Oct 26, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Climate activists divided on souping art

A protestor holds a can of tomato soup in front of a painting.

Just Stop Oil climate protesters after throwing soup on Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. Photo: Just Stop Oil / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

From mashed potatoes à la Monet to cake thrown on a wax-imitation of King Charles and tomato soup splashed on a Van Gogh, protesters are targeting famous artworks with food to drum up action on climate change.

Why it matters: The highly publicized protests have spurred conflicting responses across the climate activism community, with some warning that the tactics are counterproductive while others respond with a careful silence.

What they're saying: 18-year-old climate activist Elijah McKenzie-Jackson, campaign coordinator for youth climate strike movement Fridays for Future International, told Axios in an email that history tells us civil protests like these are necessary for change.

  • "Although I can recognize these acts of justice may seem outrageous to people, I challenge them to feel the outrage of destruction, death, and murder all western governments and corporations are committing to our animals, neighbors in the south and ecosystems," wrote McKenzie-Jackson.
  • 15-year-old Genesis Butler, founder of global organization Youth Climate Save, echoed that sentiment, writing in an email to Axios that "it’s important for us all to make bold moves to raise awareness about the climate crisis."

The other side: Some don't see putting fabled art at the heart of disruptive protests as an effective path to advancing climate action.

  • Among those who spoke out against the Van Gogh soup stunt was climate scientist Michael Mann, who criticized the move, telling the Associated Press that people will "draw negative associations with climate advocacy."
  • Researchers and journalists alike have also since argued that these kind of viral activities don't mitigate climate polluting emissions — science and policy do.

Other youth climate organizations, like Defend Our Future, an advocacy nonprofit under the Environmental Defense Fund, are foregoing a stance.

  • "Defend Our Future is not taking a position on this particular tactic," Kyli Wagner, director of Defend Our Future, told Axios in an email. "However, young people have an understandable frustration when it comes to the climate crisis. We have seen the impacts of climate change worsen throughout our entire lifetimes."
  • Vanessa Nakate, a leading youth climate activist, told the BBC yesterday that she wishes people would stop discussing what "mode of action is right or not" and instead focus on the climate issues "happening right now."

Zoom out: Environmental protests have a long history of spectacle, according to Christina Limpert, a social scientist at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry who has researched intergenerational climate activism.

  • "I see some of this as the urgency of the moment," Limpert told Axios. "They're panicking, their eco-anxiety is real, and they're trying to call attention to multiple things. It's just not easy for that message to get out because it's filtered by people who have power."
  • While performative protests where activists attach themselves to equipment — or in this case, glue themselves to walls below soup-splattered paintings — aren't novel, climate trends incorporating it are new to younger generations, according to Limpert.
  • "I'm not sure whether these actions are particularly effective because I'm not sure who the audience is," said Limpert. She says that people concerned about fossil fuel extraction are likely already listening, but warned that these types of protests may further alienate those who aren't.
  • "I think people in power can easily just go 'ugh,' and it kind of re-inscribes this idea of youth as a problem."

Yes, but: Phoebe Plummer, one half of the Just Stop Oil duo that lobbed soup on Van Gogh's Sunflowers, said in a video that what they did was intentionally "ridiculous" so that they could get media attention to "ask the questions that matter."

  • 'What is worth more, art or life?' the activists chanted mid-stunt.
  • Footage of the protesters throwing soup on the glass-covered painting — which officials have confirmed was not damaged — has racked up 49.6 million views on Twitter alone, while coverage of it has made headlines across the world.

"Climate protests involving art [are] important because it is a bold move that gets attention from people," Youth Climate Save's Butler told Axios.

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