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Climate Activism: The Fine Line Between Fighting for a Noble Cause and Destructive Action

Updated: Mar 9

To raise awareness of the pressing need for environmental action, climate activists have resorted to bolder and more conspicuous actions in recent years. From chaining themselves to iconic landmarks to disrupting major events, these strategies have been successful in making headlines and starting discussions. However, it gets us thinking: Do these public seeking acts ultimately work against the cause that they support and diminish their credibility, or do they truly help it?

On January 28, 2024, two climate protesters threw soup at the Mona Lisa. This, however, was not the first time climate activists targeted iconic artworks. Similarly, on October 14, 2022, activists had chosen Van Gogh’s masterpiece “Sunflowers” for their protest, and on May 30, 2020, an individual, disguised as an elderly woman in a wheelchair, had thrown cake at the Mona Lisa. While some argue that these actions are necessary to capture the public's attention that may otherwise be overlooked, others question whether they should risk alienating potential supporters and diminishing the credibility of the movement.

Not a good look … Just Stop Oil protesters at the National Gallery in London in October. Photograph: Just Stop Oil/AP

Critics state that although these actions get a lot of attention in the short term, activists risk polarizing public opinion and reinforcing negative stereotypes about the climate movement and those who are a part of it. By engaging in vandalism and disruptive behavior, they ultimately repel those who would otherwise be interested in their cause.

Furthermore, instead of being recognized for their thoughts and ideas, these activists often find themselves making headlines for their actions, becoming mere sources of entertainment rather than the advocates of meaningful change that they were supposed to be. The misguided belief that any attention, even if obtained through absurd actions, will draw awareness to their cause neglects the fact that the media and the public perceive such behavior as ridiculous. It is precisely this perception that lands them in the headlines.

Another aspect to consider is rather crucial: the targeting of artworks. These targets raise concern about the value of art and heritage in climate activism. While the intention may be to capture attention and provoke the public to act, the risk of potential damage to irreplaceable artworks overshadows the activists' messages. Targeting art and museums creates antipathy toward the cause.

Nonetheless, it's important to acknowledge the urgency of the climate crisis and the frustration that many activists feel towards the lack of action from governments and major corporations. Activists argue that traditional methods of advocacy have failed, leading them to resort to more provocative actions to capture public attention.

"I'm doing this so that one day I can look at my niece or nephew in the eye and say, 'I fought for your future,'" Phoebe Plummer, one of the activists who threw soup at the painting Sunflowers, explained in an interview. Plummer further commented on the issue in the interview and added: “We have been engaging in disruptive acts all around London because right now what is missing to make this change is political will. So, our action, in particular, was a media-grabbing action to get people talking, not just about what we did, but why we did it." Although their concern about the possible detrimental effects of climate change is justified, the way that they express themselves is open to criticism.

Moreover, the intention behind these actions is not to cause harm or destruction but rather to gain the attention and interest of the public. Activists often emphasize that they are willing to face criticism and backlash if it means drawing attention to the urgent need for environmental action.

In conclusion, while there are valid concerns about the potential drawbacks of these sorts of activism, it's important to comprehend the underlying motivations driving these actions. Climate activists are operating in an environment of urgency and desperation, where traditional methods of advocacy have failed them, and by engaging in attention-grabbing tactics, activists hope to spark conversations, challenge societal norms, and ultimately drive toward the systemic changes needed to address the climate crisis. However, this provocative activism works against the common goal, and with the intention of fighting for a noble cause these activists often cross the line and portray destructive action which inevitably hampers their cause.

Works Cited

Gayle, Damien. “Just Stop Oil Activists Throw Soup at van Gogh’s Sunflowers.” The Guardian, The Guardian, 14 Oct. 2022. Accessed 2 Feb. 2024.

Quiroz, Lilly, host. "The Activist Who Threw Soup on a Van Gogh Says It's the Planet That's Being Destroyed." Climate, 1 Nov. 2022. NPR. Accessed 2 Feb. 2024.Transcript.

WIRES, NEWS. “Man Disguised as Old Woman Throws Cake at the Mona Lisa.” France 24, FRANCE 24, 30 May 2022. Accessed 2 Feb. 2024.

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