This op-ed was written with contributions from Megan Ruttan.
A controversial action in an art museum on Friday has raised questions about the appropriateness of performative protests during the climate emergency.
Protestors affiliated with Just Stop Oil threw cans of tomato soup over Vincent Van Gogh’s famous “Sunflowers” painting at the National Gallery in London, which was covered by protective glass.
“Is art worth more than life? More than food?,” they chanted, from the BP oil-sponsored exhibit.
Here’s the follow-up question I’d ask, is the incessant need for the climate movement to be validated by apathetic stakeholders overshadowing addressing the needs of vulnerable communities?
This question is rhetorical. The answer is yes, and the solution is to regain focus, and re-commit, to what really deserves our attention: defunding fossil fuels and investing in community resiliency and climate adaptation.
Activists said the cans of tomato soup were a symbol of the country’s working class — the demonstration highlighting the way society has systematically chosen to prioritize profit over people and the preservation of the environment.
But such an unorthodox demonstration poses an important question: is this effective?
On the one hand, humans are more likely to respond to things that evoke some sort of strong emotion. That is why sensationalist acts such as this one are conducted in the first place: to catch your attention, and, hopefully, keep it long enough for you to associate that feeling with whatever movement or idea it is that’s being promoted.
In this case, after seeing a very popular piece of art sort-of defiled, the hope, we can assume, is that we’ll have attracted hundreds and thousands more climate conscious people to the outrage that our continued fossil fuel-driven economy should evoke.
My fear is what might happen is one of the following:
- Non-radicalized people feel even more disgust and discomfort surrounding climate change, now associating it with sensationalism and theater, instead of optimism and passion.
- Those who are somewhere in the middle are confused, puzzled, wondering: what exactly was I supposed to get from this?
Often, during a controversial and highly visible protest such as this one, commentators will insist that the action only serves to alienate potential allies. Where are these mythical potential allies that are always just on the verge of acting on climate until someone throws soup at something?
Every protest will draw ire, but no one who really cares about climate action will be alienated from the cause. Calls to consider allies, real or imagined, therefore, only serve to shut down action.
This does not mean, however, that these actions are exempt from critique, or couldn’t benefit from further strategizing.
Protests should be directed toward the systems of power that cause injustice.
Would the energy that was used to plan and execute that somewhat fleeting plan have been more productive if directed towards a pre-existing cause in a targetable area — like extreme heat closer to the equator or the melting of permafrost in the Arctic?
It’s worth noting that white climate activists already have a long history of forgetting that solidarity is the best inroad to climate action. Climate activism is messy and the real maps we have, come from BIPOC communities and individuals already doing the work on the ground. The fossil fuel industry enacts violence in real time to people and ecosystems, and activism, at its best, should be intervening at the point of harm.
Such demonstrations, therefore, seem to reek of white supremacy, highlighting the ways that colonialist thinking interferes with productive climate action.
BIPOC climate activists, on the other hand, aren’t performing – their activism is bound up in their survival. This performance and incessant need to be seen in order to prove the validity of a cause, stems from white supremacy.
Why the emphasis on doing something as destructive and public as possible? Where do the foundation of these beliefs that underscore these “actions” come from?
The day we decenter these privileged audiences, and direct all of our attention wholeheartedly towards the vulnerable communities who actually need it, will be a day worth celebrating.
No one activist or action will ever be enough to take us into the future we all need and so we encourage everyone to act now, whoever you are and wherever you are. Put your support and time behind the communities already affected by climate change and the fossil fuel industry.
Perhaps a can of soup would be less controversial if it were one of many climate protests happening daily.