December 13, 2023
From Popular Resistance

Above photo: In October 2022, Just Stop Oil supporters throw soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers to demand no new oil and gas. JSO.

The climate group that threw soup on a Van Gogh knows they annoy you.

But that might be part of why their controversial approach works.

Not a lot of people like Just Stop Oil. Its own members would admit to being annoying. Journalists and politicians spend a lot of time denouncing and criminalizing the group’s chosen forms of protest. Even those who sympathize with the cause are inclined to criticize the group’s brand of civil disobedience as unreasonable or counterproductive. The most common thing I am asked as someone who researches Just Stop Oil, or JSO, is why they disrupt the daily lives of the general public. Wouldn’t it make more sense to disrupt the flow of oil directly? Whatever the answer, it is rare that JSO members are given a platform to properly answer these questions.

Contrary to many of these criticisms, there is also a large body of academic literature arguing that radical activism could be beneficial for the environmental movement as a whole. More recently, several polls and surveys have shown that the use of disruptive radical tactics can increase awareness of key issues and generate support for more moderate groups in the same movement. Other studies show that radical tactics are effective when they are contrasted with a set of moderate demands that the government can easily adopt.

So, while most agree that the radical fringe can help drive social change, there is still disagreement within the literature about what radical tactics really are and why they work. This leads to questions about the precise strategy groups looking to produce radical flank effects should pursue. Since JSO is a group that has engaged with radical flank literature through books like Andreas Malm’s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” I wanted to see if its members had answers to these questions. In the end, I was able to interview 12 members from around the U.K., asking how radical flank effects function when applied outside the ivory tower of academia.

What’s wrong with disrupting the flow of oil?

Just Stop Oil began with a campaign of trespass and sabotage to disrupt fossil fuel infrastructure, occupying oil depots and blockading trucks to attempt to force concessions from the government. However, as the group’s focus has shifted towards more public-facing forms of disruption they are often asked why it doesn’t pick targets more closely related to fossil fuels. Most of the people I interviewed were frustrated by the idea that the group should go back to targeting depots, feeling that a lot of armchair generals were unaware that this approach had already been tried. One young woman who agreed to an interview expressed her frustration with these criticisms:

“I’ve been told so many fucking times: Go to Parliament Square, go to an oil refinery or whatever. I’ve locked myself to an oil tanker for 36 hours. Nothing. I was just at Parliament Square for three days with 60,000 people, nothing happened. But my best friend throws soup on a fucking Van Gogh and we’re in the news for months.”

In descriptions of refinery protests, civil disobedience was seen as a tool for gaining leverage to force through its demands. In multiple interviews, this strategy was associated with Roger Hallam, who co-founded Just Stop Oil and advocates for a direct confrontation with the state in his books. One protest coordinator in London gave this explanation for why the group decided to adopt different tactics:

“[Our strategy] has massively changed. It was originally a classic Roger Hallam idea — almost too simplistic… which was that 12 oil terminals were responsible for 80 percent of the petroleum supply within the U.K. So, if we get 3,000 people who are willing to take action, we’ll be able to hold those for three weeks and massively affect the petroleum supply… It’s very simple. You put on X number of talks that get X number of people, and that shuts off the fuel supply. I remember even leading up to the action, we got this speech for morale. It was like: ‘Alright, we can cut off the fuel supply. Within four hours, the top police commander takes notice. Within eight hours, it lands on the minister of energy’s desk… Within 24 hours, there’s a meeting of U.K. ministers to discuss how to deal with it, and then that basically forces a response from the government.’”

This member describes the initial strategic approach as akin to a kind of nonviolent frontal assault on the capacities of the state, which — as the tone of skepticism suggests — were eventually seen as naïve.

Many supporters I interviewed invoked the idea of JSO as a radical flank when explaining the rationale behind protests at oil terminals, using similar language to scholarship on radical social movements. However, JSO’s radical tactics were not contrasted with a separate, more moderate group in the same movement. Instead, as a supporter I met in a London park noted, the counterpoint to the group’s radical tactics was the message itself. This is to say that the group’s demand — for the government to stop licensing new oil and gas infrastructure — was seen as the moderate counterbalance to JSO’s radical tactics.

“The idea is that they’ll hate the messenger, but they’ll get the message. So, while people say: ‘Oh, I don’t like this group of people because they take it too far,’ they have to acknowledge that the demand is feasible.”

Through this contrast, JSO members described a strategy that imagined the group as a kind of vanguard able to force concessions from the government and industry without relying on public opinion or the media to apply pressure. They believed the ambition and scale of the plan — to cut the oil supply to the south of England — was so great that it would force the government to respond and concede to their demand.

Where other interviewees defended actions targeting infrastructure, it was often on moral grounds or because these actions felt empowering to participate in, rather than because they were effective. This is how one student member spoke about sabotaging petrol stations around London:

“It was kind of nice to let your anger out on something physical, like an actual external thing of the climate crisis you know? These are the bombs, these are the things that are killing our earth, so I have a right to dismantle it if it’s in my home.”

