By now you’ve probably heard of Just Stop Oil. Whether it’s throwing tomato soup at priceless art or barricading the M25, the group has gained international infamy for radical displays of climate activism.
Just Stop Oil is demanding the UK government state that it will “immediately halt all future licensing and consents for the exploration, development, and production of fossil fuels in the UK.” Most people don’t disagree with this principle; we’re facing a climate emergency and big changes need to be made from the very top. However, some fear that the group’s antics and methods may be alienating rather than aligning people in the movements of climate activism.
Just Stop Oils tactics aren’t new. Other groups like the Art Not Oil coalition have protested since 2004 against oil sponsorship by cultural institutions such as the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. But where they differ is that Just Stop Oil are not targeting the creators of the art they deface or the public that gets stuck behind their barricades. Their target is the government, urging them to make meaningful policies to tackle climate change. But some wonder how disrupting the lives of the general public will make the government listen, let alone act.
Therefore, the group is subject to extensive criticism. There are the obvious issues of the damage their protests do to the lives of innocent people, and the unnecessary danger activists put themselves in – the protesters sitting in the line of F1 cars at Silverstone this year bring the acts of Emily Pankhurst to mind. But one of the most poignant critiques of Just Stop Oil is that it’s supposedly run by out-of-touch members of the middle class. Indeed, most of the members of the group are white, middle-class, young people. Whilst the identity of its members doesn’t make their activism any less justified, it places climate activism in the context of a very easily targetable demographic, risking itself being labeled as a cause people complain about when they’re not facing more pressing issues.
Stronger critics have accused the group of waging a war against the working class who can’t afford to make all the greener changes that the group pushes for. It should be acknowledged that these choices are often the less accessible ones, for example, one website reported that on average eco-friendly fashion is 713.13% more expensive than its fast-fashion counterpart. Yet, this interpretation completely disregards the millions of working-class people across the globe who are struggling with the effects of climate change. For example, developing nations, like the small island states in the Pacific are particularly vulnerable to the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, risking the destruction of homes and displacement of thousands.
There is also a concerning use of Just Stop Oil as anti-climate-activism propaganda by climate change deniers. Conspiracy theorists believe the whole movement is a right wing, capitalist conspiracy, deployed to build resentment for climate activism and promote the use of fossil fuels. Whatever the truth, Just Stop Oil’s viral protests regularly make their way to right-wing social media and are used to mock and discredit the climate change movement.
The issue is that criticism and conspiracy aren’t just harming Just Stop Oil – they’re harming all of climate activism, since in this polarising political environment, disruption created by protests risks generating contempt and frustration among the public and alienating people from the cause. Labelling climate change as a “middle class” issue is a dangerous move as climate change will soon become everyone’s issue but causing chaos on the M25 may not be the best way to raise awareness for climate change.