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Just Stop Oil's protest at the National Gallery. Courtesy The National Gallery


4 January 2024

What Does Good Activism Look Like?


Two years ago, I took a road trip between Melbourne and Sydney with a group of five strangers. Whilst we were all the same age and participating in the same university exchange programme, it was obvious from our first petrol station toilet break that we represented what can only be described as a broad spectrum of political identification. Somewhere along the 500-mile journey, with chat of five-year plans and favourite holidays firmly used up, the talk turned to more risqué topics - politics, the royal family and, eventually, climate change and activism.


Amongst a sea of economists and mathematicians, I felt something of the lentil-eating, literature-studying anomaly in the back seat wearing my platform Crocs.


It's fair to say that the majority of my fellow road-trippers didn't seem particularly enthused when I mentioned my involvement in forms of civil disobedience and more disruptive protest. There was the usual complaint that these forms of protest are polarising and do little to enculturate so-called “fence sitters” into new forms of thinking or indeed action. The passers-by who take up the chant and join the action likely already care, and those that are minorly inconvenienced leave pissed off and unlikely to join the cause. In other words, these forms of protest, like swarming roads or throwing paint at things, do more harm than good. And how could I disagree when in a car of six, these kinds of actions seemed to incense five of us and did little to change my opinion? Because, well, they’d be preaching to the choir.


At the end of seven rather intense days of group bonding, this group of then strangers, emerged, with the help of a few litres of cheap Australian box wine, as a group of complex and profoundly intelligent new friends. After numerous discussions, I found myself beginning to see noticeable changes in the way we could talk about issues of climate change and social justice and found that by changing my tone, appealing to reason and using less inflammatory language, I was beginning to cajole even the more stubborn or politically right of our posse. By the end of the trip, I was congratulated for bringing a fresh perspective, for giving a relatable voice to some of the climate “radicals” that had made them late to lectures or had provided some unwelcome background noise to their busy lives.


They told me that this kind of cooperation and reciprocity represented a more successful form of activism.


It seemed that allowing them to feel heard and offer logical opposite arguments was much more effective than covering myself in paint. 


And so, on the last day of our trip, fuelled with optimism, I offered them a choice over breakfast. They could go ahead and book the hour-and-a-half-long flight from Sydney back to Melbourne or they could, for just ten dollars more, join me on the 16-hour overnight train. Despite their self-confessed new sympathy for the cause, it is safe to say I rode the long and rather uncomfortable journey back alone.


Whilst I seemed to have fostered a sort of tacit sympathy for climate awareness amongst my peers, my gentle, grassroots, campervan activism had not managed to spark even the tiniest glimmer of real, tangible change. I had handed them the opportunity to prove to me that this kind of inclusive activism was indeed better than disruptive displays on a silver platter, and they had refused to even open the cloche. So in terms of driving practical action, large-scale disruption and small-scale cooperation were proven equally ineffective amongst my small group of test subjects. 


What makes it even worse is that the whole process had been emotionally and psychologically exhausting, on more than one occasion I had been reduced to tears and had almost undoubtedly limited my chances of being invited to future pub get-togethers.


Even if enough people were willing to dedicate their time to engage in sustained cooperative dialogue with climate “fence-sitters”, this kind of activism is unsustainable for the activists it relies on to spread the news.


I had emerged from the whole experience emotionally drained and with a new feeling of climate hopelessness. 


Now in 2024, demonstrative forms of activism are on the rise, with groups such as Just Stop Oil appealing to what can only be described as more extreme forms of climate vandalism. Their actions have sparked international controversy, being branded by some as acts of “climate terrorism”. They have become synonymous with orange paint, rising to infamy over the spraying of historic buildings and art pieces and the disruption of stage shows and sporting events (such as the West End’s Les Mis and premier league football matches). Acts which in most cases lead to subsequent arrest. Whether you see these acts of climate activism as heroism or hysteria, it is safe to say they have got people talking.


The fact is, we are in an international state of global emergency and yet it doesn't really feel like it.


