – it is ridiculous. But what we’re doing is getting the conversation going… we don’t have time to waste”.

Negligibly few are bound to disagree with JSO over their core ethos of environmentalism. By now, we are all very much cognisant of how dire a situation the climate crisis has become and agree that significant changes are long overdue if we want any chance of surviving it. On the ground level, people are united on this issue, but as JSO routinely points out, the problem lies primarily with the powers-that-be, with the corporations and governments who continue to prioritise profit over the worsening state of the planet.

The climate fight cannot be successful if these powers-that-be aren’t moved to make significant changes right now, but getting such goliaths to listen to climate activists on the ground level often feels like an impossible battle. JSO’s solution, evidentially, has been this series of dramatic stunts, to make the crisis an unavoidable news story, fire up the public, and put pressure on the government. The efficacy of their stunts in putting the spotlight on the group is undeniable, and hopefully this has meant a net positive for the climate fight. However, there presumably has got to be some arbitrary line where the headline-grabbing demonstrations JSO are pulling could end up alienating the public from the cause and those aligned with it, as opposed to getting more people behind them, which is the last thing that’s needed.

Again, there has got to be considerably few people unaligned with JSO’s core ethos of protecting the planet, and many do see the logic in their dramatic protests because of how comparatively ineffective more low-key demonstrations are when it comes to having a real impact. But as these incidents continue, and the public begins to hear more about the latest disruption JSO causes – as opposed to the specifics of what they’re fighting for – the tide could easily turn and leave environmentalists branded as ideological extremists and nothing more.

Few people remain to be convinced that the climate is in crisis or that something needs to be done, but many mightn’t want to align themselves with a movement known for disruptive demonstrations, so at some point JSO’s stunts will reach the limits of their efficacy. And realistically, the protests by themselves aren’t going to convince government officials to change any faster. JSO are on the right side of the climate fight, yes, and their actions have successfully sparked some much-needed attention, but if they want to ensure they don’t lose the public’s backing, JSO could benefit from steering away from demonstrations that cast them in a controversial light and on focusing on other strategies.

For example, focusing on issues climate activists already have common ground with the general public on – like the cost-of-living crisis or the Ukrainian war, issues energy policy is intrinsically interlinked with – could do a lot to garner more mainstream public support for environmentalism, without the risk of alienating people. I can understand why it was felt dramatic measures were required to reignite attention on the climate crisis, but doubling down could undo some of that progress – JSO’s priority no longer needs to be getting the public’s attention, but instead uniting with the public and getting them to join the fight too.