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The art of protest

Climate campaigners are blocking roads and defacing artworks. But is anyone listening?

Image: The New European/Getty

Is this what Alexander Grevel spent years in the lab for? Once a sober biochemistry research fellow at Freiburg University, Grevel was recently glued to the tarmac in Munich, listening to insults from passers-by as he called for action on climate change. Other protesters in lab coats from Scientist Rebellion were jailed for occupying a BMW showroom to condemn Germany’s polluting car industry.

”We have a responsibility as scientists,” Grevel told me. “If we’re aware of something really bad happening soon, we need to warn the public. The science about the climate catastrophe is pretty clear – we need to act now.”

Along with hundreds of other scientists from more than 40 countries, Grevel gave up his job to campaign for cuts to spiralling greenhouse gas emissions that are dangerously warming the planet. What we do in the next two or three years will determine the future of humanity, he told me, as world leaders met in Egypt for the United Nations’ Cop27 climate conference. But instead of taking action, many countries are chasing more fossil fuels to tackle this winter’s energy crisis.

This is why frustrated climate protesters are out in force across Europe. Groups such as Just Stop Oil, SR and Last Generation have been blocking streets, throwing foodstuffs at paintings, scaling the gantries above motorways, turning off pipelines and daubing public buildings with orange paint in a desperate bid to inject a sense of urgency. As 24-year-old Louise Harris said in a tearful video from a platform above the M25, “I’m here because I don’t have a future.” 

The trouble is, whatever the cause or method, public reaction to civil disobedience is invariably the same: We don’t like it. You’re just alienating people, not helping your cause. Labour leader Keir Starmer said as much as Just Stop Oil brought traffic in Hertfordshire to a standstill: “Get up. Go home. It’s not the way to deal with the climate crisis.”

But this raises the question, what is the “right way”? What protest actually works? “Not this” doesn’t help, while advice from critical commentators doesn’t hold up. Polite marches, petitions, lobbying MPs, letter-writing and political involvement haven’t ensured sufficient climate action, nor have the dire warnings in reams of scientific climate papers. There are no easy answers. 

Starmer’s comments are illustrative. He was speaking at Imperial College, where he said the “fantastic young scientists dealing with carbon capture” were of more use than activists. This didn’t go down well with the constituency he was targeting.

“As a ‘young scientist from Imperial College’, my message to Keir Starmer is shut up,” tweeted Ansh Bhatnagar, a PhD researcher in theoretical particle physics. “When you’re talking about carbon capture ‘solving the climate crisis’ you just show that you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Just stopping oil is more important than a “miracle technology that doesn’t even exist at scale, that gives a social licence to continue carbon emissions.”

In a similar vein, Victor de Santos, a 34-year-old Spanish scientist, explained – while blocking a road and waiting to be dragged away: “Science is already clear – they say it out loud but nobody is listening, so I don’t need to study science any more. I need to make people believe it and act upon it.”

We live in an age of mass protest. The number of protest movements worldwide has more than tripled within the previous 15 years. A study released last year by the German think tank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and the Columbia University-based Initiative for Policy Dialogue concluded that ours is a time like the years around 1848, 1917 or 1968, “when large numbers of people rebelled against the way things were, demanding change.”

Millions of people have taken to the streets across the globe in support of myriad causes, from the anti-capitalist Occupy movement to the Arab Spring, the anti-Trump women’s marches to Black Lives Matter, the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine to the Gilets Jaunes in France. They targeted abortion restrictions, corruption, and weakening labour laws. Hong Kong had pro-democracy protests. Iranian teenagers have rebelled against their restrictive regime.

What they all have in common is that they’re rarely heeded. The report’s co-authors linked much of this unrest to the fact that “too many leaders in government and business are not listening”, even though the vast majority of protests “advanced reasonable demands agreed upon by most governments”, including good jobs, a clean planet and meaningful say in their lives.

