Just Stop Oil, disruption, and the meaning of protest


We need to take environmental extremists more seriously, not label them climate zealots

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Image by Alisdare Hickson

By Ethan Attwood

Environmental activist group Just Stop Oil has gained significant publicity with recent appearances at the World Snooker Championships, the Chelsea Flower Show, and as I type this, the Rugby Union Premiership final. Their unusual tactics, often involving lashings of orange paint, tend to grab headlines. The group’s strategy of maximising disruption to increase exposure appears to follow the old adage of any publicity being good publicity, and through this lens, they are achieving their objective.

British protest history lacks the revolutionary zeal of the French, who never had a problem that couldn’t be solved with a guillotine, or the stylish defiance of the American hippie movements in the 1960s and 70s. As despised as Margaret Thatcher was for her decimation of the trade unions, she nevertheless presided over three landslide Conservative general election victories in 1979, 1983 and 1987, resulting in a period of Conservative rule that lasted from 1979 to 1997. Symbolic stances against the milk-pilfering government, such as those depicted in The Full Monty, became cultural pillars of Britishness, a touchstone of the people who want only to enjoy the escapist fantasy of activism, without the inconvenient taboo of actually doing it.

The British, however, do sometimes show some moxie. The result of the Brexit referendum was seen as an act of political disobedience by a population whipped into a frenzied lather over the tyrannical actions of an out-of-touch European elite. How oppressive it must have felt for those in rural Wales to receive millions of pounds in public funding from those jack-booted European thugs. While I admire the desire to upset the established order, perhaps next time choose a position not advocated against by virtually every economic, scientific and political expert without transparently obvious self-interest.

Industrial action by academic unions has severely impacted this year’s student experience. I have seen opinions on this divided relatively equally among students, many of whom are sympathetic to both the slashing of pensions and worsening of working conditions for their lecturers, and to the students paying for teaching they aren’t receiving. Ultimately this is the point of protest; it is supposed to be disruptive. It is designed to put sufficient pressure on those in positions of power to affect change before you run out of support. Unfortunately, with our leaders increasingly removed from the realities of ordinary life – a prime minister worth an obscene £730 million provides a sick parody – protest must appeal to the public. If Just Stop Oil could slow-march across London Bridge in front of a convoy of only MPs' cars, I’m sure they would.

Here’s why Just Stop Oil do what they do: research out of Emory University links abnormally hot or cold temperatures to five million deaths a year (10 percent of total world mortality). The World Health Organization predicts 250,000 deaths per year will be caused by climate change between 2030 and 2050, and 3.4 million annually by the end of the century – equivalent to having another Covid pandemic every year. Extreme weather events such as flooding, wildfires and droughts kill people and will continue to kill more people in the future as their frequency increases. These figures don’t count the millions displaced from their homes or those who will lose their livelihoods. All peer-reviewed scientific research says that unless we take extreme action, right now, people will die. How high does the death toll need to be for extremism to be warranted, now that research has shown peaceful environmental demonstration has failed to prompt the necessary changes?

Just Stop Oil’s positions, like their methods of demonstration, are extreme. They campaign for the UK government to cease licensing new coal, oil and gas developments. There is no immediate alternative to pick up the shortfall in future demand (though simply liquidating Rishi Sunak’s personal fortune could buy close to 200 commercial wind turbines, FYI).

But as we’ve seen from the cycles of the economy, the idea of sustainable, perpetual growth is a fantasy – it needn’t be if science progressed fast enough to find new technological efficiencies. However it’s entirely possible that we’ve invested too little in science for too long for innovation to bridge that gap.

Films often tend to fall back on the device that mass death is enough motivation for us to pull together and perform miracles. In contrast, Adam MacKay’s Don’t Look Up supposed it wasn’t; that even when being told, point blank, that a bunch of us are going to die, we’d still rather remain in denial for as long as possible. Soberingly, reality appears closer to the latter.

Given I’m not a member of Just Stop Oil, I acknowledge the risk of hypocrisy by advocating too strongly for their position. I’m not sure if their method of demonstration is the most effective, but regardless of how it's delivered, it is predicated on the supposition that 250,000 deaths a year are worse than a rugby delay (and for many of them, worse than going to prison).

Their reward for this position is being labelled in the media as zealots and assaulted by inconvenienced commuters. The continued framing of protestors as psychotic nuisances perfectly complements the police’s new strategy of arresting them for such disobedience as handing out rape alarms. This is a disturbing trend of developing authoritarianism.

If you find yourself frustrated by a disruptive environmental protest, I would ask you to consider where your real frustration should be directed. I don’t always agree with what Just Stop Oil do. That being said, as the ivory towers get taller and taller – perhaps to evade rising sea levels – I can bloody well respect them for trying.