Identifying the Climate Activists Engaging in Art and Museum Vandalism: Motives Unveiled

Environmental advocacy, originating from Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 book “Silent Spring” and the inaugural Earth Day observances in 1970, has taken on diverse forms over the years, including boycotts, blockades, and protests. However, in 2022, a novel form of protest emerged as some environmental activists resorted to vandalizing art and museums.

These activists remain largely unidentified, and their actions have occurred sporadically in various locations. This new tactic raises several pressing questions. In an effort to shed light on this phenomenon, a group of researchers from the University of Washington (UW) in the United States conducted an extensive review of articles, books, and social media posts. Their findings have been published as a Brief Communication in npj Climate Action.

The motivation behind this shift in strategy can be attributed to the frustration of certain climate activists with the sluggish progress in reducing emissions. In recent years, they have resorted to various forms of non-violent but disruptive (NVD) actions. These actions, which range from disrupting road traffic to halting trains and staging protests like the Standing Rock demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline and Greta Thunberg’s “Fridays for Future” school strikes, have garnered significant media attention.

Debate surrounds the effectiveness of these actions in advancing the activists’ goals. While some argue that these radical actions draw attention to the urgency of the climate crisis, others contend that they may inadvertently legitimize more mainstream groups like Greenpeace and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, making their demands appear more reasonable by comparison. This phenomenon has been termed the “radical flank effect” in previous research.

The UW researchers’ findings, as of May 2023, indicate that 16 groups were linked to 38 documented incidents in 2022, with 36 of these incidents attributed to organized groups operating within their respective countries’ museums. Notable occurrences in 2022 included:

– Ultima Generazione (Italy and Vatican): Nine incidents
– Just Stop Oil (U.K.): Seven incidents
– Letzte Generation (Germany): Six incidents
– Stop Fossil Fuel Subsidies (Australia): Two incidents

Additionally, the researchers observed that five of the seven U.K. incidents occurred within a seven-day period in July 2022, and four incidents in Italy and Vatican City took place within a 31-day span during July and August 2022. Germany experienced four consecutive incidents in August 2022 following the last August incident in Italy. Other incidents occurred in various parts of Europe and Australia in October 2022, with 11 worldwide incidents during the Sharm El-Sheikh Climate Change Conference (COP 27) in Egypt from November 6–18.

The researchers suggest that the A22 Network may serve as a coordinating entity for groups such as Ultima Generazione, Just Stop Oil, and Letzte Generation. This network is described as “a group of interconnected projects engaged in a mad race: to try to save humanity.”

Interestingly, only nine of the 38 documented incidents in 2022 included specific demands, and most of these demands came from groups or individuals not associated with the A22 Network. The A22-affiliated groups primarily focus on rapid emission reductions within the fossil fuel sector.

The central question remains: Why resort to vandalizing art and museums? Within the broader environmental advocacy movement, which seeks to protect the environment, promote sustainable development, and highlight the impact of environmental issues on marginalized individuals, the researchers find it challenging to place these museum protests.

However, a statement by a Just Stop Oil activist provides a potential clue: “How do you feel when you see something beautiful and priceless apparently being destroyed before your eyes? Do you feel outraged? Good. Where is that feeling when you see the planet being destroyed?”

The researchers conclude their work with a note of uncertainty. If climate policy progress continues to lag, will we witness further radicalization of activist tactics and objectives, or will there be increased collaboration between activists, governments, and corporations? Additionally, will the “radical flank effect” compel governments to respond more substantively? Ultimately, the disruptive tactic of vandalism raises more questions than it answers.

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