Food for Thought: Did the Recent Climate Protests Go Too Far?

Niamh Ryan

‘What is worth more, art or life?’ – This was the question asked by climate activists at the infamous National Gallery protest two weeks ago.

On 14 October two activists from Just Stop Oil splattered a can of soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London.

After her arrest, 21-year-old Phoebe Plummer made a statement explaining the rationale behind what she described as a “slightly ridiculous action.” She said the reason for the soup throwing was to start a conversation so they could begin asking the questions that matter:

 “Is it okay that fossil fuels are subsidised thirty times more than renewables when off shore wind is currently nine times cheaper than fossil fuels? Is it okay that it is (the government’s) inaction that has led us to the cost of living crisis, when this winter people are going to be forced to choose between heating and eating?” Plummer asked.

Just Stop Oil was founded in February 2022 with the aim of forcing the UK government to end all new licences and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK. According to the environmental activist group, we have eight years to end our reliance on fossil fuels for good.

 ‘This is the conversation we need to be having now because we don’t have time to waste…we’re using these actions to get media attention because we need to get people talking about this now,’ Plummer said.

Many were shocked at first by the protest: to mar something as priceless as a Van Gogh painting is totally taboo. I myself assumed it was another dramatic climate protest with activists focusing more on creating controversy rather than actually supporting a good cause.

But, Plummer’s statement puts things in perspective. Why do we value pieces of art over people struggling to heat their homes and feed themselves? Why are people more outraged at these protests than at a government that freezes people out of their homes?

Before her resignation as Prime Minister, Liz Truss said she planned to extract more fossil fuels from the North Sea as well as overturn the ban on fracking in the UK. Fracking is the extraction of gas and oil from shale rock, which is a non-renewable source of energy and is a process that requires copious amounts of water. Truss also outlawed solar power use on most farmland and appointed Jacob Rees-Mogg as energy secretary, who once questioned if climate change was really caused by human activity. The former Prime Minister seemed content with setting the country back by years in terms of sustainability, at a time when it’s most needed.

In a month-long stand by Just Stop Oil, almost 600 arrests have been made. Since the National Gallery incident, cake was thrown at King Charles’ wax figure at Madame Tussaud’s in London and Abbey Road has been obstructed by protesters. The group says it has no plans to stop until the government announces an improved plan for climate action.

Just Stop Oil has also inspired international coups to take place. Last weekend two activists working for Letzte Generation threw mashed potatoes at a Monet painting in Museum Barberini in Germany.

“If it takes pelting a painting with mashed potato or tomato soup to remind society that the fossil course is killing us all, then we give you mashed potato on a painting,” the group said.

The more these protests appear online though, the more people are starting to find issues with them. Last week members of Animal Rebellion were recorded pouring cartons of milk onto the floor of a Waitrose. They condemned the dairy industry for its contribution to the climate crisis while a manager attempted to escort them away from the aisle.

They make a strong point – dairy farming causes a large release of methane gas into the atmosphere and it would be ideal if everyone reduced their dairy consumption to combat this. However, it’s understandable why people are beginning to get frustrated. Several cartons of milk were wasted, only causing inconvenience for the workers forced to clean it up.

The demonstration at the National Gallery was outrageous, but it restarted the climate crisis conversation after Covid disrupted strikes like ‘Fridays for Future.’ However, continuing to waste food in the name of environmental activism is slightly tone-deaf. In 2021 the UK government recorded 4.2 million people living in food poverty, a figure that is expected to worsen as the cost of living increases.

One demonstration got the message across, so is anything after the fact considered overkill? Or should they keep going until governments take the hint and take action? Rishi Sunak has now been appointed as the new UK Prime Minister, and like Truss his track record with climate action is less than perfect. Hopefully Just Stop Oil’s efforts are enough to change his outlook, before it’s too late.

Niamh Ryan

Image Credit: Pixabay