Climate activists have been engaging in civil disobedience, including attempting to damage works of art as a form of protest — and there is a history of art pieces being used to send a strong political message. Alessio Terzi frames the recent phenomenon in a historical context and assesses its pros and cons.
“Portrait of Carlyle by Millais damaged by butcher’s cleaver; name given as Anne Hunt. Reopened East Wing at 12 noon to the public. [National] Gallery kept open.” At a time when attacks on works of art by climate activists are commonplace, this headline seems fully contemporary. Yet it dates to 17 July 1914. Anne Hunt, the author of the attack, was an activist for women’s voting rights. A few months earlier, on 5 and 13 May, portraits of Henry James and the Duke of Wellington suffered a similar treatment at the Royal Academy, while on 10 March it had been the turn of Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus. Attacks on works of art to send a strong political message is an old phenomenon. The most recent wave of attacks has been the work of climate activists. Framing art vandalism in a historical context allows us to assess its pros and cons and to make a reasoned judgment about the usefulness of civil disobedience in a climate crisis context.
Starting with the cause, from gender equality to the urgency contrasting climate change, both deserve respect and utmost attention. The goal of civil disobedience, then like now, is to wake up with shock actions a public that too often is apathetic, distracted or slumbering in the everyday life. Viewed in this way, the mere fact that media outlets have been discussing the shock acts could be interpreted as a success. And the fact these actions are led by young activists makes perfect sense. After all, the latest IPCC report has powerfully illustrated how the world is sleepwalking towards climate catastrophe, and this will affect, in particular, generations who are currently in their youth. If indeed these acts help permanently retune public debates towards such momentous challenges as contrasting climate change, then civil disobedience of this kind should be encouraged by those who care about the environment and our future on this planet. To understand why, one must understand how the green transition will take place.
As I explain in depth in my recent book, Growth for Good, decarbonisation will require a complete transformation of production and consumption, transport, agriculture, and even the shapes and materials of our homes. In essence, what we have in front of us is something resembling a Green Industrial Revolution to be fast tracked in the face of a deadline – 2050 – after which, scientists tell us, catastrophic chain events could be unleashed. Citizens have a key role to play in this transition. In the first instance, because they can change their behaviours, often with minimal impact on their own quality of life and high impact on the environment. Classic examples are using bicycles more for short distances in the city, taking the train instead of a short-haul flight, or reducing meat consumption. If these things are not already happening, it is often because we make daily decisions out of inertia and not with the environment in mind.
Then there is a more systemic consideration. For the most part, zero-emission technologies already exist, such as renewables to replace fossil fuel energy sources, but they require large upfront investments and generally initially imply higher prices for consumers. Only an environmentally conscious consumer will see the green option as superior and will therefore be willing to pay a price premium. However, this initial move by green (more affluent) consumers will lead firms to compete on that terrain, fostering innovation and cost reductions along so-called ‘learning curves’, making the transition affordable and possible for all. This is somewhat what we are experiencing with electric cars, currently seen as top of the line. As EVs gain market shares, however, they will go through a price reduction that will progressively allow the complete replacement of internal combustion engine cars.
Finally, at least in democracies, consumers are also citizens, and as such they vote in elections. Citizens who care more about climate issues will put governments in a position to adopt public policies designed to facilitate and accelerate the phenomena described above, both behavioural changes and green innovation. For example, policy may increase pedestrian and bicycle spaces in cities, expand the rail network, or increase taxation on CO2 emissions to further incentivise businesses to reinvent their production processes in a green way.
To formulate an assessment on the usefulness of civil disobedience, the key question to ask is therefore: are the shock actions of climate activists working in the direction of the Green Revolution thus described, or not? The answer would perhaps be best left to public opinion and survey experts and may vary from country to country. But I suspect there are limits to what we can expect from civil disobedience today. First, because a strategy that rests on shock actions requires constantly raising the bar higher and higher. If defacing a Van Gogh was enough the first time to land on the front page of the New York Times, what will be required in the future? The process effectively risks radicalisation, as incidentally happened to the suffragettes a century ago. Cleaver attacks on works of art were followed by damage of government buildings, post offices, churches, infrastructure, parcel bombs, arson and even assassinations. With this in mind, the success of Andreas Malm’s recent book How to Blow Up a Pipeline (just released in movie format) should therefore come as no surprise. While tomato puree against a glass case may perhaps shock and arouse sympathy in a moderate audience, radicalisation is generally accompanied by fear, criminalisation and repression. Many historians indeed suggest that even the suffragette movement ended up rowing against its own cause.
Second, one must consider the broader context. The suffragette movement in England decided to stop its activities with the country’s entry into the Great War. In the United States, on the other hand, it decided to continue its disobedience activities, alienating them from more moderate public opinion. One wonders, then, whether activities to disrupt transport infrastructure, such as those we have recently seen on the M25 in London, are not at danger of becoming increasingly unpopular at a time of conflict, energy crisis, inflation and purchasing power collapse for many. It is perhaps no coincidence that Extinction Rebellion has recently announced that it will abandon its civil disobedience actions in the UK in order to devote itself to broadening its base.
Lastly, even if disobedience actions continue to be limited to nonviolence, such as defacing buildings or works of art, I suspect they will garner more success and attention from those who are already environmentally conscious, and less from those who are not. If so, their usefulness would be minimal. And the link to the climate cause is so tenuous that it does not immediately suggest how to change one’s behaviour. “What does Van Gogh have to do with climate?” has been the reflection of many.
The green transition is a Herculean transformation that cannot be implemented by any single actor in society but will require joint effort. The actions of governments, businesses and citizens will be crucial building blocks for change. Whether or not civil disobedience is of help depends on whether and how it will influence them.