By Annabelle Bower
It goes without saying that this week has rapidly spiralled into one of the most chaotic in UK political history. Following the resignation of Britain’s shortest-serving Prime Minister Liz Truss, her 45 days of power and the economic turmoil that persists has thrown the Conservative party into a state of utter disarray, whilst they face mounting pressure from the opposition. However, amidst all of this political unrest another story emerged last Friday that gripped headlines around the world. At the front of it, none other than one of the UK’s most beloved kitchen cupboard items – Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup.
On Friday 14th October, two young climate activists dressed in Just Stop Oil t-shirts threw two cans of tomato soup over Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London. The protestors then proceeded to glue themselves to the wall beneath the painting before being arrested by police. Phoebe Plummer was one of the activists who later took to social media and explained there was ‘no damage to the painting whatsoever’. This was confirmed by the National Gallery which stated that the artwork was behind glass and unharmed besides reparable damage to the frame. Placed back on display just hours later, according to the media it seems that the staged act of vandalism left no physical mark besides raising a few eyebrows amongst the public. However, one can’t deny that these recent antics have left some key ensuing questions: who exactly are Just Stop Oil, and why are they vandalising an iconic painting worth £72 million?
Launched on February 14th of this year, Just Stop Oil is an environmental activist group based in the UK, also staging operations in seven different countries across Europe as well as Canada and the USA. On their official website the organisation describes themselves as ‘a coalition of groups working together to ensure that the government commits to ending all new licenses and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK’. Still a relatively new appendage of the climate debate, there is little data on their exact numbers and demographics. The term ‘coalition’ implies a broad range of perspectives and opinions exist within the group, however, increasing rancour towards them may suggest they represent a much narrower sect of the public’s attitudes on how we should respond to the ongoing climate crisis.
Their most recent attempt to instigate a shift in public opinion has received mixed responses from around the world, with many criticising the organisation for using radical tactics that cause significant disruption for the general public instead of the UK government it claims to be targeting. A recent article in The Telegraph goes even further to argue that ‘it is the undue influence of groups like Just Stop Oil’ that is hindering economic growth in Britain with ‘preposterous claims of imminent climatic doom’. Meanwhile, others have praised the group’s acts of civil resistance for catapulting the climate discussion onto the forefront of Britain’s political agenda, although self-made comparisons to Dr Martin Luther King and the Suffragettes are perhaps exaggerations that don’t massively improve their stance in the court of public opinion. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Just Stop Oil is asserting itself as the fresh face of climate activism, following in the footsteps of its active counterparts and continuously aligning goals with groups like Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain.
In April, oil terminal disruptions across England earned the first snippets of media attention that clearly highlighted Just Stop Oil’s immediate objectives. Since then, protestors have been making headlines at high-profile events like the 75th British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) and the 2022 F1 British Grand Prix, using conspicuous targets to establish themselves as a young and bold descendent of its predecessors. Acts of civil resistance in recent years have lacked all discretion and arguably for good reason, with growing evidence to support the impact human activity is having on our natural environment. This has perhaps contributed to a belief that climate activism is a recent phenomenon and not a long-standing tradition, however, civil resistance has been used for years to curb the destructive nature of our economic systems on the environment. For example, Greenpeace was founded in 1971 and still campaigns in over 40 countries for environmental protection and climate justice today, just not with soup.
All jokes aside, the image of a 200-year-old painting covered in one of the modern world’s most iconic brands is perhaps symbolic for multiple reasons and provides an interesting framework to discuss the usefulness or otherwise damaging potential of climate activism. For instance, physically employing famous brands puts an emphasis on consumerism and how this contributes to environmental devastation. Yet, one might be surprised to discover that The Kraft Heinz Company takes environmental stewardship incredibly seriously, striving towards a goal of using 100% recyclable, reusable, or compostable packaging by 2025. By the same year, as set out in their Environmental Social Governance Report, Heinz aims to reduce energy use intensity by 15% across all manufacturing facilities. Now, whether Just Stop Oil campaigners had this in mind at the National Gallery we cannot say. Nonetheless, there does appear to be something that differentiates Just Stop Oil’s cause from other climate activist groups. That is, its impeccable (if not coincidental) timing in the political and economic context of today’s energy crisis which perhaps justifies their more radical tactics to capture the media’s attention.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022 (just 10 days before the launch of Just Stop Oil), increasing tensions have led to dwindling gas and oil supplies which saw prices rise to astronomical new heights. In response, the government introduced an Energy Bills Support Scheme (EBSS) and non-repayable £400 subsidy for every UK household to offset the increase in bills. Combined with the impacts of COVID-19 on countries around the world, economic fallout in the UK is being felt by households and companies alike as monthly real GDP is estimated to have fallen by 0.3% in August 2022 according to recent government reports. For Just Stop Oil, the basic fact that strengthens their cause is clear: the cost-of-living crisis is synonymous with the rising cost of oil. As Plummer explained on social media: ‘Fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup’. In response, the group are calling for an increase in renewable energy investment and complete phasing out of fossil fuels. Though bizarrely made, the core point does provide an obvious and unified solution to the combination of complex issues the UK currently faces, highlighting their intersecting causes.
According to government assessment, in 2021 UK oil and gas only accounted for 39% of the country’s overall supply, with recent investments in renewable energy paving the way to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Despite this goal, the UK government is still seeking to strike long-term gas contracts with Norway and Qatar, whilst former Prime Minister Liz Truss announced developments in new oil and gas projects within the UK to increase domestic energy production in the wake of Russia cutting off gas exports in August. In this bid to boost energy security, the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) awarded over 100 permits enabling companies to search for new oil and gas fields. A decision that does not align with the UK’s promise of a green economic recovery following COVID, the British Government has been met with significant criticism and legal threats from the activist community. Consistently failing to meet their economic, social and political commitments has contributed to a growing sense of hopelessness that perhaps explains these more frequent and extreme displays of civil resistance.
The NSTA claims that it takes on average five years for any oil and gas discovery to reach production, provoking further questions as to whether this new licencing will even offer a short-term solution to Britain’s high energy bills. Truss’s decision comes as a 33rd licencing round for oil and gas exploration in the North sea, with approximately 900 locations offered under the new arrangement. Meanwhile, climate minister Graham Stuart told the BBC that “Actually it’s good for the environment because when we burn our own gas it’s got lower emissions around its production than foreign gas…as well as supporting British jobs.” In the face of such hypocritical views on the climate crisis, it’s no wonder why Just Stop Oil have put things in simple terms. The contradictions in Stuart’s statement reflect the government’s blatant disregard for long-term environmental protection because it conflicts with their short-term goals concerning economic and political power. Sustainable development should be a constant focus for our world leaders now more than ever – but if they continue to justify fossil fuel production then civil resistance might be our best and only option.
On the surface, blocking roads, climbing bridges and throwing soup at famous old paintings may seem pointless and frustrating. However, we must not lose sight of the ultimate objectives behind these acts of civil resistance adopted by climate activists. In doing so, they create powerful discussions that act as a catalyst for change and hold the government responsible for keeping promises in the long-term.
So whether you agree with Just Stop Oil or not, it’s difficult not to admire how they grip our attention and ask the government to do what it says on the tin.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.