Armed with mashed potatoes, tomato soup and superglue, a new generation of climate activists is attracting in the fight against climate change. In recent months, protesters smeared food on the (glass plates in front of) paintings by Monet, Van Gogh and Da Vinci and glued themselves to works by Picasso and Botticelli. Other protests also stand out, such as deflating the tires of SUVs and off-road vehicles, also in the Netherlands.
The actions, organized by various environmental action groups, have one thing in common: the initiators use them to draw attention to climate change. But up to now, the main focus seems to have been on the actions themselves, according to experts.
Climate change on the map
The environmental groups themselves say that “disruptive actions” such as those involving soup and mashed potatoes are desperately needed to put the subject of climate change on the map. “A can of soup achieves what many demonstrations failed to do,” for example, Extinction Rebellion tweeted. “Climate activists who prime time television to explain what is going on.”
The action group is referring to the TV program Jinek, where Extinction Rebellion member Jelle de Graaf talked about recent climate actions at the table last night. “It has now been a week and a half since soup was poured over the glass plate for the sunflowers at the National Gallery in London, and we’re still talking about it,” he said there. “Since the coronavirus crisis broke out, there hasn’t been much focus on what it takes to tackle the climate crisis.”
A short time later, De Graaf glued himself to the talk show table:
Climate activist glues himself to talk show table
Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, professor of social change and conflict at the Free University, was fascinated by the action at Jinek looked, she says. She sees that the focus is on the action itself and less on the goal. “But at the same time: the moment an activist glues himself, he demands attention and, as it were, buys time to get his message across.”
According to Van Stekelenburg, the public usually reacts differently to ‘normal’ demonstrations, such as a protest march. “At such demonstrations, people often shrug their shoulders and think: it will be okay.”
Eye-catching protests with soup and glue, on the other hand, lead to fiercer reactions, says the professor. “People either like it very much or they don’t like it at all.” The balance between those two extremes is a tricky one, she explains. “There is always a very fine line between wanting to keep the sympathy on the one hand and getting your message across on the other.”
As an example, Van Stekelenburg mentions the farmer’s protests of a few years ago, when agricultural entrepreneurs drove tractors to The Hague and caused a lot of traffic nuisance there. Farmers’ action groups then organized a breakfast for people who had been affected by the protest, she recalls. “Activists want to create awareness, convey a message and influence public opinion. You also need sympathy for that.”
Bert Klandermans, emeritus professor at the Free University, speaks of a dilemma between means and ends. “An action can easily backfire. Then people may have sympathy for your goal, but they reject the means you use.”
That sound is also heard on social media:
Klandermans, who has conducted years of research into protest movements, sees demonstrations as a means of communication with which activists make clear to politicians that people care about something. “If you then choose an extreme means, you immediately have the attention. In comparison: with an ordinary street demonstration today you have to mobilize a lot of people to make an impression.”
Ultimately, however, activists should adopt a more moderate attitude, he thinks. “You can daub more paintings by Van Gogh, but that does not help the environment. Sooner or later, the activists have to talk to the people who make the decisions.”
And that’s how it often goes with protest movements, Klandermans knows. “It often starts with extreme means or extreme people, and slowly it becomes more moderate.” In fact, he says: often the more moderate sounds within a movement make good use of the attention that their more extreme colleagues have generated. “It has to be, otherwise nobody wants to sit around the table with such a group.”