The “Just Stop Oil” protests are doing more harm than good

The group’s leaps for international attention risks destroying irreplaceable art history

Maggie Blackburn, Arts & Culture Editor

I’m sure by now you have seen at least one protest for the movement “Just Stop Oil.” 

Most famously, they smeared cake on the “Mona Lisa,” threw a can of tomato soup on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and pied a wax figure of King Charles III. Videos have been circulating social media and news sites ever since these protests have started, and that’s exactly what they want. 

The European group of young activists behind the “Just Stop Oil” movement demands that the UK government “makes a statement that it will immediately halt all future licensing and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK,” as they claim on their website. While the “Just Stop Oil” movement is based in the UK, there are local projects and branches all over the world, including “Declare Emergency” in the U.S. 

Throughout the summer, protesters were gluing themselves to celebrated paintings, the framework, or the wall right below it, however, they did not catch the attention of most until October. On October 14 two young activists entered the U.K.’s National Gallery and threw a can of Heinz tomato soup on Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” and then glued their hands to the wall. Since then many more works of art, most of which are famous paintings, have been the victim of the attacks. 

The common theme of gluing themselves to something, whether it be a street, a wall or a frame, comes from wanting to give themselves as much time as possible to get their message across. This is not an unseen tactic in protesting and has mostly been seen in street protests. 

As far as why they’re targeting art, Time explains, “the recent art stunts are also clearly aimed at an international audience, with the purpose of shocking people out of complacency as emissions rise and the window to avert catastrophic temperature increases grows smaller.”

Personally, I would be more likely to comply with the movement, and undoubtedly support the activists from “Just Stop Oil,” however, the face of the movement is destroying art — or at least trying to — rather than fighting to combat climate change, which is something that I, as well as many others, can not get behind. 

“I originally thought these protests were meant for a good cause,” said junior Varsha Patel.“But after hearing about the methods taken, I feel like the motive behind the cause has changed.”

Luckily the paintings that have been targeted were not permanently destroyed, as they are protected by a pane of glass. However, that does not disregard the intent or the actions taken by these protesters. These pieces of art are priceless and have nothing to do with the movement. 

Besides the hostilities against the famous artwork, there have been protests across the globe in high-traffic areas, in which demonstrators are running out, sitting in front of the cars with posters/banners, and most are gluing their hands to the street, stopping traffic. The efforts behind stopping traffic are to get the attention of drivers and to urge them to favor public transportation to get to work, school, etc. which would decrease vehicle emissions and cut fuel consumption. 

While these protests make much more sense, as they are in line with the actual cause, they have also led to a whirlwind of hysteria. A man was recorded begging for the protesters to move off the street because his sick baby needed to be taken to the hospital. Another man shared with the BBC that he missed his father’s funeral due to a protest, and that he will “never, ever forgive these people.” GB News also reports that ambulances were also blocked, “despite [the movement] promoting blue light policy.” The protesters originally said that “people with the blue lights on would be allowed through, and that wasn’t true.” The blue light typically is used by emergency service vehicles in times of emergency, and protesters didn’t move for ambulances displaying blue lights, which meant someone was in need of emergency medical care. 

For the “Just Stop Oil” movement to be taken seriously, and for people to want to fight for their cause, they need to engage more in protests that are actively connected to the continuous emission and funding of fossil fuels and oils, but that also can do no harm to the public except get their attention. 

Patel admitted that she would be “less inclined to support them because the approach they are taking is doing more harm than good.” 

Reforming the types and places of protests are the only way for the movement to gain the positive support they are looking for. Appropriate places to protest would include outside of banks and insurance companies as they fund and ensure oil drilling, airports because of the carbon footprint of airplanes, and even outside of city hall buildings in cities where city-owned vehicles are still gas-powered. 

As recently as January 2, the Guardian reported that Just Stop Oil and its partner protesting group, Insulate Britain, which advocates for the “UK government…to fully fund and take responsibility for the insulation of all social housing in Britain by 2025,” as well as “produce a legally binding national plan” to create low-energy housing options in Britain by 2030, will continue to disrupt and engage in less “civil disobedience” but more “civil resistance.” The continued blocking of roads and infrastructure is arguably doing just as much harm as major oil companies.

I completely agree that there needs to be reform, and we as a community need to take a step back and look at our carbon footprints, and what we can do even on a small level, like taking the bus to work instead of driving in. However, destroying priceless pieces of art that are pieces of history and inspiration to artists all over the globe so that the movement you’re fighting for will go viral, is not the right way to go about it. Throwing cans of beans, cans of soup, smearing cake- none of it will do anything except make a mockery of the movement calling for climate action.