What is Just Stop Oil trying to achieve?
On the face of it, the Extinction Rebellion (XR) spin-off Just Stop Oil and I agree on our goal: a rapid end to the fossil fuel economy. But when I heard about two of their activists throwing tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, I realised that they and I disagree fundamentally on how to achieve that end.
When I first realised change management was key to Sustainability, it quickly dawned on me that far too much green messaging was aimed at people who already get the green message, but that change will only happen when we engage people who don’t already understand the need to change. And this is the question I would ask Just Stop Oil: are you trying to engage people who don’t understand the need for rapid decarbonisation, or are you playing to your own audience?
Just imagine a hard pressed parent, trying to get their kids fed and out the door with the right stuff in their school bag, before getting themselves to work on time. Over the hubbub of the morning, they hear on the radio that someone has thrown soup at a famous artwork. Are they really going to hear that and say “Oh, I really must not holiday in Lanzarote this year/drive to work/eat so much beef.”, or are they going to say “What a bunch of vandals!”?
Certainly the UK Government has tried to demonise XR as part of their ongoing culture warrior politics, rather than change policy to stop the protests. The Greenpeace protest during Prime Minister Liz Truss’s limp conference speech put fire in her belly and (for a time) made fracking more likely than less. The truth is, what policy changes we have seen in Government eg previously sceptical PM Boris Johnson’s embracing of Net Zero, have been triggered by boring technocratic Powerpoint presentations, not people gluing themselves to motorways. [Note: I don’t normally recommend Powerpoint for engagement]
The last time I criticised XR – for stopping people getting to work on an electric train – one of their members bizarrely accused me of encouraging violence against their activists. This chippy attitude smacks of divisive, us-and-them politics, playing into the hands of the culture warriors. Feeling virtuous will save precisely zero tonnes of carbon, whereas bringing other people on board just might help stabilise the climate.
I say this to all pressure groups: please do keep protesting, but please think about what we are actually trying to achieve, and who we need to bring on board to achieve it.