Just Stop Oil and the Outrage Machine

WRITTEN BY Michael Bergin

February 15, 2023

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Just Stop Oil and the Outrage Machine

Michael Bergin

15 Feb, 2023

In no uncertain terms, a climate crisis is presently upon us, a crisis which demands urgent action by governments worldwide, and one which threatens the long term viability of human life. However, it has widely been felt that those in positions of power very often refrain from making the difficult choices necessary to combat the climate crisis, preferring instead to kick the proverbial can down the road to their successors, whose challenge will now be even greater due to previous inaction. This perception, while debatable in many respects, greatly influences the ways in which the general public engage with the climate crisis. Perceived inaction, in the face of such dire consequences, has inevitably led to a variety of protest organisations demanding action, personified by Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, and Just Stop Oil.

Just Stop Oil in particular, have gained notoriety for their oftentimes abrasive public stunts to draw attention to their cause, that being the halting of new licences for the exploration of oil and fossil fuels in the UK. At present, the UK government aims to licence more than 100 new oil and gas projects in the next two years. These plans have obviously adverse effects on the nation’s stated climate targets and environmental ambitions, and in opposition to such plans, Just Stop Oil have taken to extreme forms of public protest.

In March of last year, an activist from the organisation used a cable tie to tie himself to the goalposts in Everton’s Goodison Park, during a Premier League match between the Merseysiders and Newcastle (presumably, the message of “Just Stop Oil” was not particularly appealing to the Newcastle faithful). Going further, in October of last year, headlines were made worldwide when two activists emptied a can of beans onto Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in London’s National Gallery. The activists then glued themselves to the wall below the painting, asking bold rhetorical questions to stunned tourists.

The painting, as is standard practice, was encased behind a protective layer of glass, and so was completely unharmed. Likewise, the protester at the football match was removed after a short delay. Similar protests have taken place on motorways across the UK, with traffic often being brought to a standstill, causing major disruption. However, despite the inconvenience these protests cause, they are largely harmless. The ways in which their actions are reported, however, are not.

Obviously, media coverage and discussion is exactly what groups such as Just Stop Oil are aiming for. The more widely their protests are spoken about, the more attention they will draw to their cause. However, sensationalising certain aspects of the immediate inconvenience of the protests, as opposed to focusing on the longer term dangers that these protests seek to outline, misses the point entirely. As previously stated, nobody will be harmed by a can of beans being thrown at a painting, not least the painting itself, whereas we are all at very grave risk from the effects of climate change.

This point seems to be lost on contemporary policymakers in the UK. Speaking at the time of the protests, then-Business Secretary and current Secretary of State for Energy Security, Grant Shapps, described the disruption to motorway traffic as being “completely outrageous”. Going further, in an interview with LBC, Shapps advised protesters to not “go disrupting other people’s lives”. Perhaps the current Secretary of State with responsibility for ensuring the UK reaches its carbon emissions targets should take note of the far greater disruption that the climate crisis is currently causing people’s lives, not to mention the ever-greater dangers it will present going forward. 

As of last November, Just Stop Oil reported that supporters had been arrested at least 2000 times since March, and 5 members of their organisation were then in prison. These numbers are not surprising, though they do hint towards the preference for immediate action to quell immediate inconvenience, over long-term planning to prevent far greater catastrophe.

In general, the media narrative surrounding climate change has been susceptible to accidental bias towards reactionary elements. Reporting on stunts such as those carried out by Just Stop Oil amongst others, while failing to emphasise the reasoning behind these actions, serves not to inform the public, but to blind them. Instead of seeing considered debate and reflection on the underlying issues, the relentless demand for sensation leads to a wanton fury and outrage, which strangles considered engagement with the issue. This is of course, not an intentional blinkering of public debate on an issue, but one driven by a need for sensation. Outrage sells, and as a result, outrage is peddled.

Unfortunately, an issue as large as the climate crisis provides ample scope for media commentary to inadvertently exacerbate the situation. Take for instance the recent trend towards “bothsidesism”, a practice in which media organisations, seeking impartiality, will afford equal speaking time and importance to both sides of an argument, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus being with one side. Though well-meaning, by engaging in this behaviour, our media creates an impression of rivalry between two arguments, where one is indisputably more correct. This is obviously seen in the platforming of climate change denialists, whose soothing idea of the future allows the public to rest, when they should instead be taking and demanding action.

As such, the media narrative surrounding climate change is demonstrably vulnerable to various failings, whether they be intentional or not. If we are to have a clear, concise vision for the future, we must forgo our focus and fascination with immediate sensation, and instead think of the longer and deeper reflections that lie ahead. Disruptions at the behest of environmentalist groups are at most a minor inconvenience. Disruptions at the behest of the environment are a far graver affair.

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