Video: Didn’t like the “Just Stop Oil” Soup Protest? Doesn’t Matter.

A few weeks back I wrote a blog post about what I called “Liberal Protest Activism”, in response to both the infamous souping of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and to the general response to said souping. What I didn’t mention was that that post was, in part, inspired by a Twitter disagreement with Michael Mann. Basically, someone had called the protest inappropriate, and I responded by pointing out that more conventional protest had not resulted in adequate action. Mann quote-tweeted me, and basically said I was lying, and that saying “nothing has been done” is being used to justify extremism. I pointed out that I hadn’t said “nothing”, and he blocked me.

Honestly, it hurt a little. I’ve looked up to Mann for a long time, and I still do. The work he’s done on climate science and advocacy is valuable, and he gets entirely too much hate. On the other hand, as I’ve said in the past, being an expert in climate science does not make you an expert in sociology, politics, or policy. Having him not only disagree with me, but point to me as someone being extremist and wrong was a shock, so I spent time thinking about it, which generated the blog post mentioned above. I also deleted that tweet, because I didn’t want to keep getting notifications from people responding to Mann calling me a liar. As far as I can tell, trying to “defend my honor” would end up benefiting no one worth considering. I wrote that blog post partly as a way to deal with my bad mood. I ended up writing this post, because Rebecca Watson has a new video out about the same subject, so now I feel a little braver in talking about it.

There’s a lot there that I agree with (as always, the transcript is at the link above), but I wanted to pause on one point that Watson made:

They were angry simply because young people were doing something for a cause they cared about, and the angry people know deep in their hearts that they do not have even a fraction of that courage and that conviction, and they know that the cause is a good one that SHOULD inspire us all to that kind of courage and conviction. But instead we’re at home eating Cheez-its and doom scrolling Twitter, and channeling our guilt by getting angry at someone who is actually out there doing something. My hypothesis is that NO protest these people could have done would ever have been widely considered to be “meaningful,” and “good” and “effective,” and despite that, there’s a good chance that this protest will historically be seen to be all of those things.

Oof. That hits a little close to home. Regardless of how you feel about their tactics, there’s no question that what they are doing takes courage, especially given the consistently hostile response they have gotten. They’ve put far more on the line for this cause than I have, and they’ve generated a great deal of conversation with the art protests – more conversation than came from their more direct act of spraying paint on the Bank of England to protest its investment in fossil fuels. I think I should have given them a bit more credit. I also very much agree with the guess that no protest the did would have gotten wide support

The reality is that protests generally aren’t popular, and the people who make headlines for protests share that unpopularity. From Watson’s video:

And that hypothesis is based on decades of research: as I said two years ago during the Black Lives Matter protests, “in 1961, 57% of Americans said that sit-ins hurt the cause of those fighting against segregation. By 1963 that number had risen to 60%. By 1964, after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it was 74%. Three quarters of Americans thought Martin Luther King’s “extreme” tactics were hurting the Civil Rights fight. He was one of the most hated men in America. And yet, the Civil Rights movement succeeded.” And even though “79% of people said the (LA) riots were not justified…nearly 30 years later, scientists can see that those riots helped “build support for policy by mobilizing supporters.” They found that both white and African American voters “were mobilized to register (to vote), that new registrants tended to affiliate as Democrats, and that voters shifted their policy support toward public schools, net of a general shift in support for education spending. This mobilization appears to have persisted: those mobilized by the riot remained regular participators over a decade later and remained more Democratic than the general population, even after accounting for demographics.””

She then goes on to talk about Mann’s response to the protest, and the result of his decision not to avoid getting embroiled in pointless internet arguments over tone. I knew he had an article tut-tutting about it, but I didn’t know he made himself a dishonest push poll to “back up” his opinion, and continued arguing about it. I expected better from him, but it’s a good reminder that people are just people are just people. What matters is that we keep working as best we can.

As of this recording, Mann is kind of losing it on Twitter and really insisting that this survey proves something about the relative effectiveness of the soup protest. It’s understandable, because I think he does good work in his own field (which is climatology, not public relations or sociology) and so he’s probably not accustomed to being corrected by people who actually know what they’re talking about. I hope he is able to take a step back and realize that this is just bad science with a dash of “bad understanding of history” thrown in. A well-designed survey could certainly find that people largely were turned off by this protest, but the people who study movements and social change understand that protests – nonviolent, disruptive, or outright violent – might work or not work, regardless of whether or not you like it.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Some protests have better impact than others. Using “protest” as a category unto itself erases crucial distinctions; f’rinstance, the Klan and its offshoots also protested and had influence during the same Civil Rights years. Hell, fools wearing teabags on tricorner hats on powdered wigs protested influentially in living memory.

