Climate activism should pursue the art of persuasion, not force

by Ananya Sriram, Co-Features Editor

“Persuasion is often more effectual than force,” Greek storyteller Aesop said; “The triumph of persuasion over force is the sign of a civilized society,” American economist Mark Skousen said; “If you wish to win a man over to your ideas, first make him your friend,” 16th U.S. president Abraham Lincoln said.

Simply stated, persuasion is the force of a mind, able to shape perspectives and bring awareness without the disruptive quality of impulsive actions. Yet, activists often abandon this idea — the idea that a peaceful argument trumps civil disobedience.

Various protesters demanding action regarding climate change carried out stunts across the world by throwing food and attacking pieces of widely recognized art. Climate activists in Germany threw mashed potatoes on French Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s “Grainstacks,” one of 25 paintings he made around 1890. Similarly, London protestors drew attention for throwing cans of tomato soup on Vincent Van Gogh’s “Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers,” just one of the six Sunflower paintings that survive today. Other attacks also joined the series of stunts: gluing to Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, Gustav Klimt’s “Death and Life” and John Constable’s “The Hay Wain. 

According to climate activists, many of the attacked pieces depict natural landscapes that will be harmed by the disruption of climate change. The activists aren’t wrong: the Maldives, Fiji Islands and Samoa are at risk of disappearing, glaciers around the world are receding at faster rates than in the past decade and regions of the Thames River in South London could be regularly flooded by 2030. Their intention to bring awareness to the climate and financial crisis caused by excessive fossil fuel extraction bears significance in the context that extracting fossil fuels consumes $220 billion on average each year. 

We should turn to conversation with lawmakers and increase discussion to pass legislation. While the process may not be easy, it preserves both our environment and culture; that way, like Aesop said, we can truly make a change. ”

Nevertheless, recognizing climate change and altering laws solely due to civil disobedience is encouragement for these activists: drastic actions are the only way to garner attention. Yet, there are more peaceful forms of activism. Greta Thunberg became well-known after leaving school to pressure the Swedish government to meet established carbon emissions targets. What distinguishes Thunberg and stunt-performing activists is that vandalism is not only disrespectful, it deflects supporters of the climate movement. Contrastingly, Thunberg’s actions serve as an example of activism that inspires change without force.

On the other hand, the work of these activists establishes that in the name of climate action, attacking pieces of significant cultural heritage is justifiable. While throwing food at paintings will not “kill us” while “Climate change will,” it demolishes important keys of our history. Cultural heritage brings a sense of unity within groups of people by spreading an understanding of their ancestry. And although the paintings in the museums were not actually damaged due to a glass covering, activists in general serve as a model for advocacy on issues facing the globe. The actions of Just Stop Oil or Last Generation Austria now influence the activism of new generations advocating for climate change. No paintings have been damaged yet, but recurring events have sparked a fire, one that is bound to burn a piece of the vast cultural assets in history. 

Opposing the goal of the climate change movement, the protests also sparked harsher anti-protest laws. In Britain, lawmakers are considering a new legislation that penalizes protesters who lock themselves onto construction sites or other places of business with six months in prison and unlimited fines. In Australia, a new law from April imposes a maximum fine of $15,000 and the possibility of serving up to two years in jail on these protestors. And while protest is a right, civil disobedience often aggravates the state of protest laws by causing disruptions that can have a negative economic impact or jeopardize lives. According to the Radical Flank Effect, civil disobedience can often be counterproductive by reducing public favor for a movement.

So what should be the response to these climate activists’ actions? Encouraging these forms of protest over non-disruptive protests or giving them further attention induces a series of events that establish that civil disobedience is the default form of protest. Instead, we should turn to conversation with lawmakers and increase discussion to pass legislation. While the process may not be easy, it preserves both our environment and culture; that way, like Aesop said, we can truly make a change.