Can Just Stop Oil stop oil?
Just Stop Oil has followed Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion in taking climate action to the streets - but will its strategy cut through to the public?
Climate activists group Just Stop Oil is the latest controversial ensemble to emerge in the UK. Its members are demanding an immediate stop to new oil and gas extraction and say that doing things the normal way haven’t worked.
With the United Nations - in the form of the UNFCCC - doing nothing to change our course and mainstream environmental NGOs still unprepared to take radical action, Just Stop Oil are pioneering an alternative approach.
As well as targeting fossil fuel infrastructure, Just Stop Oil have attracted media attention over recent months by disrupting high-profile sporting events and cultural institutions. During the Formula 1 British Grand Prix at Silverstone, several protestors put their lives and others’ at risk by invading the track during the first lap of the race.
Fortunately, cars had already slowed as the race had been stopped due to an unrelated crash. Earlier in the summer, protestors tied themselves to the net during tennis matches at a French Open men’s semi-final and at the Halle Open in Germany.
In March and April, protestors attempted to disrupt a number Premier League football matches, including by tying their necks to the goalpost during the game. Protestors have also glued themselves to famous paintings, including Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ at the Royal Academy, Van Gogh’s ‘Peach Trees’ at London’s Courtauld Gallery and Constable’s ‘The Hay Wain’ at the National Gallery.
Targeting cultural institutions is not new within the climate movement. Since 2004, the Art Not Oil coalition has campaigned (with some notable successes) against oil sponsorship, taking creative protest to institutions including the British Museum, the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery.
The real limitation of Just Stop Oil’s strategy is that it tends towards marginality rather than building the building the power and mass movement we need.
Just Stop Oil differs, though, in that their demand is generic and aimed towards the UK Government rather than the subject of the protest.
Although Just Stop Oil is formally a distinct organisation, this approach of general social disruption comes out of Extinction Rebellion. Initially, XR blocked roads and key junctions to maximise disruption. However, although they exist within the same tendency of the environmental movement, Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil now represent a strategic divergence with XR.
Since its founding, XR strategy has evolved to target those directly complicit in driving climate change (e.g. fossil fuel firms, the Murdoch press and financial institutions). On the other hand, Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil have respectively applied the approach of general social disruption to motorways or sport and culture.
Responses Just Stop Oil’s wave of cultural disruption have been mixed. Lewis Hamilton and Gary Lineker have praised the righteousness of the protestors while others have been left confused by their relevance to the event being disrupted.
Why art? Why football? The egregiously polluting Formula 1 makes some sense, but the protestors made clear that they’re not against the sport and drivers, pundits and officials went to great pains (with some justification) to point out the sport’s pioneering efforts to decarbonise.
A generous interpretation of Just Stop Oil’s intentions would be that disrupting the business-as-usual day-to-day lives of those enjoying mass culture is justified given the much greater havoc that the climate crisis is already wreaking for so many around the world. How can we wander round art galleries, sing on the terraces of a football stadium or enjoy the awesome sight of the world’s fastest cars racing each other while the planet is burning?
Poetic as this reasoning may be, is not obvious to the casual observer. Instead, the protestors are singular in their communication of their eponymous demand. They want to stop new oil and gas and they’ll do ‘whatever it takes’ – however nonsensical.
Tell the truth
When questioned by Ed Balls on Good Morning Britain (GMB) in the aftermath of the Silverstone protest, Just Stop Oil’s spokesperson was clear that being interviewed on national TV indicated success.
Reminiscent of XR’s demand to ‘tell the truth’, the function of Just Stop Oil’s protests is to make the most of a national platform to communicate their demand and its basis in climate science to the unknowing masses.
So are Just Stop Oil effectively reaching new audiences or are they being used by right-wing media for clicks and views? GB News and Rupert Murdoch’s Talk TV have most regularly shared videos of protests on their social media while viral interviews have been with the shock-jocks of tabloid talk shows like Julia Hartley-Brewer, Dan Wootton and Richard Madeley.
This is certainly to the benefit of these shows which thrive on the entertainment of conflict and controversy, but Just Stop Oil’s calculation is that they’re also able to get their message across to these programmes’ audiences.
Like XR, Just Stop Oil’s strategy rests on the assumption that if only more people understood the truth of the climate emergency then we would all act. But more people than every understand the climate crisis and support action to address it. The problem is not an absence of knowledge, but a lack of popular political power.
Some have criticised Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain for alienating ordinary people from supporting radical climate demands.
There’s no evidence that this is actually the case. However, the real limitation of Just Stop Oil’s strategy is that it tends towards marginality rather than building the building the power and mass movement we need.
Unlike the founding ambitions of XR to mobilise a critical mass of the population into taking arrestable action, Just Stop Oil seem content with a relatively small group of activists executing actions which maximise media impact.
The protestors may come across as defiant but their approach is aimless and indicative of the environmental movement’s weakness.
They say that the normal way hasn’t worked, but their alternative is similarly uncompelling. They flog the dead horse of enhanced awareness raising by resurrecting the approach of early-XR, but with less people.
You can grab a day’s media attention with five or six hyper-dedicated activists, but you can’t build long-lasting political power.