There is an attractive simplicity to the idea that environmental activism should focus on the things that are destroying the planet. For activists anxious about their own role in the climate crisis these moral justifications were often deeply connected to their initial motivations to “take action.” The use of militaristic language to describe fossil fuel infrastructure as a “legitimate target” was also a common theme in the interviews.

Yet most people I spoke with admitted that — while they did not like inconveniencing the public — actions that focused solely on infrastructure were ignored by both the media and the government. A more senior member of JSO explained why he felt the actions at oil depots had been ineffectual:

“With the infrastructure, it was brilliant because we shut that shit down. The problem was nobody reported it. Nobody heard about it. It didn’t get out there because the media won’t cover you if they can’t vilify you. We hate having to rely on the media, but right now we need our messages in the heads of as many people as possible, and that doesn’t happen without the media being used as an amplifier.”

A more democratic approach to activism

The global visibility the group achieved after throwing soup at a Van Gogh was almost always seen as evidence of the superiority of public-facing protest. This informed the shift from a strategy aimed at overwhelming the state’s capacity to process arrests and keep the economy running, to one that was media driven and sought to engage with public opinion.

The members I interviewed still described this approach in relation to radical flank theory but, in this case, the group’s tactics were not juxtaposed against their moderate demand. Rather, as one older supporter explained, the radical flank effect was employed by drawing a contrast between JSO and other more moderate climate organizations:

“I read this study about radical flank theory which found that there was a correlation between JSO actions like blocking the M25 [motorway surrounding London], and people going into groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. So that kind of shows that this is potentially working.”

This interpretation of the radical flank effect reflects a more democratic approach to activism that embraces the role of public opinion rather than direct leverage. In doing so, this strategy acknowledges JSOs position in the broader climate movement. Rather than acting autonomously as a kind of vanguard, the radical flank effect was understood as relying on relationships with other activists, political parties and the media to influence the parameters of debate.

This idea that radical public protest prompts new conversations and forces people to consider new positions was expressed by the same local organizer who offered a skeptical take on the group’s initial infrastructure strategy.

“Because if you’ve heard about the Overton window — shifting what’s seen as publicly possible — JSO members are the radical flank and they’ve pissed everyone off. Well not everyone, but they’ve made the public quite angry. There’s been a lot of conversation about them, but it means that local councils can talk about climate policy, the amount of climate denial in the press might go down and acceptance of activism might go up.”

JSO’s experience has shown that its impact depends on the group’s ability to manipulate the attention of the media. This has led to a strategy that draws attention by generating spectacle in a way neither infrastructure-focused actions nor conventional mass demonstrations were able to do. While blocking an oil terminal involves a level of confrontation and spectacle, it is less likely to be picked up by the media as protesters are not engaging with the public — yet most strategies focused on public approval tend to lack the necessary drama and confrontation to be seen as newsworthy.

Another more senior decision-maker in JSO explained how the need to be seen meant the group was almost forced to play into annoying stereotypes and generate confrontation.

“So 50 young people sitting on oil tankers for two days, is to me, really exciting. It’s what we need to be doing, but the right-wing media don’t find it very exciting because there’s no one getting annoyed and no one getting angry. Maybe there’s a few drivers, but there’s not this kind of confrontation between public and protesters, and that’s what makes the news.”

If they are to have a voice in the public debate, JSO members have learned that civil disobedience needs to be designed to suit the requirements of the media which demonizes them, molding their tactics to attract the attention of the editors and algorithms that dictate the day’s agenda. The recent vandalism of a Diego Velázquez painting at the National Gallery in London drew national headlines to the group, just as it did when the suffragettes slashed the same painting more than a century earlier. This is because protests that cause shock, anger and confrontation attract more eyes than protests that actually physically block oil.

While it is arguable that the polarization of debate and the British government’s draconian clampdown on protest are negative side effects of this strategy, it is JSO’s uneasy relationship with the right-wing press that has given them such a powerful voice in British politics.

So if you’re asked whether it would make more sense for JSO to disrupt oil infrastructure itself, the answer is no. This is partly because the injunctions that have been placed on depots mean the legal consequences are now more severe, but it is also simply because these protests were ineffectual and ultimately only covered by a handful of liberally minded journalists. In fact, the move to public disruption, especially the use of slow marching and disruption of high-profile public events like the Grand Prix or the World Snooker Championship, teaches us something about why radical activism is effective. JSO’s evolution shows us that merely existing on the radical fringe will not automatically shift the parameters of debate or force governments to submit to your demands. It is the use of radical tactics to generate spectacle that has made Just Stop Oil a force, both in British politics and beyond.

For a more in-depth discussion of my methodology and the way these strategic decisions have led to more progressive and democratic approaches to culture, hierarchy and movement building within Just Stop Oil, please read the full paper here.