Throwing soup on the issue: Are radical climate protests helping or hurting the cause? | activism

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OOn Wednesday, activists protested outside the National Gallery of Australia, scribbling with blue marker over the framed prints of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup I. One of the protesters, who belonged to the Stop Fossil Fuel Subsidies group, tried to stick himself to a print.

It wasn’t even the first climate protest in the past week to involve soup: five days earlier, Italian activists from the group Ultima Generazione – Last Generation – threw pea soup over a painting by Vincent van Gogh in Rome. Like the Warhol prints, the Van Gogh work was protected by glass.

Protests against famous artworks began in the UK in mid-year, instigated by the group Just Stop Oil, which has held actions in Manchester, Glasgow and several London galleries. The stunts have taken hold around the world: activists have taped themselves to artworks and gallery walls in Milan (Ultima Generazione, August), Melbourne (Extinction Rebellion, October), The Hague (Just Stop Oil, October), Potsdam (Last Generation, October) and Madrid (November). galleries like that prado have “reject[ed] Endangering cultural heritage as a means of protest”.

The action that drew the most attention and criticism was carried out last month by activists from Just Stop Oil who threw tomato soup at Van Gogh’s sunflowers at the National Gallery in London.

The backlash spawned a conspiracy theory of its own: that oil heiress-turned-environmentalist Aileen Getty funded the stunt to discredit real-life climate activists. (“I don’t directly fund these groups, nor do I have direct control over what specific actions climate activists take,” Getty clarified.)

Are radical actions like the art gallery protests an effective way to advance climate efforts, or, as their critics argue, do they harm the cause they are trying to advance?

The activist’s dilemma

Research on social change suggests that radical actions have been effective for two purposes in the past, says Prof Winnifred Louis, a social psychologist at the University of Queensland.

The first is to raise awareness – particularly useful in the early stages of a movement – because the media is more likely to cover actions when they are sensational or go against social norms.

The second area where radical action has been successful is in preventing or delaying certain events that have no social license — “destroying a certain building against the will of the community, or bulldozing trees,” says Louis. In 1998, direct action – including a nine-month blockade of the mine site – helped halt uranium mining at Jabiluka in the Northern Territory.

Just Stop Oil activists spray soup on Van Gogh’s sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. Photo: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Christopher Wright, professor of organizational studies at the University of Sydney, cites the Lock the Gate alliance as another successful For example, when locating protests against fossil fuel mining to “specific concerns from communities about how mining will endanger their quality of life or the environment”.

More disruptive action also exerts what researchers call the “radical flank effect,” in which the radical faction of a social movement can increase both support and identification with more moderate groups in the same movement. Its impact has been demonstrated in relation to the American civil rights, animal rights, and climate movements.

This flank also has the effect of normalizing radical tactics over time, suggests Prof. Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. “Big mainstream green groups that said, ‘We’re just doing institutional politics,’ are now engaging in peaceful civil disobedience,” she says.

However, research also suggests that radical tactics can reduce popular support for social movements. “That’s what we in social psychology call the activist’s dilemma,” says Dr. Morgana Lizzio-Wilson, Research Fellow at Flinders University. “On the one hand, radical actions can bring more attention to a cause, but at the same time they can reduce support for that cause.”

Just Stop Oil protesters in Trafalgar Square, London, November 1st, 2022.
Just Stop Oil protesters in Trafalgar Square, London, November 1st, 2022. Photo: Amer Ghazzal/REX/Shutterstock

Radical action has proven less convincing and more divisive on issues like animal welfare, abortion rights and the US presidential election, says Lizzio-Wilson. Her own work, analyzing reactions from animal rights groups, found that radical actions (e.g. undercover operations in animal factories) were perceived as less effective and less legitimate than traditional tactics (e.g. advocating for law reform or reducing of meat). Consumption).

“In turn, because people thought radical tactics were less effective, this meant they were less willing to identify themselves as supporters of animal rights and less inclined to act on behalf of the cause itself,” says Lizzio-Wilson.

However, research in this area is controversial. A review conducted by Sam Glover and James Ozden of the Social Change Lab in London has found that “a nonviolent radical flank is likely to make a movement more likely to achieve overall political success,” while others have found that radical climate action do not alienate those who are already sympathetic to the cause.

Earlier this year, the Social Change Lab also commissioned a YouGov poll of 2,000 people each, in three polls conducted before, during and after the disruptive Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion protests in London. It found that despite the majority of respondents rejecting the protests, “there was no significant negative change in the number of people who said they supported Just Stop Oil’s goals.”

However, Glover and Ozden noted: “Due to the existing high level of climate concern in the UK, it is possible that the attempt to raise concern about climate change on a broad scale is now less effective than in previous years.”

critics divided

Opinions among experts on the effectiveness of the gallery protests are particularly divided. Some criticize their lack of action logic, in which an action is immediately comprehensible to an outsider – for example, chaining yourself to a tree to prevent it from being recorded.

Prof Robb Willer, director of the Laboratory for Polarization and Social Change at Stanford University, said that while disruptive protest can work, he sees “no clear path to impact” for soup-throwing. “Rich, left-leaning art lovers should take bold climate action in response to these actions? In which form? lobbying? Donations to climate organizations? I haven’t seen a convincing justification yet,” he wrote Twitter.

Climate activists from Last Generation threw pea soup at Van Gogh's The Sower at the Palazzo Bonaparte in Rome on November 4, 2022.
Climate activists from Last Generation threw pea soup at Van Gogh’s The Sower at the Palazzo Bonaparte in Rome on November 4, 2022. Photo: ANSA/AFP/Getty Images

“The benefit of reaching large numbers of people and alienating them is really debatable,” says Louis. She gives three reasons why people don’t take action when they already support a cause: they don’t see the action as relevant, they don’t feel supported by social norms, or they don’t think it’s effective. The soup protests likely amplify these perceptions and “actually slow the pace of change,” says Louis. “It [would] Be ironic for a movement that says ‘trust the science’ when it doesn’t look at what’s evidence-based in terms of tactics.”

But Fisher, who contributed to the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, stresses that the impact of the art gallery protests has not yet been studied.

“The reason they went with it is because it really grabs attention and it’s shocking to look at until you know the artwork won’t be destroyed,” she adds. That’s what the climate activists say purposeful art with protective covers – no damage has occurred to the movement itself so far.

“As more people engage in confrontational activism — even if it’s peaceful — the more law enforcement agencies employ what they call ‘insurgency repression,'” says Fisher. As many have pointed out, climate activists in many places are increasingly faced with draconian anti-protest laws.

The rise of disruptive climate protests is likely driven by disenfranchisement, a pattern well established in social change research. “When people feel their activism to speak up about an issue is failing, they’re more likely to employ more radical tactics,” says Lizzio-Wilson.

“Actually, it’s very understandable that many climate activists are resorting to these more radical tactics because time is running out.”

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