    Throwing food, paint, etc on explicit icons of fossil fueldom &/or consumerism/capitalism in general, while hardly avant-garde, would at least communicate the nominal main point clearly. If with actual significant physical risk a step or two beyond de-gluing and recriminations by art museum guards and personnel…

  2. sonofrojblake says

    My only problem with these protests is they seem in part actively designed to be able to be dismissed. They threw some soup over a van Gogh. Were they protesting oil paint? Stupid kids. And so on.

    If you want to protest climate-buggering activities, how about protesting them directly? Civil aviation is a HUGE contributor to climate change, far out of proportion to other uses of fossil fuels for transport. Shut down an airport. You don’t need to hurt anyone, don’t need to threaten anyone, don’t even need to risk arrest unless you want to – although you might find the punishment for shutting down an airport amounts to more than the slap on the wrist you’ll get for gluing yourself to a Mondrian or whatever.
    The police forces of the UK demonstrated handily a few years ago at Gatwick just how easy it is to cancel a thousand flights and cost the airline industry a hundred million quid. Simply repeat that exercise, only this time make it so that there are actually drones there, rather than just, y’know, “reports” of them coming mainly from people working for organisations with a vested interest in gaining more legal power over people who want to fly drones, i.e. police.
    More details here:

  3. says

    As I said in the other post, I’m in favor of more direct action. That said, that’s not the purpose of this kind of protest – it’s more to “draw attention to the issue”, and try to persuade politicians and the public to do more.

    I don’t know that simply shutting down the airline industry will be very useful. It’ll make a lot of people’s lives worse, without addressing the systemic problems. There’s probably a place for it as part of the larger movement, but as direct action, I’m not so sure.

    Also, *taps the sign*

    they’ve generated a great deal of conversation with the art protests – more conversation than came from their more direct act of spraying paint on the Bank of England to protest its investment in fossil fuels.

    You also don’t necessarily need drones. This protest targeted private jets specifically, and just used bodies and people on bicycles. Drones will probably necessary once they beef up security too much for this stuff to work.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    it’s more to “draw attention to the issue”,

    I’ve never been impressed by people doing stuff “to raise awareness” of issues that, realistically, nobody who is ever going to give a shit hasn’t heard about every day for the last ten years. Things that need people to “raise awareness” about are things like the plight of Rohingya in Myanmar – things that legitimately may have escaped the notice of many who might care, and might care to contribute in some way to a resolution. Is ANYONE who is ever likely to give two shits about climate change not bordering on bored of hearing about it by now? “An Inconvenient Truth” was SIXTEEN YEARS ago. I’d argue strongly the time for just ineffectually “raising awareness” is long past, and at this point comes across as just an excuse for doing something disruptive.

    And whether it is or not is almost immaterial – that’s how it looks, and if that’s how it looks to me, someone who fundamentally agrees with the point being made, how does it come across to people who care less?

    I don’t know that simply shutting down the airline industry will be very useful

    Nobody suggested “shutting down the airline industry”, although I’m baffled why you don’t think that would be useful were it possible – aviation is provably disastrous for the climate. The suggestion is targetted, limited shutdowns of individual airports.

    Also, if you can think of ANY form of protest that will even begin “addressing the systemic problems”, I’d be sincerely interested in hearing what that looks like.

  5. says

    Yes, I agree that this is not the best form of activism. As I’ve said on twitter, if you want something different done, you’re welcome to do it, and be the change you want to see in the world.

    But yeah, the whole point of that other post is that in my opinion, the best use of this kind of spectacle activism is turning the discussion towards direct action and organizing, and what “better” activism would look like.

    I also think part of the point of this stuff is to get other people who’re already on board to consider what kinds of activism they can do themselves, which is another place where I think the discussion generated by these protests – because they will keep happening, whether you like them or not – can be used to further the effort. As to how it looks – does that matter? Because as I mentioned, and as Watson’s article/video discussed, I don’t believe that anyone’s actually being turned away from activism because of these protests. Do you have evidence of that, vs. people tut-tutting about it?

    On the airline industry, costing them money is likely to just get them another government bailout. It is my opinion that our efforts are better spent on organizing to build collective power, though activism is obviously one way to do that. Sorry for misunderstanding what you said – yes, shutting them down is a tactic that can be useful. As to whether it would be good to shut down all airports, part of the goal here is to make life good for people, and easy transit is part of that, provided it can be done in a way that doesn’t destabilize the climate.

    As I’ve said a number of times, I don’t think that protest will address systemic problems. I think that some protest actions can be part of a larger effort that will do so, but aside from their use for organizing and building energy, they don’t seem to be a viable path to change – just something that’s a small part of said path.

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