Turning climate protest into an art form

An ingenious protest involving soup and a famous painting threw the global spotlight on the climate emergency in a way that a thousand scientific articles, petitions and marches seemed to have failed to do. I was asked by TheJournal.ie for my take on the protest in mid-October. This website has done some of Ireland’s best climate-related journalism in recent times, but its Comments section is famously a cess pit of unmoderated trolling, and it certainly didn’t disappoint this time either.

WHAT DO YOU think of the two young climate activists who threw some cold tomato soup over the famous Sunflowers painting by Vincent Van Gogh at the National Gallery in London? Maybe, like many people, you have some sympathy for their cause, but feel they went too far or picked the wrong target this time?

Seemingly in direct response to the Van Gogh incident, which made headlines across the world despite the painting being undamaged, UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman flagged even more sweeping new powers for the police to “proactively” target actions being planned by protest groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil.

Some of the measures being proposed by a government whose public support has almost completely collapsed would not seem out of place in Putin’s Russia. It plans to introduce Serious Disruption Prevention Orders designed to criminalise members of the public who have not been convicted of any offence by banning them from attending protests or associating with named individuals and potentially even monitoring their use of the internet.

Who has brought us here?

These draconian measures are, bear in mind, to be deployed against entirely peaceful people who have not broken any law, and to be implemented by a police force which has in the past engaged in criminal attempts at infiltrating protest groups, including undercover policemen fathering children with activists under false pretences.

That such a rag-tag group of climate protesters could elicit such a violent response from the UK establishment is better understood when you realise that embattled (then) prime minister Liz Truss is a former employee of the energy giant, Shell.

To underpin her extreme ideological credentials, Truss recently floated the ludicrous proposal of banning solar projects on most UK farms, despite them being popular with farmers, while also signing off on dozens of highly destructive fracking projects.

It is no coincidence that fossil fuel firms poured around €1.5 million into the UK Conservative Party as gifts and donations since 2019, cash used to oil the wheels of power to turn in their favour.

While there has been much media pearl-clutching, including predictable indignation on RTÉ’s Liveline over actions taken by young climate activists last week, there is far less anger directed at the energy industry executives and politicians, and their media enablers who are colluding to burn down the biosphere.

Perhaps the real question we need to be asking is: who exactly are the conservatives and who are the radicals?

‘Dangerous radicals’

According to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, climate activists “are depicted as dangerous radicals, yet the truly dangerous radicals are the countries and firms that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness”.

While the typical climate protestor is often young and idealistic, they have now been joined by thousands from the ranks of science. Earlier this week, scientists disrupted the opening of the World Health Summit in Berlin, with research papers plastered to the doors of the conference centre while they engaged in a sit-in.

The group called Scientist Rebellion described the climate crisis as “the biggest health crisis humanity has ever faced”. Scientists have been carrying out research, writing reports and briefing politicians about the unfolding climate emergency for decades, but many have come to realise that no one is listening and nothing is being done, despite the situation becoming ever more desperate.

A survey of publishing climate scientists contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year found that two in three respondents were suffering “anxiety, grief or other distress” as a result of what they knew about climate change.

Asked whether they think they would see “catastrophic impacts of climate impact in your lifetime” an astonishing 82% said yes. An almost identical number agreed that climate scientists “should engage in advocacy” on the issue. These, bear in mind, are the experts, the very people trained to be analytical and dispassionate.

It’s worth recalling what exactly has the world’s scientists so absolutely spooked, and the climate crisis is only part of the deepening global emergency. The latest Living Planet Report, published in recent days, confirmed that the population of all wildlife on Earth has declined by an average of 69% in just the last 50 years, a disaster on an almost unimaginable scale, representing the fastest rate of die-off in tens of millions of years.

A 2020 study projected that within the next 50 years, areas of the world where up to three billion people currently live will become too hot for human habitation, with more dramatic changes in temperature in the coming decades than at any time in the last 6,000 years.

Sleepwalking into catastrophe

This paints an apocalyptic scenario of global famines, mass forced migration, wars over dwindling water and food resources and the total collapse of modern civilisation and the global economy. And, tragically, this is precisely the future that “business-as-usual” is on track to deliver.

Now, remind me again how offended you are about annoying climate activists throwing soup over paintings or blocking traffic in a desperate bid to get our attention before everything we know and care about is destroyed forever?

As we tut tut about such minor inconveniences, the defenders of the status quo have murdered around 1,700 environmental defenders worldwide in the last decade. The billionaire class are prepared to go to war to defend their privilege, yet we are expected to meekly accept our fate and shrug as climate activists are demonised and criminalised for simply acting to defend us all.

Assuming those in power continue to ignore the climate emergency, Swedish academic and author, Andreas Malm asked rhetorically: “Do we say that we’ve done what we could, tried the means at our disposal and failed? Do we consider that the only thing left is learning to die, and slide down the side of the crater into three, four or eight degrees of warming?”

As a long-time campaigning climate journalist and parent, I find myself increasingly ashamed and embarrassed.

Knowing what I do about the dire climate emergency and the ongoing destruction of the living world and the evisceration of our collective future, why have I too not yet had the courage to break the law, disturb the peace and perhaps end up behind bars?

I really don’t fancy getting arrested and had never imagined I might someday choose to be jailed, but now I’m really not so sure. At this crucial moment in human history, the only true crime seems to be to sit back and do nothing as the perpetual darkness of global ecological collapse threatens to engulf us all.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator and is on Twitter @think_or_swim.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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