OPINION: Just Stop Oil’s protests hinders progress for climate change


Amelia Tai

Targeting famous paintings, like Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” fails to draw attention to the actual issues of a movement.

On Oct. 14, 2022, Just Stop Oil, a British organization, received international attention when two protesters threw a can of tomato soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and glued their hands to the wall of the National Gallery. While the goals of Just Stop Oil’s protests to gain widespread attention regarding the cost of living crisis and climate crisis are commendable, their efforts fail to focus attention on the main agenda of these issues.

Just Stop Oil was founded in February 2022 to direct the British government’s attention toward a commitment to ending new licenses and permits for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels. In addition to these aims, Just Stop Oil wishes to spur action to address the cost of living crisis.  

Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” was targeted because it is a famous painting, not for a larger and more significant meaning. Van Gogh, a Dutch post-impressionist painter, worked in the late 1800s and had little connection to the modern climate crisis. 

According to an interview from NPR, Phoebe Plummer, one of the activists involved in the protest, expressed that targeting “Sunflowers” was for its well-known status and done to inspire anger among the public. The choice to target “Sunflowers” does not aid Just Stop Oil’s aim of questioning where society puts its money and attention. Their actions act as more of a publicity stunt than a protest, advertising Just Stop Oil’s agenda instead of advocating for change. 

Despite the publicity generated by the stunt, Just Stop Oil fails to provide an understanding of the little action performed toward their goals. The lack of connection between the protest’s choice of art and message removes weight from its actions, obscuring Just Stop Oil’s demands. While protestors had their hands glued to the wall, they asked people if they placed more value on art or life, setting up a false dichotomy. 

Art is a part of culture and can be used as a tool of change. Creating and viewing works of art does not inherently damage the planet or distract from the climate crisis. Art can move viewers to ask the questions Just Stop Oil wants them to ask while not turning them away through outlandish stunts. 

In modern media, the ability to grab attention through social media platforms is a vital aspect of a movement’s success. Following the protest, “Van Gogh” trended on Twitter for one day. The publicity that was generated by the protest has been largely negative and mostly focused on the painting itself, not climate policy. A study conducted by researchers Shawn Patterson Jr. and Michael E. Mann at the University of Pennsylvania found that 46% of the public said the event made them less sympathetic toward Just Stop Oil’s cause. 

Social media has become a valuable tool for activists to spread information, organize and gain support around the world outside of major news sources. Without the ability to capture the attention of social media, Just Stop Oil will not be able to gain long-term traction. Protests that only create publicity through outrage harm the reputation of climate activists, hindering the movement from actually combating climate change. 

Numerous copycat protests have come in the months following the “Van Gogh” protest. These protests continue the trend of targeting famous paintings while adding little to the conversation about climate policy. Since the protest, Just Stop Oil and other similar organizations have made headlines for targeting Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” Van Gogh’s “The Sower,” and most recently, for being charged with causing over $2,400 of damage to Van Gogh’s “Peach Trees in Blossom.” These works are all well-known paintings removed from damage caused  by climate change, falling in the same category as “Sunflowers.” 

Just Stop Oil’s protests have garnered no change in government policy, only serving to annoy the British public. Broad action in promoting issues can create malice among the general public against climate activists. The most action Just Stop Oil’s protests have inspired is similar protests that are equally unfocused. 

Just Stop Oil’s protests have missed the mark by not creating problems for Britain’s conservative government, or the wealthy. Instead of protesting to gain attention for the climate movement, Just Stop Oil should attempt to target their efforts toward those who have power within Britain. Art should not be an enemy. Protest efforts must focus on those in power if they wish to affect policy.