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Just Stop Oil: An outcry of desperation

We might disagree with their tactics, but Just Stop Oil protesters used the power of social media to catch our attention.

Just Stop Oil

The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of roaring environmental protests from Just Stop Oil – an activist group calling for the end of new fossil fuel licenses in the UK. From the tomato soup stunt on a Van Gogh masterpiece to spray painting Harrod’s signature department store windows all contribute to their aggressive attempt to get people to wake up and address the severity of the current climate crisis.

Just Stop Oil, might be severe with their tactics, but can we blame them as activists have been overly denied, pushed aside, and silenced, all in the name of institutions and governments cashing out more extensive checks to serve their best interest.

You might be questioning, “well what has vandalising precious artworks to do with the oil industry?” The answer is quite simple: Did it catch your attention? Or better yet are your feed and TV screens filled with breaking news? Then their mission to be heard was achieved.

The group has succeeded in hitting headlines, but the public reaction has been decidedly mixed. Conservatives have been as splutteringly indignant as you’d expect, but even plenty of young, progressive people have also denounced the protests, for reasons both good and bad.

Unsurprisingly, Just Stop Oil has faced widespread outcry on TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter for its shock value protests and news breaking stunts, however, the organisation knew no damage could be done to the Van Gogh artwork it targeted, due to it being protected behind a glass screen. The National Gallery later confirmed this to be true.

Having conversations about tactics is no bad thing, and the stakes are so high that no one should be immune from critique simply because “they’re at least doing something”. But where this happens, there should be a baseline of solidarity – something which has been sorely lacking in many of the responses online.

All of this pales into irrelevance next to the larger questions: are these protests effective? Or will they risk alienating people from the cause? What’s interesting is that both things can be true at the same time. For example, Extinction Rebellion was wildly unpopular, but following their protests, polls showed that more people considered the climate crisis a priority.

How effective shifting public opinion actually is in terms of changing government policy or corporate practices, it’s not clear, but environmental protests do create a sense of emergency – within the last few years, you can feel that very palpably.

Rather than a cynical false flag operation, the Van Gogh stunt felt like an act of desperation – that’s not necessarily an endorsement, but it does create a feeling of urgency that filters through. And “winning people over” is only one aspect of protest: it’s also about causing disruption in an attempt to force the demands to be met, which inevitably entails making people mad! Very few social justice movements throughout history have been popular with the general public, which is exactly why they are needed in the first place.

At this stage, we are facing suffering and displacement on such a mass scale that I’m not sure any of us really deserve to go about our daily lives without being inconvenienced. The idea that groups like Just Stop Oil risk putting the public off “their cause”, as though it belongs to any one particular faction, is absurd. These people deserve our solidarity on one hand, even when we disagree with their tactics, as the environment is a cause that, whether we like it or not, belongs to us all!

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