Why You Should Hate Environmentalism

Activists from Just Stop Oil after throwing soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

Simon Li 

On October 14th, 2022, two activists from Just Stop Oil threw a can of soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the National Gallery, London, protesting new oil production in the UK. Asking the shocked public “What is worth more, art or life?”, the two subsequently glued themselves to the wall. 

The protest soon began to spark outrage internationally. Even I was outraged personally when I first heard about it—I found the move ridiculous and counterproductive. In fact, there were even theories circulating around social media about the credibility of Just Stop Oil, claiming that it was all a “psy-op” to deter the public from environmentalism. After all, it was disruptive, it was unethical, it was unnecessary. 

Yet, isn’t this exactly the point? By targeting a well known painting, these activists started a conversation globally. We normally ignore climate protests: just earlier this year, a Colorado man self-immolated on the steps of the Supreme Court and was quickly forgotten. What the young activists did, then, was incredibly effective; it is the entire reason that this is even a conversation. Yes, the action did not elicit much support even amongst those who believe in climate change. But by refusing to allow climate change to be put on the backburner, we can actually attempt to fix it—addressing an issue is the first step towards change. Otherwise, it goes ignored. 

Although throwing soup at paintings may seem wholly unrelated to climate change at a first glance, I would argue that they are linked. While Van Gogh himself did nothing to cause climate change, the comparison is not between the receiving end of the action and climate change, but the action itself. As I said earlier, the protest was regarded as disruptive, unethical, and unnecessary. Isn’t this exactly what climate change is? Isn’t this exactly what we are doing to ourselves with the unregulated pollution of the Earth?  Just as throwing the soup seemingly ruined the painting, we are throwing the soup of pollution onto the Earth—this time, there is no glass barrier to prevent it. 

Why then, do we so sharply criticize one while completely ignoring the other? Why do we attach value to a painting but not the earth that makes life possible? Why do we hate protests that barricade the roads? Why do we demand protests to be docile, to stand in the corner of our eyes as we race past them?    

I believe the answer lies within the fact that we are fully occupied by our daily lives, by our usual routine. We have schoolwork, homework, sports practice; when we grow up we will need to worry about commutes, bills, taxes, jobs, et cetera. Anything that disrupts our routines, that inconveniences us in the slightest, becomes dismissed. Efficiency becomes key to getting everything done. Disruption, then, slows down the efficiency of our lives. It means additional time to get home from work, it means not being able to access certain materials, it means getting late to school, it means waiting longer for a meal. It means that paintings will not be on display for a period of time. Imagine the poor souls who can’t admire Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

Because of our need for efficiency, we are simply not capable of caring about the environment —a protest on the sidewalk can be dismissed, a protest blocking traffic cannot. We can wholeheartedly want change in the comforts of our own home, but once change comes knocking, we treat it as an enemy. Change is expected to happen without us, rather than with us. 

Do we have time to wait around, though? Every day, we inch closer and closer to total climate catastrophe. Around the world, extreme weather events are happening more and more often, from hurricanes to wildfires to droughts and floods. The average global temperature is steadily increasing, with there being a fifty-fifty chance of exceeding the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit decided on by the Paris Agreement, according to the United Nations. Still, we refuse to do anything. Still, we continue to pollute. 

Much of the soup has already landed on the painting. If we lounge around, the painting may become irreparable. The painting may be destroyed—after all, we have no glass barrier. Our only glimmer of hope is to try to wipe the soup off now, to reverse the damages done by climate change through immediate, effective action. Otherwise, it will be for nought.