Tuesday, November 29, 2022
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The art of climate action

Now, in fancy cafes in most British cities, one might see sunflower seeds sprinkled on top of their soups.see soup is less common sunflowerbut these are the strange days we live in.

Much attention has been paid to the actions of Just Stop Oil (JSO) activists who threw a can of soup at the famous Van Gogh painting.

The stunt made headlines in traditional news media, both nationally and internationally, and of course sparked a lot of online discussion.


Many were quick to condemn the action as divisive and disruptive to the environmental movement, with some even suggesting that the JSO activists were being funded by fossil fuel companies or state agents.

However, the operation was a major success in many respects. Videos of relevant activists presenting their arguments clearly and succinctly have been watched around the world.

It has jumped to the top of most news media coverage. The move has been able to compete for airtime on a day just one month after the UK prime minister was sacked. No easy task.

The logic of the action is also coherent. With the scale of colonial murders and the suffering caused by the continued use of fossil fuels, how can people continue to mess around with art galleries as if there were no problems at all? Surrounded by the unfolding violence, isn’t it wrong to scream “wake up”?

Still, the action is far from perfect. One question is to what extent this will actually inflame newcomers into the climate fight, or simply act as a bellwether for already active environmentalists to the JSO.


Again, the extent to which this actually disrupts the fossil fuel economy is apparently minimal: it will harm neither companies nor their financiers or state promoters. However, it is a bit cliché to require all operations to do so.

Ultimately, the environmental movement is at a crossroads, unsure how to proceed. However, the speed with which the action was condemned shows a dangerous trend in the wider progressive political ecosystem.

When the JSO was launched, it began as an escalation of operations to disrupt the UK’s main fossil fuel distribution points.

This isn’t a tactical escalation of Extinction Rebellion’s strategies—which are often used in cultural spaces and have glamorous flamboyance—it’s just better aimed at directly disrupting the fossil fuel economy.

Such front-line action is in many ways exactly what critics of JSO’s Operation Soup and similar news stunts have actually called for in the past.


For those involved in these early actions, however, the consequences were catastrophic. State repression has had a big impact on these activists, and many are now embroiled in protracted legal cases, with several JSO activists detained awaiting trial without bail.

So how long can the JSO sustainably organize action against fossil fuel infrastructure when faced with such serious legal consequences.

Therefore, these actions against paintings, football matches and F1 races all have the associated logic of facing lesser legal consequences in the case of a small number of radicals and potentially bringing newcomers into the JSO.

There may be a criticism of JSO’s “soup” move. Worryingly, these cultural actions have not only failed to bring new activists into the movement, but they have also hindered the mass politicization of climate change. Only time will tell what this outcome will be.

There is a need for the ability to be frank and serious about differences within the wider progressive circle, while maintaining a commitment to fundamental unity.

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