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Sunday, June 23, 2024

What the Soup-Throwing Climate Activists Got Right

Hello, friends!

My name is Kate Knibbs, and I’m a senior writer at WIRED covering culture and media. I’m subbing in this week for Steven Levy while he’s off reporting. I write to you from my basement office in the glamorous American Midwest, where temperatures are dipping near freezing, the leaves have turned many pleasant autumnal hues, and it is most definitely soup season.

The Plain View

Last Friday, two young climate activists walked into London’s National Gallery and threw tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting. Then they glued themselves to the wall. They wore T-shirts with the phrase “JUST STOP OIL” printed on the front, indicating their affiliation with an activist group of the same name devoted to opposing new fossil fuel extraction. “What is worth more—art or life?” they shouted at spectators, before being quickly arrested.

When I first heard about this, I was not immediately Team Soup-Throwers. Pitting art against life seemed wildly unnecessary. What did Sunflowers ever do to deserve such an indignity? (As it turns out, the activists chose it in part because it is protected by a glass case, so it wouldn’t be damaged.) The action struck me as juvenile, counterproductive, and, most of all, deeply annoying. I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a silly thing to do. The response has been so negative, people have floated the idea that this all may have been an elaborate psy-op to turn the public against climate activism.

After thinking about it for longer than a few seconds, though, I’ve thoroughly changed my mind. Soup-throwers, my dears, thank you for trying!

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Climate change is the most pressing issue humans face. Yet it’s also often excruciatingly boring to talk about, especially when the topic is the vast concept writ large and not a specific, recent catastrophe. In a recent Gallup poll, only 3 percent of respondents listed the environment, climate change, or pollution as the most important problem. Immediate, day-to-day issues feel more urgent; it’s easier to ignore the reality of an increasingly warming planet than it is to overlook the rising cost of living or violent crime.

What’s a passionate young person scared by a future of flooding, heat waves, and misery to do? Creating spectacle to force attention on this issue, to make it harder to push out of mind, is both a defendable impulse and a savvy one. Just Stop Oil’s antics have been making headlines within the UK since its inception earlier this year—the group has been blockading streets, disrupting sporting events, and targeting artworks for months now—but the Sunflowers caper has raised its profile considerably. This is how most people in the US are learning that the group exists. And disagreeing with tactics doesn’t necessarily equate to disagreeing with a message.

Remember Nan Goldin’s string of protests against arts institutions connected to the Sackler family? Her activist group targeted museums like the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and the Met in an effort to shame them into cutting ties with the Sacklers, who own Purdue Pharmaceuticals, which manufactured and promoted Oxycontin, the prescription painkiller that fueled the US overdose crisis. Were Goldin and her fellow protestors really so different from the soup launchers in London? While none of Goldin’s actions involved tinned liquid comestibles, they usually did interfere with museums’ day-to-day activity. Protesters staged “die-ins” by lying on the ground surrounded by pill bottles, or threw scraps of paper representing prescriptions. They were disruptive. They were relentless. And they were successful! Many of the targeted museums announced they would refuse future funding from the Sacklers and removed the family’s name from their campuses.

Now, the National Gallery had actually already announced earlier this year that it is cutting ties with BP, so the soup-throwers seem to have chosen an odd target. But the National Gallery had cut those ties because of other protests by climate activists. Direct action can work.

Perhaps Goldin’s agitations found more public sympathy because the overdose crisis has an immediacy that the climate crisis lacks, as huge swathes of the US population have at least one loved one who has overdosed. Perhaps Just Stop Oil would be better off sticking to unfurling banners and staging “die-ins” instead of wasting food. Then again, the only reason I’m even talking about Just Stop Oil is because of the whole soup thing. Earlier this year, other members of the group glued themselves to the wall beneath a different van Gogh painting, on display at London’s Courtauld Gallery, but they didn’t win nearly as much attention. The soup lent this deed its viral quotient.

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Some people have argued that the stunt discredited the wider climate movement. I don’t buy that for a second. Instead, I suspect it is far more likely to produce a helpful radical flank effect, making more moderate forces in the climate movement, such as the UK’s Green Party, more appealing to the mainstream. In fact, a recent study found that unpopular radical tactics from climate activism groups can indeed increase support for more moderate factions.

