2 people throw tomato soup onto a priceless Van Gogh painting, use glue sticks to attach their hands to the wall under it, shouting at passersby, “What is worth more, art or life?”. Seeing this immediately brings into question their intentions. Attention is an obvious, almost intrinsic one, but the real reason—environmentalism—is not. 

The pair involved in the Oct. 14 Van Gogh vandalism, 20-year-old Anna Holland and 21-year-old Phoebe Plummer are a part of Just Stop Oil, a youth-led UK environmental coalition that is working to stop their government from expanding into new fossil fuel projects.

The group was formed on Feb. 14 by Welsh environmental activist Roger Hallam, who was previously involved in controversial climate action movements Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain.

Similarly controversial, Just Stop Oil has already made headlines with demonstrations that have included  disrupting the BAFTAs in March, performing blockades of oil facilities in April, and, most recently, spray painting the homebase of climate denial lobby group Global Warming Policy Foundation. These actions have led to the arrests of 1,700 of the group’s members, with 5 remaining in prison, all in the name of stopping the expansion of the fossil fuel industry.

Despite the controversy, Just Stop Oil and all environmentalist groups have a point. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, a gas that humans cannot process, are higher than they have ever been before on Earth. Last year was the sixth hottest year ever and the last 7 before that were the hottest years on record. 1 million different species are at risk of extinction, almost one-eighth of all life on Earth. 8 million tons of plastic are thrown into the ocean just by coastal nations. The earth is objectively being killed and the fossil fuel industry directly profits off of it.

Environmentalists respond to this ever growing crisis and take action to stop it. Historically, the UK has had great success with this type of activism with precise acts and meaningful gains for the greater environmentalist community.

In 2005, the UK-based Campaign against Climate Change helped create the  Global Day of Action for climate activists across the world to participate,  still held annually  on the meeting day of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In 2007, UK-oriented anti-airport expansion group Plane Stupid protested near the London Heathrow Airport for a week, resulting in the resignations of higher-ups in from the airport. In 2009, protests of the coalition Stop Climate Chaos Scotland resulted in the creation of the strongest climate change legislation in the world, Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, and now works with other countries to make global environmental law stronger. In 2010, members of Rising Tide UK chained themselves to a railroad between Ffos-y-fran Land Reclamation Scheme, one of the largest oil mines in Europe, and disrupted a whole day of mining. 

All of these actions were calculated and practical. In the case of Just Stop Oil, their good-intentioned soup-throwing failed to have that same precision.

Simply, the ultimate outcome of every action taken by activist groups, environmental or not, has to make people understand the intention and  severity of the issues that they are grappling with. Throwing soup at a Van Gogh painting doesn’t accomplish that.

Besides the research-minded, who may seek out answers behind the act, many will take the act at face-value and live ignorantly, lacking a comprehension beyond seeing 2 young adults doing something reckless for attention. The misogynistic-minded may even attribute the nonsensical nature of the act to the gender of the protestors rather than to the misguided collective consciousness of Just Stop Oil.

There has to be an intentionality to activism, a vision, a mutual understanding between the spectators and the spectacle where, no matter how much they may not like how the action disrupts them, they see the point and dwell on it.

This rumination results in people having a point of view in a world full of apathy, which is a grand accomplishment when everything around them is numbing and devoid of stimulation because everyone everywhere has seen everything. Even better if it leads to action, to a greater purpose, to the lifestyle that is activism.

Despite this lapse in vision, the group later justified the Van Gogh action in an Oct. 16 blog post.

“The art action was exactly the change of pace we needed. It shocked people as it was so unexpected. Most of all, it shocked people as attacking art is a huge act of cultural transgression. It breaks a taboo. Art is sacred in our culture – to attack it feels almost blasphemous.”

While the point they make about the breaking of cultural taboos is true, the group failed to effectively challenge anything about the crudeness of oil or the actions of their government in the industry. The action actually diverted attention to the Van Gogh piece rather than their environmental cause, rendering the act ineffective.

Despite how the soup-throwing undermined the message of the group, the ultimate goal of making their government stop approving new fossil fuel exploitation is incredibly possible. Their main mission now is to convince their government to suspend new licenses for fossil fuel productions within the UK, which is essentially asking for their government to do nothing, an easy goal.

A coordinated, precise act of protest would have made people aware of just how simple this issue could be. Disorganized, imprecise action resulted in nothing for Just Stop Oil.

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