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Tomato Soup and Mashed Potatoes: Recipe for Nothing

Source: Reuters

Two anti-fossil fuel activists throw tomato soup on a Van Gogh, glue themselves to a wall, and ask: “What is worth more: art or life?” And just like that, Saudi Arabian Oil (Saudi Aramco), PetroChina (PTR), and China Petroleum and Chemical (SNP) shut down their oil companies, leaving behind a thank you note to Just Stop Oil.

Just Stop Oil is a group of experienced members of climate organizations such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Insulate Britain, whose goal is to urge the government of the United Kingdom to stop new fossil fuel licensing and production. Unlike XR, which relies upon individual and public donations, Just Stop Oil doesn’t wait for approval to take drastic—and sometimes controversial—measures. However, that doesn’t mean their actions are successful. 

It is naive to expect large-scale changes from one disruptive protest. As such, activist groups strive to find innovative, long-term strategies to make their voices heard. However, as addressing the environmental crisis becomes more critical every day, eco-protesters’ frustration with general inaction can lead to impatiently planned demonstrations that fail to do justice to the history, power, and significance of climate activism. 

Protests that intend to spur widespread media outrage rather than combat the issue at hand are harmful to the image and cause of activism. Vandalizing museums for any cause, though a quick means to gain public attention, harms the way people view activism and fails to command the attention of the entities that are responsible for climate change. By committing disputable actions, the activists bring criticism down upon themselves and climate activism rather than the companies they are intending to fight, making these businesses look more legitimate in their refusal to negotiate with activists or change their practices.  

Take climate activism in sports, for example. In March 2022, a Just Stop Oil protester ran through the field of a Premier League soccer game in an effort to cease further fossil fuel extraction. Yet this September, the British government offered new North Sea oil and gas licenses, despite numerous climate concerns by many other environmentalists, including Greenpeace. Why was the goal of the protest to attain maximum media coverage rather than to draw legitimate concern to the effects of the sports industry on the environment? 

During the 2022 French Open tennis semifinal, a climate activist of the French organization Dernière Rénovation tied herself to the tennis net. The protester was wearing a t-shirt with the phrase “We have 1028 days left,” a reference to a recent UN climate report that marks 2025 as the deadline to avert the catastrophic ecological consequences of rising global emissions. Since the French Open draws upwards of 1,500,000 viewers, the aim of this activist seems to have been to gain as much public attention as possible. 

Conversely, at the end of Paris Fashion Week, an XR climate protester entered the Louis Vuitton catwalk while holding a piece of fabric that read “OVERCONSUMPTION=EXTINCTION” as a response to the role that the ever-growing luxury clothing industry plays in promoting fast fashion trends at the expense of the environment. In this case, the protest explicitly relates to ecological destruction and addresses the overlooked responsibility of fashion industries—a much more effective protest approach.

Criticism of XR’s values, besides the cliché anarchist-vegan-hippie picture that the right wing tries to paint, refers to the organization’s refusal to blame neoliberal capitalism as a culprit of climate change. Moreover, the group’s approach of promoting mass arrests and fill-in-jails tactics fails to consider the harsh reality of police racism, making demonstrations a privilege for white protesters. When a movement fails to be inclusive and intersectional, or strays away from its main purpose, eco-activists are infantilized and it becomes easier for the media to mock an entire climate organization. Some argue that the purpose of vexed, “radical” protests is to ridicule demonstrators and their causes. Seeing that well-known groups such as XR, Just Stop Oil, and Animal Rebellion are funded by billionaire oil heirs, the intent of their actions could be mere propaganda

For some groups, winning public appeal is not a priority, which means that blocking the streets or clashing with citizens is seen as necessary to spark important conversations about the climate crisis. Following the Van Gogh incident, a Just Stop Oil representative said, “We are not trying to make friends here, we are trying to make change, and unfortunately this is the way that change happens.” Research, though, says otherwise. Simply “enabling a conversation” and commanding media attention is not enough for an activist movement to succeed. Protesters need to put pressure on political leaders, be present in actual environmental negotiations, and get influential figures on their side. In the end, real government policies—not publicity stunts—will bring long-lasting change.

There is a critical difference between protests that have a proactive purpose and those with a retroactive purpose. An example of retroactive activism is the parkour protesters in Paris, who use their climbing skills to turn off lights outside stores during nighttime. This approach is effective in that it has a practical and real impact on our everyday lives, even on a small scale. The heroic act of rebellion against energy waste could be argued to violate the shop owners’ property rights, but it nonetheless serves as both a symbolic protest and an effective form of action against climate change that does more than just complain.

But who is to say when climate campaigners have gone too far? Consider the Tyre Extinguishers, a climate group from the UK, now spread worldwide, that deflates tyres of four-wheel-drive SUVs in order to actively fight against climate change. In their website, the eco-campaigners state: “Politely asking and protesting for these things [climate change, air pollution, and unsafe drivers] has failed. It’s time for action.” In fact, “SUVs were the second largest contributor to the increase in global carbon emissions from 2010 to 2018,” so it’s warranted that climate protesters are becoming more and more confrontational as their cries for change are being largely ignored.

Another provocative case is that of Tash Peterson, a vegan campaigner advocating against animal product consumption. In videos posted on her Instagram account, her occasionally “aggressive” protests include pouring fake blood on herself in restaurants like KFC. Shocking actions like this can attract attention, but that doesn’t mean they are effective in prompting action. They have the potential to lead the public into adopting extremely negative perceptions of veganism and undermine people’s comfort with identifying as vegan. 

The question returns to the two Just Stop Oil eco-activists and the goal of their protest; one could argue that the protest was against the carbon footprint generated by art museums and galleries. Nevertheless, one of the demonstrators recently explained in an interview that their motives were not to destroy the painting, knowing full well it was protected by glass, but to highlight the necessity of civil resistance in times of dire need. Actions to get media attention, they said, are proven by history as the fastest way to get people to talk about an urgent matter. An analysis of protests occurring between 2006 and 2020 showed that direct action protests “can have a significant impact in reframing debates and bringing issues into the global political agenda.”

What is also proven by history according to social scientists, however, is that successful social movements “must include the rank and file of the constituencies they are representing in decisions concerning goals and tactics.” They must “cultivate ‘conscious’ constituencies—sympathizers, celebrities, patrons—who may not directly benefit from the movement’s goals yet are willing to contribute money, facilities, equipment, access to media and other resources.”

We don’t need more activists telling us how bad the world is. The spread of unproductive, copycat social media-centered protests endangers years of work that climate activists have spent convincing the public to take them seriously. People are more likely to alter their behavior when the alternative is presented as relatively easy, so the role of activism should shift into making behavior change appear easier by providing accessible options—for example, in the case of veganism, information about and access to affordable non-animal products. 

Throwing canned tomato soup on that innocent Van Gogh definitely sparked outrage and garnered media attention. But rather than affecting permanent changes, it merely added to the growing list of controversial climate protests that are being received worse and worse by the media. Activism can and must do better. Protesters should focus on making climate activism accessible to the general public, so that there can be a collective push for change before it’s too late.