I emailed University of South Carolina sociologist Brent Simpson, the lead author of the study, to ask if he thought it applied to the Sunflowers protest. He saw a connection. “We didn’t study exactly these actions in our research, of course,” he wrote. “But, yes, our findings certainly suggest that these more radical protest tactics can increase support for groups who are using more moderate tactics to pursue the same general climate action goals.”

And if protestors continue to demonstrate in attention-grabbing ways, they will keep pushing the issue into the national conversation and pulling the Overton Window wider. We’ve already seen this happen in the US with the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which included climate provisions that would have been seen as radically left-wing until very recently but were passed with a moderate Democrat in the White House. This change happened not in spite of climate activism but because of it.

Most people believe in climate change now, and support for policies aimed at combating climate disruption increased considerably during the 2010s. And even if most people also think that lobbing food at pretty paintings is a stupid way to fight the climate crisis, it does raise an obvious follow-up question: Well then, what is the best way to fight climate change? Throwing canned goods is probably not top of the list, but it’s not doing nothing.

In the week following the Sunflowers stunt, Just Stop Oil has been busy. Activists blockaded a busy bridge in the eastern English county of Essex for several days. “More protests are coming, this is a rapidly growing movement and the next two weeks will be, I hope, the most intense period of climate action to date, so buckle up,” Margaret Klein Salamon, executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund (the organization largely funding Just Stop Oil) told The Guardian. Good! It’s soup season, baby.

Time Travel

This seems like a good moment to revisit a WIRED feature from 2018 called “Pipeline Vandals Are Reinventing Climate Activism.” It’s a fascinating dive into a different kind of stunt-driven climate action. The story follows environmentalists who sabotaged an oil pipeline in Minnesota, and how they were able to use a “necessity” defense in court, claiming that the government had taken so little action to ameliorate the harms of fossil fuels that it left citizens no choice but to intervene:

It was a cold morning, aspens shaking their dull gold under heavy skies. A fellow activist, Ben Joldersma, livestreamed to Facebook as the two women cut the chains around fenced enclosures containing large shut-off valves for two oil pipelines owned by the Canadian multinational Enbridge. The pipes carry crude oil from deposits of tar sands (also referred to as oil sands) in Alberta, transporting it to Lake Superior. Because making petroleum products from this goo—called bitumen—releases more global-warming emissions than most other oil sources, the activists were going to do what they could to keep it in the ground.Enbridge was well aware they were there: About 15 minutes before they cut their way in, an activist named Jay O’Hara with the Climate Disobedience Center in Seattle had talked to Enbridge staff on the phone and warned them that protesters were going to be closing the valves on Line 67 and Line 4, each of which hum with 33,000 gallons of crude oil per hour.What only a handful of people knew, however, was that Johnston and Klapstein were part of a nationwide action dubbed #ShutItDown that would also choke off pipelines at three other locations in North Dakota, Montana, and Washington State that day, moving east to west. They referred to themselves as the Valve Turners, and Reuters called their effort “the biggest coordinated move on US energy infrastructure ever undertaken by environmental protesters.” On that day, five principal activists—Michael Foster, 54, Ken Ward, 61, and Leonard Higgins, 66, in addition to Johnston and Klapstein—cut off 70 percent of the oil from tar sands that flows into the US from Canada.

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Ask Me One Thing

Mike asks: Does ketchup ever belong on a hot dog?

Thank you for that question, Mike. As a Chicagoan, I feel uniquely qualified to answer it correctly … in a way that may shock and appall my peers. Yes, you can put ketchup on a hot dog. A classic ketchup-and-mustard dog can really hit the spot. Ketchup is, generally speaking, delicious. And the whole Chicago tough guy “if you order ketchup in my presence I’m gonna commune with the spirit of former Chicago Bears football player Mike Ditka until he haunts your entire life” thing is a little overdone.

Now, is ketchup involved in the best way to eat a hot dog? Absolutely not, nowhere close. The best way to eat a hot dog is dragged through the garden, as we say here, with mustard and a sprinkling of celery salt, on a poppy-seed bun. (The second-best is also a ketchup-free experience: a chili-cheese dog.) 

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

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