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Does Throwing Soup Work? Thoughts on Climate Protests

How do you make people care about a complex, prolonged crisis muffled by the oil and gas industry, one of the most powerful economic forces in history? It’s a challenge activists battle everyday.

Enter the soup-throwers. Activists have been tossing food at the protective glass covering masterpieces and gluing themselves to museum walls to call attention to the climate crisis. People noticed, all right. But did it alienate or motivate the public?

We asked our readers, and you are utterly divided. Some considered the activists absolute criminals, while others thought their actions were pure genius and wanted to join in.

Many would rather the activists adopted other tactics, like showing images of burning forests next to Van Gogh’s sunflowers or getting young people to vote instead of attacking art. What about throwing soup at Vladimir Putin? (More than one person suggested that.)

Many were thrilled by the activists’ creativity, inspired by their courage and outraged that anyone would care about possible harm to art when they believe the world is sleepwalking deeper into an existential crisis.

One bit of context. A recent survey found that 46 percent of respondents said disruptive nonviolent protests such as damaging pieces of art decreased their support for measures to address global warming. (There is no evidence the recent protests damaged any painting.) Another 40 percent said these types of protests had no effect while only 13 percent said these actions increased their support for efforts to address climate change.

There is no question, though, that the activists’ goal is one the vast majority of you share.

Many respondents discussed inspiring climate actions. Some took to the streets to protest wars, pipelines and the rollback of environmental protections. And while some were not sure how effective their actions would be, many said it felt good to be among people who shared your passions, and that in itself was a victory.

We read every one of the hundreds of responses you sent from dozens of countries on every continent but one. (Antarctic researchers, we are looking at you.) Here are excerpts from your responses, edited for length and clarity.

I am torn. On the one hand, I see the argument that great art (culture) is destroyed every day because of the climate crisis. On the other side, a lot of the reason for the protest has been lost. I feel that society talked more about the Van Gogh painting than about the problem.

— Fabian Vermum, Berlin

One hundred percent for it. I’ve been around as an adult since the original Greenpeace boat left Vancouver to protest nukes in the Pacific. They were treated as crazies back then by the mainstream media. Protests and civil disobedience is absolutely essential to draw attention.

— John Davies, Vancouver, British Columbia

This kind of activism is exactly the kind that will quickly turn the public against the movement it supports, and stigmatize its more reasonable forms of protest. Vandalizing works of art obviously brings widespread attention to the perpetrator, but rather than encouraging individuals to learn about Just Stop Oil’s cause, it will simply spark debate over the tactics of the activism and detract from the protesters’ overarching message.

— Liam Fillery, Toronto, Ontario

I think it is vandalism and off-putting, but maybe it’s necessary? Maybe we need the shocking extreme in order to move the needle and get more support for “reasonable environmentalism.”

— Rafaella Lobo, Morehead City, N.C.

I work in advertising and I spend a lot of my spare time thinking about how to get people to pay attention to the climate crisis. Complex and nuanced messages never get across, only headlines. And in this case, the headline is “climate activists attack priceless work of art.”

— Nico Ordozgoiti, Madrid

I do think such protests are effective, if done without harming the art and with clear messaging. I’m an artist and conservationist. Huge money is spent on art but natural things or areas which provide most art inspiration receive comparatively little funding and protection.

— Keryn Adcock, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

A road map for retreat: The U.S. government is giving three Native groups $25 million each to move away from rising water. It could be a model for future relocation programs.

A record of climate change: When a Hawaii volcano erupted on Sunday, it stopped the world’s longest running tool measuring the rising levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Safeguarding a ‘sacred place’: President Biden pledged to expand protections for the Spirit Mountain area in Nevada, but some environmentalists had hoped for stronger measures.

Hurricane season ends: The six-month total of 14 named storms was about average. But two late-season hurricanes proved catastrophic in Florida and Puerto Rico. Our colleagues at The Morning looked at how the costs associated with the storms are skyrocketing.

Seafaring cattle: Northern Australia has vast land but not enough affordable fodder, so live cows are shipped to Indonesia. For some, it’s good business. For others, unnecessary cruelty.

Who pays? The Daily explained how the tiny island nation of Barbados came up with a plan that could transform the way the world finances deals to tackle the climate crisis.

Fossil-free heating: Heat pumps are an increasingly popular alternative among Germans looking to dodge exorbitant energy prices fueled by the war in Ukraine.

Canada’s climate minister, Steven Guilbeault, spoke to Lulu Garcia-Navarro, from the Times’s First Person podcast, about his transition from extreme climate activism to government. Changing tactics, he said, came at a price.

Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, Nobel laureates in economics, wrote about how to balance hope and despair in turbulent times.

Up until now, most clothes marketed as made from recycled materials contained a small percentage of recycled cotton or were made from water bottles, fishing nets and old carpets. But that could be changing. About a half-dozen start-ups around the world are now aimed at commercial textile recycling. The first to open, in Sweden, is developing a system that turns old garments into new, high-quality clothes made entirely with recycled fabric.

Thanks for being a subscriber. We’ll be back on Tuesday.

Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.

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