In the last few weeks, climate activism groups have filled the news, social media, and online conversations after a series of art attacks. Last week, demonstrators from the Letzter Generation (Last Generation), a German group, threw mashed potatoes on a Monet painting in Potsdam, Germany. At the same time, Just Stop Oil advocates, a UK-based group rapidly expanding in Europe, pied a statue of King Charles in Central London and glued themselves to Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” painting in The Hague. These events seem to be increasing in frequency lately, certainly due to a culture based on meme imitations and sensationalism. However, they also appear to create even more polarization than the US midterms or the roulette of British PMs.
When it comes to divisive matters, I believe in the old Wildean saying that “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Climate change is an emergency. James Hansen said it in 1988, Al Gore sounded the alarm in 2007, and the Paris Agreement opened the way for international cooperation on climate solutions in 2015. However, nothing happened, and reports predict a somber future. According to the 2022 Living Planet Report, 83% of the freshwater population is declining and will likely be extinct in the next generation. Heat waves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones are affecting every region of the globe, and glaciers are disappearing quicker than scientists previously estimated. Opening up the conversation on climate change and its devastating effects on humanity is key to mitigating these issues. But can soup throwers really change the mind of climate change deniers or the priorities of corporations?
Environmental activism relates to the actions of individuals or groups that protect the environment. These advocates identify the issues that threaten the planet’s and humanity’s existence and develop strategies to promote awareness and/or find solutions. Their ultimate goal is to implement a sustainable way of living to guarantee generational continuity. But is this what these activists are actually doing? Thoreau would have applauded them for their civil disobedience, and Rawls would have appreciated their actions as they challenged the longstanding injustices against the social contract. But in current times, sensationalist activists targeting art galleries are just seen as meme-makers, and, especially in Europe, even law enforcers decide not to take their actions seriously by rarely filing out claims or arresting them.
As a rule of thumb, ecosabotage works best when it’s precise. When the Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise ship protested against oil drilling, climate activists attacked petrol pumps in London and deflated the tires of 10,000 SUVs in New York City. They showed where the focus of this fight should be. Fossil fuels, coal, and plastics companies should be the target of environmental activists. Activists have been justifying attacks in art galleries because some of their funding comes from oil industry magnates and companies. However, no matter the link between oil companies and art galleries, the environmental movement will not find new supporters if the attack on paintings continues. No matter how many activists are gluing themselves to multimillion-dollar paintings or throwing pies at statues, people will not pay attention to the 100 new licenses handed out by the British government for oil and gas projects. They will argue instead about the hypocrisy of talking about the food crisis while wasting food.
In 1914, the suffragettes slashed Velazquez’s “Toilet of Venus” at The National Gallery in London, calling for women’s inclusion in politics and the right to vote. Their fight was ultimately successful, and 14 years later, women were allowed to vote in England. Violent forces always transform society and there would be no revolutions without civil disturbance. But the acts we see today look like a half-fight. The world today does not respond in the same way as London did in the 1910s. Throwing soup or potatoes on a painting might attract the attention of some individuals, but it is unlikely that it will change the world. According to some, blowing up a pipeline would not either. Instead, it would allow Republican politicians to label them as eco-terrorists and extremists. The consequences of destroying energy infrastructure would be even higher energy prices and increased social tension – the perfect recipe to avoid a working-class mobilization for the climate.
The question remains: If sensationalism cannot help the environmental movement as it raises the wrong conversations, what can? How can we change the downward spiral we are in? Renewable technologies have been quickly endorsed, but policymakers still need to catch up with new forms of sustainable technologies, such as new nuclear applications and direct air capture. The best tactic would be to diversify climate activism. Just activism should be inclusive, ranging from lobbying governments and companies to strikes and even civil disobedience. Sensationalism will not be able to save the planet by itself, but comprehensive and inclusive environmental strategies could successfully shake and, eventually, destroy entrenched polluting institutions. At the end of the day, when history will look back on this period, questions will be raised on who showed more respect for justice and democracy, the activists or the governments. Just and precise activism will lead to change, but falling into a pattern of soup-thrower imitations will only limit environmental activists’ voices and will not help mitigate climate change.
Claire Bracco (she/her) is a second-year MA candidate in International Relations at NYU. Raised between Italy and France, she holds a BA in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and decided to continue on this path to deepen her understanding of human rights violations and public diplomacy. She is currently working as an intelligence analyst for The Counterterrorism Group and plans to use this experience to write a thesis on radicalization due to environmental degradation. When not working, Claire is exploring the New York food scene trying to find the best Italian pizza restaurant in the city. Claire also holds a Master’s in Piano from the Conservatorio A. Scarlatti.