Recent demonstrations, or protests, or acts of vandalism, have been getting lots of media attention, particularly in the U.K. Activists have been throwing soup on famous paintings (which are behind glass and so remain undamaged) and gluing themselves to highways, shutting down traffic.
There have been various groups doing this in recent year, with names like Extinction Rebellion and Last Generation. The latest round has come courtesy of Just Stop Oil. As you’d guess, the broader cause has to do with saving the environment and fighting climate change.
I agree with the point being made. The environment is an important issue for me, and I try to live in such a way that reflects my concern for what’s happening. But I wonder about the value of these stunts.
I’m not questioning the point that’s most often made: that acting out like this only alienates the people one is hoping to persuade. Instead, I question whether the basic premise behind such activism is valid.
That premise is that what’s needed is more attention and publicity given to environmental issues. This is the whole point behind throwing soup at a painting or blocking traffic: getting the media to notice. We live in an attention economy, and it’s felt that the environment is being ignored. If people only knew the nature of the crisis we face they’d act differently.
I don’t think any of that is true. In the first place, there’s a certain segment of the population — not a majority, but a significant number — who have made up their minds and will never believe the lying fake media or the consensus of a scientific elite no matter how loud the warning. Demonstrations will have no effect on them whatsoever.
A much larger cohort are already aware of the problem but don’t think there’s much they can do about it, or care enough to bother trying. George Monbiot starts off his column defending the protestors like this: “What does it take? How far must we go to alert other people to the scale of the crisis we face?” Again: I don’t see being alert to the scale of the crisis as the problem. We know there’s a problem. The media does report on it. It’s not an issue of attention and publicity, attracting eyeballs and getting clicks, but of persuading people to make changes to the way they live.
As I said twelve years ago in a review of Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff:
To say that Leonard is right in pointing out the dangers of not doing anything, of just continuing to live the way we live now, is almost beside the point. We know smoking is bad for you – a major cause of cancer and heart disease – but people still smoke. We know fast food will kill you, but that hasn’t stopped billions of people from eating it.
And these are examples where the ill effects of our behaviour are personally and (relatively speaking) immediately felt! The fact of the matter is that we are not a rational species, and we’re even worse when it comes to planning for the future.
Look: Unless they’re hiding their heads in the sand, everyone knows about climate change and global warming. They know the basics of how it works and they have a general idea of the steps that have to be taken to stop it. They just don’t want to take those steps and make the sacrifices that will be necessary.