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Radical Activism: Effective or Unnecessary?

Martha Beal discusses...

We are all too aware of the global climate crisis we are currently facing, and in light of recent protests by environmental activist group Just Stop Oil – including throwing tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting at the National Gallery and spraying orange paint on the buildings of big businesses – a conversation has erupted once again around radical activism. But do these attention-grabbing stunts actually achieve anything?

The main aim of the Just Stop Oil group is to prevent the government granting new fossil fuel licenses and permits. This guidance is recommended by scientists all over the world, and something the Labour party promises to enact on should they come into government; yet, despite the urgency of the situation, the protests of activist groups are widely met with resistance. Following ‘Tomato Soup-Gate’ there was widespread outrage on social media, with many deeming the protest senseless and unnecessary. However, this action did not result in any permanent damage to the painting and drew lots of attention to a very worthy cause. The group have admitted themselves that the aim of their radical action was to start a conversation and provoke a debate, rather than to achieve change straight away. And, there is no doubt that Just Stop Oil has become a household name as a result of the soup protest, despite them having carried out numerous road blockades prior to this. Similarly, the disruptive protests by Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion were met with anger initially but also propelled them into the spotlight.

On the Today in Focus podcast by the Guardian on 2nd November 2022, Damien Gayle discusses the ‘law of diminishing returns’ in regards to the repetition of disruptive protests such as blockades. Gayle says that the first time these protests are carried out, public and media interest is high but the more times we see this in the news and in our daily lives, the more disruptive it becomes and leads to annoyance rather than interest. This means that radical activism becomes somewhat necessary to draw attention back to the cause, and throwing soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers certainly did that for Just Stop Oil.

Personally, I have never been directly impacted by any protest actions, but I can understand the inconvenience and upset for those who have. However, I believe we cannot ignore the urgency of the climate crisis, and when the advice of scientists and climate experts is ignored or belittled it seems pretty hopeless that change is going to come soon enough to stop disastrous, irreversible effects on the planet. If radical action is the only way to get people on board, then I am completely fine with that. After all, women wouldn’t have got the vote if it hadn’t been for the Suffragettes’ radical activism, and they are now considered heroes and praised for their bravery.


Words: Martha Beal

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