Just Stop Oil: Activism or publicity?

Given that it’s now been almost two weeks since the Radcliffe Camera (Rad Cam) was “redecorated” with some bright orange paint, I feel that we’ve all somewhat calmed down from the Just Stop Oil (JSO) display, and the subsequent aftershocks. Perhaps the stars aligned or the JSO protestors were avid readers of The Oxford Student, but most of the editorial team were sitting in one room in the Student Union laying in that week’s newspaper when we found out that the Rad Cam had been sprayed. Of course, it later headlined our print. 

Whether an ardent supporter of its rather high-visibility approaches or one that strongly dislikes it, you’ve probably become quite familiar with the movement JSO. Founded on Valentine’s Day 2022, JSO describes itself as “a nonviolent civil resistance group demanding the UK Government stop licensing all new oil, gas and coal projects.” Indeed, their actions aren’t exactly marching down streets and smashing cars that run on gas or mugging those using soap made from coal and coal by-products, but it has, without any shadow of doubt, been deeply controversial. 

I first became aware of JSO, admittedly very late in the story, when two supporters of its campaign threw tomato soup at the fourth version of Vincent van Gogh’s famous “Sunflowers” in October last year, then glued their hands to the wall. Fortunately for the painting, it was protected by glass and was not damaged (the valuable frame did suffer some slight damage). 

At the time, I had found it an intriguing approach to campaigning about climate change and the lack of concern that is being shown by the governing bodies of the UK (and indeed around the world). For the two activists’ argument was “What is worth more? Art or life?” 

Immediately, the press and wider world was polarised. Vox and other major outlets criticised the demonstration’s irrelevance and suggested that such defamation of popular artworks that have little to no connection to climate change did nothing more than undermine the campaign’s efficacy and credibility, while some JSO supporting organisations were equally fervent in declaring their support. 

Personally, I found that while I generally aligned with the mainstream criticism and distaste for their actions, I was also somewhat impressed by its effectiveness in attracting attention. Climate change and the rapid degradation of our environment is certainly a deeply troubling issue. Yet, with so many climate action communities, campaigns, and organisations out there, how could JSO stand out?

Following the performance at the National Gallery, JSO, to me, became a persistent hum in the background of my news feeds: protestors, supporters, and activists seemed to really like sitting, unmoving, in blockade of cars (a group sat on the track of the British Grand Prix in July 2022, before the tomato-ing of “Sunflowers”) and sporting events, or to spray bright orange powder or paint on places that they find have connections to the oil and gas industries. I never forgot that they existed and were active, but it never really piqued my attention either. That was until, on 10th October, when, as mentioned above, the Rad Cam was unwillingly redecorated by some student members of JSO.

Again, the reasoning of the members wasn’t entirely befuddling – since 2022, more than £40.4 million has been pledged to 44 UK universities by 32 oil, coal and gas companies in the form of research agreements, tuition fees, scholarships, grants, and consulting fees, and Oxford alone was revealed have received £1,209,221 in funding from the above. 

I was somewhat impressed by its effectiveness in attracting attention

So, before anything else, such an amount would have obviously attracted the attention of JSO, and, of course, if anyone were to ask for the most quintessentially Oxford building and landmark, it’d undoubtedly be the Rad Cam. So, in equal alignment with JSO’s apparent strategy in publicising themselves in the most apparent manner, Rad Cam was the obvious choice.

Nonetheless, was painting the Rad Cam orange, and indeed painting other university buildings across the UK really the most effective way to take a stand against these institutions’ continued reliance on funding from oil corporations and the like? No. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing for JSO.

PR stunts have been around for a long time. Whether Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the stratosphere that raked in more than 8 million views for Red Bull on YouTube or the advertised fight between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, these stunts serve to attract mass attention, and irrespective of annoyance or support, attention is attention. 

For JSO, a similar desire likely underpins much of their actions. Public Relations (PR) and publicity aren’t exactly the same thing. Where the former disseminates information in a controlled manner, the latter sees information (and indeed misinformation) spread like wildfire, and in the age of digitisation and social media, it has never been easier to spread information.

That being said, JSO’s reputation comes generally from publicity, and not PR, for it has been described by its own members as a non-hierarchical coalition of organisers, scientists, lawyers and former workers in the oil industry who collaborate on both demands and tactics with activists who operate in autonomous blocs with shared resources but no formal leadership. 

So, similar to the guerrilla warfare tactics employed by the Vietnamese in the Vietnam War, when JSO strikes, they do so quickly, simultaneously, but also publicly. Through their rather extreme disruptive actions, bystanders cannot help but look on as they vandalise or obstruct.

Without JSO and other similarly minded organisations, scientists would still be releasing reports about the irreversible damages that climate change has done to the planet that we live on, and they would still be urging governments around the world to gradually shift away from reliance on these “traditional” sources of energy, but, like most of the news and reporting that goes on, these calls for action fade into the background, especially amidst the current geopolitical tussles and tragedies occurring in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the like. 

Even so, JSO’s actions are effective in reminding us that their cause – climate change and the dire need to address it – won’t just fade away because we bury our heads in the sand but will continue to worsen.

No, I wasn’t a fan of the Rad Cam’s temporary redecoration, I think that such disruption to student life and vandalism of a Grade I Heritage Site is not only ineffective in rallying students and people at Oxford and beyond to their cause by bifurcating all to either a hero of climate action or an accessory to the murder of the planet, it contradicts JSO’s claims to non-violence and civility. 

No, I wasn’t a fan of the Rad Cam’s temporary redecoration

However, perhaps the main purpose of such actions wasn’t to immediately rally the masses to their cause, but to issue a series of warnings, reminders, and alarms that JSO – and their cause – demand attention. There will always be those that support them irrespective of the extremity of JSO’s actions, but to the masses that aren’t donning the orange shirt and spraying buildings, Just Stop Oil’s glaring presence resounds everywhere, and perhaps the background hum that news of climate change had become to many will, once again, take a rightful place in our considerations.

Image Credit: Michael-Akolade-Ayodeji, cropped from original.

Image Description: Just Stop Oil protestor being held by two police officers in front of the Radcliffe Camera, which is partially covered in orange paint.