Just Stop Oil: how civil is disobedience?

As Just Stop Oil enter their 28th day of civil disobedience, which has included blocking roads, throwing soup on Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, and climbing Dartford Crossing bridge, the impact of their actions remains to be seen. The group Just Stop Oil, formerly Insulate Britain, state on their website that their central demand is to push the government to “halt all future licensing and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK.”

Despite the British government’s commitment to below 1.5C of warming as part of the Paris Agreement, Just Stop Oil activists express their anger at their lack of real action towards this goal. The potential licensing of over 100 new oil, gas, and fracking fields as part of former PM Liz Truss’ energy plan remains incompatible with the internationally agreed target. The largest proposed oil and gas field, Rosebank in the North Sea, is over three times larger than the Cambo oil field, which was paused in its development last year after Shell withdrew following pressure from environmental groups.

Those willing to take part in Just Stop Oil’s acts of civil disobedience include professionals, grandparents, and students, such as Anna Holland, 20, who took part in the defacing of Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’. Just Stop Oil’s social media features the activists’ explanations for their participation; they express fears for the future of their children and grandchildren, frustration with a government failing to meet its environmental commitments, and the desperation for change which has led them to their activism.

These protests come at a time when a new bill which will act to curtail civil disobedience is being passed through the House of Lords; the public bill targets “criminal, disruptive and self-defeating guerrilla tactics” such as those used by Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion. The civil rights organisation Liberty has condemned the bill as “a staggering attack on our right to protest.” In light of this, Just Stop Oil spokesman Cameron Ford has asserted the group’s determination to continue civil disobedience, despite the potential repercussions for activists. He claims that only “the death sentence” as a repercussion would deter them. Seven Just Stop Oil activists are currently in prison, facing sentences of up to 51 weeks, while over 600 have been arrested over the 28 days of action.

Reactions to their protests and actions have been mixed, including one incidence of a protestor sustaining injuries as they were dragged from a road blockade by an angry driver, and Suella Braverman’s accusation that those behind the protests are: “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati.”

Despite suggestions that civil disobedience generally instils anger and frustration amongst the general population, a recent poll shows that 66% of the UK public back nonviolent action to campaign for environmental protection and new climate policies. Although many may oppose such actions as the throwing of soup onto Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, and the throwing of cake onto the wax King Charles at Madame Tussauds, these statistics indict that people support such acts as a way to raise awareness and campaign for policy change.

After Liz Truss’ lifting of the fracking ban, a poll showed that 66% of the public would not be happy to have a shale gas site in their constituency, implying their concern about the harmful effects of fracking on both people and planet. In one of his first decisions as new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak has reinstated the fracking ban lifted by Liz Truss, likely influenced by public discontent with the re-establishment of fracking sites, and a greater public concern with climate-related policies.

As Professor Sir David King (former Chief Scientific Advisor) warned, and Just Stop Oil proclaim in large letters on their website; “We have to move rapidly. What we do over the next three to four years I believe is going to determine the future of humanity.” If this is indeed the case, then perhaps the throwing of soup onto a glass-protected painting doesn’t seem so drastic after all.

(Image: Matt Hrkac on Flikr.)

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