Yes, there are a lot of people who are incensed by these kinds of actions, who enjoy trolling activists on Instagram and denouncing them as lazy unemployed hippies but as my road-tripping days suggest, I doubt these people would be moved to action through polite conversation either. 


Ultimately, I think activism can only ever be successful when it is sustained and crucially multipronged. Throughout history change has not arrived from marching alone but from a combination of education, demonstration and in some cases, though it’s scary to admit, violence and illegality - look no further than the suffragettes. I'd love to see a world where activist groups are sufficiently supported and have the resources to run seminars, discussion groups and craftivism workshops, where we can sway all the “fence sitters” of the world with cups of tea and chats about degrowth, but sadly these resources simply do not exist. Sadly, it is up to governments to provide climate education and I guess we can only cross our fingers and hope, maybe only half-heartedly, that the next government might do this better.


In the meantime, climate vandalism is free, visible and incredibly provocative. 


If, like me, Christmas is one of the few times a year you may see some of your relatives, the festive season can be rife with interesting, if not sometimes frustrating, conversations about politics and the environment. Christmas eve is undoubtedly the best night to be banished from the dinner table for becoming “too emotional” over mulled wine-fuelled conversations about ethical consumption with an elderly relative. Not speaking from experience or anything. I have had my fair share of healthy debates with various loved ones this yuletide about the effectiveness of Just Stop Oil’s efforts and almost every one of my family is opposed to their orange paint tactics. Yet, I have reminded each of these relatives that without this kind of disruptive behaviour, we’d most likely not be having this conversation at all.


It truly does come back to the somewhat cynical saying that all publicity is good publicity. Activism, like business, relies on repeated messaging; it needs slogans and images that become hard to ignore.


Yes, they are by nature disruptive, and therefore often controversial, but they get under people’s skin and through this, they enter the zeitgeist. Not everyone loves Just Stop Oil but almost everyone knows about them and for a group that only started in 2022 that is pretty good going.  And can I remind us that we are in a state of global climate emergency and that seeing at least some people freak out about that seems like a relatively healthy response? Whilst they may be a scapegoat for climate deniers now, I like to think it may only take the world getting a little bit worse for relatively large numbers of people to mobilise in their favour.


So maybe this form of activism is not for the “fence sitters”, it's most certainly not going to persuade those who are already flying the flagship for the other side.Yet I think this kind of activism has a crucial function and a specific audience. And that is for the people like you and me. Because if this piece has reached you it is most likely that you are at least a little bit interested in climate action. Perhaps like me you are also entering the new year feeling a good deal overwhelmed, a bit powerless and more than a little disillusioned by the year we have found ourselves entering. 


Whether it’s the licensing of new oil and gas fields under project Rosebank or the farce that is Cop 28, it is hard to find even a glimmer of climate optimism amongst a sea of dystopian and frankly emotionally exhausting rhetoric. I am entering 2024 feeling more than a little burnt out. Yet moments of compassionate sacrifice like those demonstrated by Just Stop Oil protestors do provide a bastion of hope. We are surrounded by politicians sticking their heads in the sand and a sea of faceless climate apathists in the media so whether you agree with it or not, there is something inspiring, something downright moving about seeing someone risk it all for a cause they believe in.


Whether you agree with their motive or not, watching a 19-year-old give up their hopes of a normal life because they think the future is simply worth fighting for, is pretty rock and roll.


Sometimes I think they target the wrong things and sometimes the messaging is a little confused but these are just normal people doing their best because let's face it, what else is there to do? When there’s no one funding you and no one in government backing your cause, who can blame them for giving up the only thing they have left to give - their freedom - in the fight for climate justice?  


The actions of Just Stop Oil are not for everyone, but they are for some of us. They provide me with hope and with passion. They inspire the poems I write, the articles I choose to share and the difficult conversations I continue to have with relatives or vans full of strangers. Just Stop Oil may not be for you, but they are for some of us because without them I would have given up a long time ago.  


Oh, and for Christ’s sake, the paint washes off!

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