Public concern about the environment has increased in presence and is now a multi-generational discussion that is shared on a variety of platforms and social media streams. Former US President Bush went so far as to say that “we are all environmentalists now”. Many are willing to go to great lengths to voice their concerns regarding the environment and to elicit a response from governing bodies.
On Tuesday, we saw such a case in Oxford. Two activists supporting the Just Stop Oil campaign sprayed orange paint on the face of the Radcliffe Camera, a Grade 1 listed building that is one of the city’s key historic landmarks and an important tourist hotspot. The two individuals responsible were willing to risk their personal freedom to support the environmental agenda of their campaign, and both have since been arrested.
Members of Just Stop Oil are campaigning for the government to stop licensing new oil, coal and gas projects. The ultimate agenda is to prevent the creation of new licenses, so that the UK will be less reliant on energy from fossil fuels: a leading contributor to anthropogenic climate change. Currently over 100 North Sea oil and gas licenses are in the process of being granted by the government, with PM Rishi Sunak claiming that this will not inhibit the UK’s ability to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
Just Stop Oil is a nonviolent activist group renowned for making large and, at times, disruptive public displays. Buildings at the University of Exeter were also targeted by a Just Stop Oil activist on Tuesday, who has also been arrested. Notable campaign methods used by the group in the past include blocking major roads, such as the M25, and disrupting highly publicised events, such as Wimbledon 2023.
Just Stop Oil is certainly successful at gaining popular media coverage and drawing the attention of the public. However, is this getting them any closer to achieving the goal of their campaign? Does the concept of ‘all press is good press’ hold true?
By looking at cases of environmental activism in the past, there is an argument to be made that yes, efforts made by campaigners, such as members of Just Stop Oil, will help achieve their environmental agenda in the long run. For example, take the case of the anti-road protests in the 1990s. Activists such as Daniel Hooper (popularly referred to as ‘Swampy’) took part in many protests that initially appeared to be unsuccessful. However, the traction gained by the protests was instrumental in motivating the National Review of the Roads Programme that took place in the 1990s. This programme prevented the construction of many roads that had the potential to be environmentally damaging.
However, the argument could be made that some environmental activists are going about their campaigning in the wrong way. Some believe that consistent negative framing, such as calls for the government to ‘stop’ using oil, are pessimistic and restrictive, increasing the chances of backlash and disapproval. It could consequently be argued that whilst environmental activism can be beneficial, campaign groups may gain better results by framing their ideas more positively and focusing on advertising what can be done to make positive environmental change.
Whether you agree or disagree with the methods used by environmental activist groups today, it is clear that all campaigning comes from a place of concern for the environment and a desire to protect the future of our planet. Whether negative framing and disruptive methods are limiting the success of groups such as Just Stop Oil is a matter of personal opinion. Only time will tell if such methods will prove to be beneficial or futile.