The BLM protests that exploded across the US and then Europe in 2020 began from the very reasonable demand that black lives mattered as much as all others. Demonstrators called for an end to police brutality, horrifically demonstrated with the killing of George Floyd by a police officer kneeling on his neck.

They were roundly criticised. Loud demonstrations and attacks on statues of slavers was no way to call for rights, angry commentators said. Not this.

The fact that the quiet, dignified practice of taking the knee at the start of football matches was nevertheless booed for supposedly employing “divisive” “identity politics” shows exactly why you just can’t win.

At this point, people invariably evoke the Civil Rights protests and Martin Luther King Jr as a counterpoint, to show that the BLM protesters lacked the sensible restraint of their revered predecessor. Not so. “Dad…was consistently criticised. If you go back and look at polling data at the time he was killed, he was a marked person,” his son, Martin Luther King III, told the New York Times. “There’s always going to be a group that attempts to demonise that which is being done, and for their own purposes — not because it’s right, good or just, but just because they want to foster a different position.”

Older protests are often seen through rose-tinted glasses. The suffragettes are also wheeled out as more valid than today’s protesters. Yet they were roundly condemned at the time, their role is still disputed by historians and they were hardly quiet and polite. Mary Richardson slashed the Rokeby Venus, apparently because of the way men gaped at the Velazquez nude. Emily Davison’s death under a galloping horse at Epsom endangered both steeds and jockeys, and will have traumatised the spectators much more than the recent trend for toppling statues. Jockey Herbert Jones, “haunted by that poor woman’s face”, later killed himself.

Regardless of how the protests developed, seeking representation and equality for women and black citizens were vital causes. Why are today’s against-the-clock efforts to keep the planet habitable for humans considered less worthy?

The concept of “reasonable demands already agreed by most governments” applies to the current climate protesters. Just Stop Oil isn’t demanding an immediate end to fossil fuel use, as some critics maintain. They want action on the call by the International Energy Agency for an immediate end to new fossil fuel exploration, if there’s to be any hope of stopping dangerous global warming. Instead, the British government is offering more than 100 new oil and gas exploration licences in the North Sea, sparking excitement among oil rig bosses for the regeneration of a business that should be in decline.

International governments, the UN, thousands of eminent scientists, institutions and figureheads from the Archbishop of Canterbury to King Charles III share the climate protesters’ aims. Far from being outsider agitators, they’re the establishment on this. It’s the politicians opposing them that are renegades.

But this isn’t how it looks, and the demonstrators know it. They’ve caused problems for blameless people, who can’t get to work and risk missing important events, suffering anxiety and stress trapped in long traffic queues. Newspapers call them “yobs” and “zealots” — this is the “protest paradigm” in action, whereby reporting invariably seeks to delegitimise and discredit protesters. “You might hate me for doing this,” acknowledges Harris, “but I wish you would direct all that anger and hatred at our government. They are betraying young people like me — I wouldn’t have to be here if they did their duty.” 

“We don’t do this because it’s the dream thing we would love to do,” Larch Maxey, a university lecturer who quit his job to protest, told me at a Just Stop Oil stall in Westminster. “We do it because we’re in the most urgent situation and this is what’s possible for ordinary people to do when trying to bring about change.”

To grasp the full extent of the anger and desperation that drives environmentalists to greater extremes, it’s necessary to understand just how long this problem has festered. The discovery that CO2 emissions were heating the atmosphere was made in the 1890s. By the second half of the 20th century, scientists working for oil companies such as Exxon realised their products were harming the planet. While Margaret Thatcher was warning the UN in a 1989 speech of the “insidious” danger of irretrievable damage to the world due to greenhouse gases, oil executives planned the cover-up.

Climate activists all say politicians are “captured by the fossil fuel industry”, which sounds conspiracist, but is backed up by many sources, including the former BP chief executive John Browne. The recent BBC documentary Big Oil vs The World, lays bare how Exxon, Koch Industries and other companies spent enormous sums on false reports denying the damage their fossil fuels were causing, framing emissions reduction as an assault on people’s rights and jobs, and mercilessly lobbying politicians. They stymied the environmental policies of Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama, robbing the world of vital time for early action.

