The action against a Van Gogh painting in London opens the debate on the radicalization of climate protests | Climate and Environment

Two environmental activists threw tomato soup this Friday at the famous painting of The sunflowers Van Gogh at the National Gallery in London. The action, whose objective was to demand that the British Government stop all oil and gas projects, has had international repercussions and has generated opposing opinions. The red sauce has not destroyed the painting, which was protected by glass, but it has put limits at the center of the debate to draw attention to the climate cause. Some understand the action as a necessary disclosure, but for others the purpose does not justify the possibility of damaging the famous painting.

The act was carried out by Phoebe Plummer (21 years old) and Anna Holland (20), belonging to Just Stop Oil, one of the organizations that is taking peaceful protests and civil disobedience in the UK a little further. Last year, the closure of a ring road in London also generated great controversy in the country, due to the risk caused. In this case, the action was carried out by members of Insulate Britainwhat as Just Stop Oil they have emerged from splits in the international Extinction Rebellion movement. The question that arises is: Do these actions serve to draw attention to the climate cause or do they just generate rejection against it?

At the beginning of this month of October, activists from Extinction Rebellion in Spain covered with cement some holes of the golf course where the Madrid Open was going to take place. “This hole has swallowed 100,000 liters of water today”, read one of the posters that the young participants placed. These types of actions seek to attract attention and viralize the message of the seriousness of the climate crisis. Environmental organizations and scientists have been warning about climate change for years, and denounce the passivity with which institutions and civil society address the issue. “The situation is urgent, and I think that press conferences and documentaries do not generate the necessary action,” says Fernando Valladares, a scientist at the CSIC and an ecology professor at the Rey Juan Carlos University.

“We live in an anesthetized society to which urgent messages do not reach,” explains Valladares. Eva Saldaña, executive director of Greenpeace Spain, clarifies that the “desperation” generated by the climate emergency can justify direct action. This organization, which defends the use of non-violent activities, understands the urgency of British activists to generate debate. “The immediate objective, which is to generate debate, is fulfilled,” she says. “But at the level of changing mentalities and behaviors or putting pressure on governments to take action, which are what we need, it should be reviewed in the long term,” she acknowledges.

Not everyone agrees with this modus operandi. “Civil disobedience processes are brought forward and have been necessary for many things, but in cases like this, the effect has not been well studied. Everyone is talking about what has happened, but not to support it”, reflects Juan Bordera, an activist for civil disobedience. “It is true that these are behaviors that can generate rejection in society. If we are looking for actions for people to participate, we have to think about it a lot”, admits Valladares. “But there are not many other ways if we want to carry out non-violent actions and have an impact,” says the scientist.

The National Gallery has clarified that “the painting has not been damaged”, although not the frame, which has some “minor” damage. The work, painted in 1888, is one of seven representations of sunflowers Van Gogh painted in the late 19th century to decorate his house in Arles, southern France, before a visit from his friend Paul Gauguin.

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One of the main problems that, for some activists, the action of Just Stop Oil is the goal. Picture. “It is necessary to point out those directly responsible. To the political power that does not take part, the economic power that benefits directly, such as the energy or financial ones. If not, the message is not understood”, says Bordera. For Greenpeace, the focus is on effectiveness. “An action like this works when it involves practical changes, such as the modification of a law. We do not execute this type of action with the aim of attracting attention once, but to achieve profound changes with a very elaborate strategy”, Saldaña clarifies.

Until now, none of the actions against works of art have caused any real damage, because the materials used are not harmful and most are covered by glass. “It is not vandalism, it is an action carried out consciously after a long process of reflection, and even knowing that there will be repercussions, authorship is claimed to avoid much greater damage,” says Belén Díaz, an activist with Extinction Rebellion. In Spain, the name of the organization translates as Rebellion or Extinction. “If we only carried out actions that the whole world approved of, without novelty or imagination, we would not be news,” concludes Díaz.

At the risk of the fight for the environmental crisis becoming tense or political, scientists like Valladares understand the most “radicalized” actions of activists, even if they are not the best forms. “Climate change is constantly silenced by today. We all work hard to make progress, even if we risk creating rejection, ”he says. Both he and Saldaña believe that more of these actions will be seen in the coming years. “And many others, not only from social movements, but surely more and more from ordinary citizens, because the climate crisis affects all areas of our daily lives,” explains the director of Greenpeace Spain. Valladares confirms: “Pensions, inequality, the price of energy… All social protests have the climate crisis as their background. If we could understand that we are all together and protesting for the same thing, more would be achieved”. In the meantime, these actions “can get some people to really understand the problem and mobilize,” says Diaz. And she concludes: “As long as they generate a minimum of rejection in some sector of the population, we will have already achieved the objective.”

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