Throwing soup on the issue: are radical climate protests helping or hurting the cause? | Activism

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On Wednesday, activists staged a protest at the National Gallery of Australia, scribbling in blue markers on framed prints of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup I. One of the protesters, who belonged to the group Stop Fossil Fuel Subsidies, tried to glue 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 at a Vincent van Gogh painting in Rome. Van Gogh’s work, like Warhol’s prints, was protected by glass.

Protests targeting famous works of art began in the middle of the year in the UK, instigated by the group Just Stop Oil, which carried out actions in Manchester, Glasgow and several London galleries. The stunts spread around the world: activists glued themselves to artworks and gallery walls in Milan (Ultima Generazione, August), Melbourne (Extinction Rebellion, October), The Hague (Just Stop Oil, October ), Potsdam (Letzte Generation, October) and Madrid (November). Galleries like Prado have “reject[ed] endanger 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 has given rise to its own conspiracy theory: that Aileen Getty, an oil heiress turned environmentalist, funded the stunt in order to discredit real climate activists. (“I do not fund these groups directly, nor do I have direct control over the specific actions climate activists choose to take,” Getty clarified.)

Is radical action like protests in art galleries an effective way to advance climate efforts, or, as its critics argue, does it harm the cause it’s trying to advance?

The activist’s dilemma

Social change research suggests that radical actions have historically been effective for two purposes, says Professor Winnifred Louis, a social psychologist at the University of Queensland.

The first is to raise awareness – especially useful in the early stages of a movement – ​​as the media is more likely to cover actions when they are sensational or violate social norms.

The second area where radical action has been successful is preventing or blocking specific events that have no social license — “destroying a particular 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 prevent uranium mining at Jabiluka in the Northern Territory.

Just Stop Oil activists splash soup on Van Gogh’s sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. Photography: 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, by locating protests against fossil fuel extraction to “specific community concerns about how extraction will endanger their quality of life or their 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 for and identification with more moderate groups of the same movement. The effect has been shown 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 Professor Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. “The big traditional green groups that used to say ‘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. “This is what we in social psychology call the activist’s dilemma,” says Flinders University researcher Dr. Morgana Lizzio-Wilson. “On the one hand, radical actions can bring more attention to a cause, but they can simultaneously reduce support for that cause.”

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

Radical actions have proven less persuasive and more polarizing on issues such as animal welfare, abortion rights and the US presidential election, says Lizzio-Wilson. His own work, which analyzed responses to animal rights groups, found that radical actions (e.g., undercover investigations into factory farms) were seen as both less effective and less legitimate. than conventional tactics (such as advocating for legislative reform or reducing meat consumption). consumption).

“Because people felt radical tactics were less effective, it meant they were less willing to identify as animal rights activists and were less likely to act on behalf of the cause itself,” explains Lizzio-Wilson.

Research in this space, however, is contested. A study by Sam Glover and James Ozden of the Social Change Lab in London found that “it is likely that a nonviolent radical flank will increase the likelihood of a global movement achieving political victories”, while others have found that radical climate action does 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, as part of three surveys conducted before, during and after the disruptive Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion protests in London. It found that despite the opposition of the majority of those polled to the protests, there was “no significant negative change in the number of people saying they support the aims of Just Stop Oil”.

Glover and Ozden however noted: “Because of the high levels of climate concern in the UK, it is possible that a general attempt to increase concern for climate change is now less effective than it was the previous years.”

Critics divided

The opinions of experts on the effectiveness of art gallery events are particularly divided. Some have criticized them for a lack of action logic, in which an action is immediately understandable to an outsider – chaining oneself to a tree to prevent it from being cut down, for example.

Prof Robb Willer, director of Stanford University’s Polarization and Social Change Lab, said while disruptive protests can work, he ‘didn’t see a clear path to impact’ for the soup thrower . “Wealthy, left-wing art lovers are expected to take bold climate action in response to these actions? In what form ? Pressure? Donations to climate organizations? I have yet to see a compelling rationale,” he wrote on Twitter.

Last generation climate activists threw pea soup at Van Gogh's The Sower at Rome's Bonaparte Palace on November 4, 2022.
Last generation climate activists threw pea soup at Van Gogh’s The Sower at Rome’s Bonaparte Palace on November 4, 2022. Photograph: ANSA/AFP/Getty Images

“The benefit of reaching large numbers of people and alienating them is really questionable,” says Louis. She cites three reasons why people don’t take action if they already support a cause: they don’t see the action as relevant, they don’t feel it’s supported by social norms, or they don’t don’t believe it is effective. The soup protests likely increase those perceptions and “actually slow the pace of change,” Louis says. “This [would] to be ironic for a movement that says “trust the science” if it didn’t look at what was evidence-based in terms of tactics.

But Fisher, who contributed to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, points out that the impact of art gallery protests has yet to be studied.

“The reason they chose this is because it really grabs attention, and it’s shocking to see it until you know the artwork isn’t destroyed,” she adds. . Climate activists say they have target art with protective covers – no damage has been done to date on the works themselves.

“As more and more people join in divisive activism — even if it’s peaceful — law enforcement tends to resort to what they call ‘insurgent repression,'” Fisher says. As many have pointed out, climate activists in many places are increasingly facing draconian anti-protest laws.

The rise in disruptive climate protests likely stems from disenfranchisement – ​​a well-established pattern in social change research. “When people feel their activism to advocate for an issue is failing, they’re much more likely to use more radical tactics,” says Lizzio-Wilson.

“It’s actually very understandable that many climate activists are resorting to these more drastic tactics because time is running out.”

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