“It’s the moral equivalent of a war crime,” said Al Gore, Clinton’s vice-president, whose role at the first UN Climate Change summit – or “COP” – in Berlin in 1995 was undermined by lobbying at home. “I think that it is in many ways the most serious crime of the post World War Two era. The consequences of what they’ve done is almost unimaginable.”

Governments still subsidise fossil fuel companies, whose lobbyists are at the UN climate meeting in record numbers this year. Yet general inertia keeps climate off the front pages for most of the year, and protesters trying to raise awareness less disruptively don’t get the exposure they need.

“People have been saying, ‘why are you disrupting ordinary people?’,” Maxey told me as he waved leaflets at uninterested passers-by. “When we block the road, suddenly everyone pays attention, so people have blocked roads in every country in the world throughout history.”

“If you don’t get on the front pages for your action then that’s not really worth it,” Grevel said. “If the press is talking about you, then that thing happened, it’s considered relevant for society. So people need to deal with our actions and ask why these people are doing this stupid protest? Because what’s at stake is even bigger.”

So, what is effective action? Harvard academic Erica Chenoweth, who influenced Extinction Rebellion’s tactics, studied all types of protest over the past century and believes non-violent civil disobedience is the most successful. So does the Climate Emergency Fund, founded by the oil heiress Aileen Getty, which donates millions to climate protesters and supports “non-violent, legal, disruptive activism, which we believe is the fastest way to spur transformative change.” 

Successful protests are visually striking, utilising symbols such as the pussy hats of US women’s protests to chase international coverage, bypassing negative mainstream media. The umbrellas of Hong Kong shielded protests from tear gas, represented a rallying cry and inspired powerful art. 

“Awareness is really important, not only because it creates this kind of buzz across the world, but because it encourages mobilisation and a sensitivity towards climate issues, which is most important for the younger generation,” Bournemouth University’s Dr Anastasia Veneti, a political communication specialist, told me. 

Twenty-first century protesters control the narrative and reach out internationally with their own content, which is also used by newspapers for stories and quotes.

In the past, climate protesters have targeted big oil company buildings, tankers and pipelines. But this has achieved only a fraction of the publicity achieved by road closures, or by throwing tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. This was one of a series, including food thrown at a Monet in Potsdam, and hands glued to a Botticelli in the Uffizzi in Florence.

Do these protests work? It depends on how “work” is defined. Directly forcing governments to implement the measures that will reduce global temperatures is difficult to achieve, if at all, and by that measure, all of these protests have been a failure. But if the first goal is awareness, then they’ve made a mark.

The activists who toppled the statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour during the BLM protests have certainly made an impact. Sathnam Sanghera, author of Empireland, has praised them for this on Twitter: “Their actions prompted real, meaningful debate. The statue, as a deposed exhibit, is infinitely more interesting than it was as street furniture.” 

Good publicity helps galvanise recruits, which is invaluable. The Harvard academic, Chenoweth, believes around 3.5% of the population must actively participate in a protest for serious political change to happen. The climate emergency has politicised the young, who work with older, experienced activist mentors. That cross-generational cooperation can have significant benefits. Older protestors don’t mind being arrested because they can spare the time for jail. 

As for the young – Greta Thunberg, despite derision from old male columnists and politicians, built a worldwide platform with her Fridays for Future school protests. When they blocked Oxford Street with a pink boat in 2019, Extinction Rebellion’s recruitment soared. That same year, and in part due to the actions of younger activists, Theresa May recognised that climate had become a substantial public concern and made Britain the first major economy with a legal commitment to net zero emissions.

Professor Colin Davis, chair of cognitive psychology at Bristol University, was on that pink boat, and he recalls a man who swore at them for causing the cancellation of the bus he rode to work. As he stormed off, a campaigner followed and tried to explain why. “About 45 minutes later he came back and said ‘I’ve had a think and I understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, I think you’re right. I’m not going to work today and will stay here with you.’ For me it was amazing seeing that transition.” A judge who convicted Davis over another protest urged: “you have to succeed.”

