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Controversial Forms of Activist Protest

Justin Ahn

 The grassroots of environmentalism and environmental awareness can be traced back thousands of years to the Indus civilization (modern-day Pakistan). Other nations around this time, such as Greece, China, India, and modern-day Peru began practicing innovative agricultural methods to combat soil erosion. A few thousand years later, Hippocrates, a Greek physician and author, published the oldest known piece of European ecology, Air, Water, Places, in which he explained the effects of seasonal changes and the health implications of poor water quality, varying temperatures, and rain shortage. A couple of thousand years afterwards, some countries began to recognize several important concepts: environmental and animal rights, the protection of indigenous land, and the acknowledgment of human overpopulation. It was not until the late 20th century, during the Progressive Era, when environmentalists would officially coalesce to make environmentalism a social movement. This prompted the first Earth Day and signaled a new era of environmental awareness. Fast forward a few decades, and there is now contentious – and to many, annoying – environmental groups conducting possibly counteractive and alienating acts of protest all over the world. Some media outlets even categorize the referred-to organizations as terrorist groups. Many critics are questioning the legitimacy of the group after similar incidents and how they might affect public perception on environmental protest. 

 On October 14th, 2022, two climate activists entered London’s National Gallery with a goal in mind: to throw a can of tomato soup on the museum’s most prized art piece, Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”. In reality, it was a protest to the U.K. parliament regarding its recently administered oil licenses to sustain its falling supply. 21-year-old Phoebe Plummer and 20-year-old Anna Holland, who associate with the British environmentalist group Just Stop Oil, located the famous artwork and set up their demonstration as cameras and bystanders watched Taking off their leather jackets to reveal their Just Stop Oil T-shirts, the two uncanned the soup and chucked the slimy contents onto the painting. Following the shouts and shocked expressions made by the spectators, the Just Stop Oil members pulled out what looked to be a tough glue  substance and applied it to the palms of their left hands. Sticking themselves to the wall below the painting, Phoebe Plummer is shown on video ranting about the negative effects of oil licensing and how climate change affects the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Though the painting was not damaged, it would be an understatement to say that this act of protest shined negative light on Just Stop Oil. 

 This form of vandalistic activism is not revolutionary. Environmental groups who look for publicity target art museums for many reasons. Museums all across Europe and the U.S. are funded by oil and gas industry giants such as Shell, BP, and Exxon. However, months before this soup-throwing event had taken place, the London National Gallery had announced that they cut ties with BP after 30 long years of sponsorship. As previously mentioned, the vandalism done on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” was due to the greenlight from U.K. prime minister Liz Truss to continue oil and gas licensed exploration in the North Sea. For this purpose, the U.K. had to rescind the 2019 moratorium on fracking, the process of forcing the extraction of substances such as oil and gas, to allow for new expeditions. 

   Apart from museums, protesters have also targeted the roads. Over the past 11 weeks, Just Stop Oil protesters have simply pick themselves back up and place themselves on the road again. This civil disobedience has obviously received loads of controversy. The more detrimental group of victims of this protest, including people who need immediate medical attention, could be critically impacted if a roadblock such as Just Stop Oil was to obstruct the roadway. Ironically, the environment is receiving more carbon emissions by the organization’s roadblock efforts. It is not a surprise that studies indicate slow-moving traffic emits larger amounts of greenhouse gasses compared to cars moving at freeway speeds. Just Stop Oil is causing the release of more greenhouse gasses. 

 This form of “radical flank” activism may also be characterized as counteractive. Radical flank is a term defined as a participant in a movement that promotes civil disobedience instead of peaceful protest. One point of interest in radical protesting is the effect that i

 it has on public opinion. Expert Heather Alberro, from Nottingham Trent University in the U.K., believes that disruptive acts from the radical flank can “render the demands of mainstream counterparts more palatable in the eyes of governments and the public, effectively advancing the entire movement's agenda". In other words, controversial acts of protest such as throwing cans of soup at art or using roadblocks in traffic, can actually alienate the movement and make the general public lack compliance with their mission. Social scientists say peaceful marches and protests increase support among all political and social groups. It’s worth noting that climate protests have done good for the movement overall, but these are ones without extreme protest actions. 

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