Just Stop Oil (JSO) has been making headlines across the U.K. in the past year, most recently for the disruption caused during the Chelsea Flower Show and the Premiership rugby final at Twickenham. While public and political opinion remains divided, it raises questions of whether their high-profile stunts are increasing their profile as credible environmental activists or notorious nuisances.
What is their cause?
Just Stop Oil is an alliance of campaign groups all fighting for the end of new fossil fuel licenses in the U.K. through civil resistance, including strikes, protests, and other means of non-violent disturbance. It claims that new licenses will be the downfall of humanity. The group said: “Allowing the extraction of new oil and gas resources in the U.K. is an obscene and genocidal policy.” By not supporting their cause, JSO argues that society is appeasing corruption.
On paper, the message is strong; most members of the public would agree that we need to prioritise the health of our planet before it is too late. A governmental survey found 75% of Brits are anxious about climate change and its effects. So why has a group that demands the government take measures to protect the planet become so increasingly unpopular with the public?
JSO has become synonymous with wreaking havoc across motorways, busy London streets, and highly-anticipated events, often turning public mood sour. The protest at the Chelsea Flower Show – arguably the greenest event in London’s calendar – produced widespread criticism. Three members of the JSO movement threw orange cornstarch powder over a garden designed by Paul Hervey-Brookes. All were arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage. The Spectator deemed it a “new low,” while the Daily Mail branded them “eco-clowns.”
However, a spokesperson for the group later alleged that although their protest was met with anger initially, the mood of bystanders swiftly changed, and members of the public began applauding the protestors. One involved said: “We can’t tend the garden and ignore the world on fire. What use is a garden when you can’t grow food?”
In October last year, two JSO members threw two tins of soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting at the National Gallery in London. One shouted: “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” While the protest did attract much national and international attention, it seemed a strange way to attempt to gain public support.
Climate change is having dire consequences for millions of people, from wildfires to floods and droughts, the effects are wiping out entire livelihoods. Often those suffering the most contribute the least to carbon dioxide emissions. This is why JSO is so committed to its “brothers and sisters in the global south.” Supporters of the group highlight that the climate emergency does not discriminate and will cause far more disruption to our lives than any protest could.
While some may not agree with their methods of raising awareness, they certainly fulfill their goal of attracting attention, with most of the stunts amassing more than 500,000 views on YouTube and Twitter recording 83,316 tweets mentioning JSO in the past week alone. With awareness comes education.
These high-profile stunts have also attracted famous supporters including footballing veteran Gary Lineker, who recently hailed the group as “heroes.” He also agrees with the precedence of civil resistance because, historically speaking, it is proven to work. Celebrities have large platforms to fight injustice and can spread messages far and wide to garner support.
While the public may find these protests aggravating, history does prove that disruptive protests fulfill their duty. For example, the Suffragette Movement where women demanded the right to vote. Very quickly, women began to deploy riotous tactics, from gunpowder use to smashing entire buildings, acts that landed them prison sentences. Eventually, their voices were heard by those in power, and in 1928, the law was amended by Parliament to include all women over the age of 21 in electoral voting, the same as their male counterparts.
JSO focuses on the very worrying parts of the climate emergency using utterances such as “genocidal policy,” “destroy families,” and “slaughter of billions.” Once you relay such distressing messages, you lose the public's interest. Generally, we prefer to read stories focusing on positivity to instill a sense of hope. Nobody wants to feel anxious when reading the news. It raises suspicions of whether they genuinely want the public on their side.
Some in London have begun taking it upon themselves to aggressively shut down protests, believing the group is enjoying impunity. Videos have emerged across the internet depicting protestors being pushed to the ground. A cyclist told the group: “All you are doing is harming the cause because everyone hates you.” Many critics discuss how the group is actually alienating day-to-day people, blocking their way to work, forcing the cancellation of doctor’s appointments, and shutting down events that people have paid large sums of money to attend.
The Met Police has predicted that a month’s worth of protests requiring police intervention has cost around £3.5 million in wasted resources. Officers could be using that time to address other more pressing issues, such as knife crime, which is continuing to increase year by year in London.
It seems that the protests, although attracting mass attention, are counterproductive. What JSO is campaigning for is worthwhile, but social media continues to be infiltrated with negative comments surrounding the group. It questions whether people joining JSO are genuinely passionate about the cause or simply enjoy causing chaos.
Perhaps a greater focus on educating the public about the impacts of fossil fuels and disrupting the lives of those in government or decision-making posts would be better tactics for being viewed as genuine environmentalists. To succeed, they need communities on board with them. We are much more likely to see changes to the government’s fossil fuel licensing plans if we are united together.
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