Activists have seen police officers cry after talking with protesters. Several people — even some stuck in the blocked roads — have tweeted their “gratitude” or called them “heroes” on the radio. Even work and pensions secretary Mel Stride conceded they had a point, “in a sense”, about the need to cut fossil fuel use.

When she and a fellow student threw soup on the Sunflowers, Phoebe Plummer was slammed almost universally. Even though the painting was chosen because it was protected by glass, angry editorials deplored her “pointless destruction” of art. Yet, after her explanation in a TikTok video was shared on social media, including by Gary Lineker, who has 8.5 million Twitter followers, Plummer was invited onto Newsnight.

“Civil resistance is the only chance we have left to get the radical change we need in the timescale we have left, to ensure that I have a future, to ensure that millions of people in the global south don’t keep dying,” Plummer said. With 33 million people displaced by floods in Pakistan, she said, it was “murderous” for governments to push ahead with new fossil fuel exploration licences.

Asked about whether she was taking people with her, Plummer said: “This isn’t a popularity contest.” She pushed back: “Journalists — are you doing enough? This is the biggest crisis that humanity has ever faced. You make time to report on the sport every day… why aren’t you telling people how bad it’s going to get? Why aren’t you out on the streets with us?”

Davis has conducted tests in which he quizzes subjects who are given differing accounts of a protest. “We noticed that it doesn’t make any difference to how they feel about the protest itself and it doesn’t decrease their support for it,” Davis said. “It would be rather perverse if I was quite concerned about climate change and what might be happening, but then saw some person apparently damaging a painting and said ‘oh I no longer care about climate change, let the world burn’.” 

There are some aspects of protest that can change opinions. One is when campaigners go to prison, which shows a degree of commitment that can create empathy, an aura of credibility or a sense that their protest must be about something important after all. This was a key strategy of the Civil Rights movement, of Gandhi, of the suffragettes and Extinction Rebellion. Already, many people in the UK have been imprisoned for climate protests. 

This theme of sacrifice also works if protesters are attacked, as with the pivotal 1963 black youth protests in Birmingham, Alabama, where police dogs were set on children. It can shock people out of their complacency and towards sympathy.

The climate activists aren’t just about disruption. Just Stop Oil wants people to attend their talks on climate and Extinction Rebellion wants citizens assemblies to help set climate policy. 

If the government would respond, the attitude to climate change could be transformed. Last summer, in France, 150 “ordinary people” were chosen for an assembly that would suggest climate policy. That group came up with ambitious targets, including a ban on new airports and short flights. The plans were watered down, but positive change still happened. “Ecocide” became an offence, and France introduced the world’s first fossil fuel advertising ban.

The problem of how to directly influence politicians has always existed. In the UK, some of the biggest protests in recent times, such as the million-strong anti-Iraq War marches, changed little. What did succeed were the 1990 Poll Tax riots, which stopped the introduction of Thatcher’s new levy and led to her downfall the following year.

Could riots and violence, or at least increasingly damaging action, be the only answer as more civilised protests fail? Riots are feared this winter over the cost of living. In his book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, the Swedish professor Andreas Malm caused a stir last year for criticising pacifism and arguing for tougher action such as sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure.

But as protests increase, there’s a danger that a public or media backlash would be used to legitimise authoritarian measures. Already there is a clamp-down. Journalists have been detained while reporting on climate change protests, and tougher policing and protest legislation for climate protesters is on its way. A country that finds ID cards too draconian is now threatening ankle tags for taking part in protest. 

These protesters are latter day Romantics upset at the denuding of nature by industry and filled with revolutionary zeal — they won’t be silenced easily, even though they admit their actions are desperate acts of trial and error.

“We really hope that society will change its opinion and the authorities will decide they want to survive,” Grevel concluded, hopefully. He won’t give up. “What could be more important to us than our children and grandchildren – than that they have a good life?”

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