Interview: Just Stop Oil activist explains why it's right to attack art

Just Stop Oil protestors at the National Gallery
Just Stop Oil protestors at the National Gallery Copyright HANDOUT/AFP
By David Mouriquand
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Euronews Culture speaks with Alex De Koning, a Just Stop Oil spokesperson who believes that pushing cultural buttons can make people question their comfort zones.


October has been a big month for Just Stop Oil.

The non-violent civil resistance movement, which demands that the UK government halts all future licensing for development and production of fossil fuels, has been plastered all over the headlines.

And it’s just beginning.

Its German offshoot, Letzte Generation (Last Generation), has now mirrored one of the group’s biggest coups by covering a Claude Monet painting with mashed potatoes to protest against what it claims is the failure of the Berlin government to take drastic action to protect the climate.

Indeed, the biggest splash Just Stop Oil has made was on Friday 14 October, when two young activists threw tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting at the National Gallery in London.

Inspired shock tactic to raise awareness for some; philistine act of vandalism for others, who ask “Why attack art?” and fail to see the correlation between climate change and a beautiful work of art.

Whichever side you end up on, the fact remains that the act left no one indifferent.

Euronews Culture spoke with Alex De Koning, a Just Stop Oil spokesperson, about noble causes and the "right" ways to go about engendering meaningful change. 

Have you been inspired by other non-violent civil resistance movements for Just Stop Oil?

Of course, because massive resistance is how women got the vote, how African Americans got the vote, how we got health and safety laws in the UK, as well as gay rights… All of this has come from massive resistance, and that’s why it’s so important. We take inspiration from them and follow the same sort of tactics. For example, the suffragettes slashed paintings and quite violently destroyed them, while we’re just throwing soup at a glass pane but still trying to get the message across in the same way and make people question their own comfort zones.

The pouring of soup over the Van Gogh painting or the spray painting of Harrods have been some of the more successful actions that you’ve had, certainly the ones that have garnered the most media attention. How do you respond to those who call this obnoxious vandalism or who question the relevance of Van Gogh’s painting, for instance, in the fight against climate change?

If I got a pound for every time someone has asked me that question, I’d be able to afford my energy bills! (Laughs) A lot of people are saying that we’re alienating members of the public but actually the head of BP says he has more cash than he knows what to do with during a cost of living crisis. People can’t afford to heat up a tin a soup. The government are seeking to accelerate fossil fuel production, which will kill millions of people, and are failing to address the worst cost of living crisis this country has ever seen. If anything, the government are alienating the general public way more than we are. At the moment, we’re growing a lot and getting a lot of support because people know how urgent the situation is and how desperate it is. We’re picking up from massive resistance movements in the past, and it works. We know they work. That’s why we’re doing the same.

Is anything off limits?

Of course it is. We are a non-violent movement. We’re peaceful protesters. We will cause disruption, we will attack paintings and art, but we’re only doing this until the government make a meaningful statement about ending new fossil fuel assets in the UK. As soon as that happens, we’re off and we move out of the way.

Since you’re attacking art, do you consider culture to be meaningless at this point in time?

There’s still a place for culture. Art has a lot of power, and all the great artists in the past were radical and forward thinking, and yet that’s not being addressed in the same way in the climate crisis. There are still people who are way more outraged about that action (the soup poured on Van Gogh, which was protected by a glass screen) than the 33 million people in Pakistan being displaced by floods. I’m from Scotland – that’s six times the population of my entire country who have lost their homes and their livelihoods. It’s really sad, yet more people are outraged about throwing soup at glass.

The battle is not lost yet.

Is there a symbolic value to the recurring use of the colour of orange during your actions?

Consistency – it’s the colour we chose and it’s good to stick with it. But to be fair, orange is also a bright colour, a symbol of hope. And that’s what Just Stop Oil want to try to convey, as well as how urgent the climate crisis is. We do have hope that we can tackle it through mass civil resistance. The battle is not lost yet.


Has all the publicity of these recent actions generated more meaningful support, or have people been alienated by the methods of Just Stop Oil - especially when it comes to attacking art?

I think it has created more support. People may disagree with the methods, but they agree with the message. For example, Insulate Britain in the UK (the group behind the series of protests involving traffic obstruction in 2021 demanding that the government improve insulation of all social housing in the UK) were incredibly unpopular. But a few weeks after the campaign ended, there was a poll asking how we should fight the climate crisis against Russian gas. 84 per cent of people said that we should insulate homes. It was really effective and it was added to the Labour manifesto in a matter of weeks, and everyone was talking about insulation all of a sudden. And when looking at energy bills, you realise – oh wow, insulation was a good idea!

There are other projects in Europe which you list on your website, including France’s Dernière Rénovation and Germany’s Letzte Generation – do you coordinate with these European groups for the actions?

Each chapter does what they want, but we do all work together. We are inspired by each other to try to create the best possible way forward that we can. The network is amazing and it has expanded into New Zealand, Canada and America and it’s only going to grow. This is a global movement because it’s a global crisis, and it needs to be addressed as such.

The UK government has said that it is going to toughen measures to stop protests and that the police are going to be “more assertive”. Have you felt an escalation in recent weeks?


Yes, but we have no felt the numbers dwindle for Just Stop Oil, because we are not going to be intimidated. These threats are irrelevant when we’re trying to fight against thousands of people dying from cold this winter, 36 million people in East Africa dying from famine because of droughts affecting their crops. When considering what we’re fighting for, we’re not going to be intimated by changes in the law or stopped by those who seek to silence peaceful people.

When you consider the criminality of our government, doing things like scientific research just feels like mopping up with the tap open.

You’ve stated that politics are “beyond a joke at this point” and that the government is “criminally incompetent”. With the resignation of Liz Truss as Prime Minister, do you feel like there’s going to be any forward movement or will it be business as usual under the Tory government?

Very likely, it’ll be more of the same. But in all honesty, the climate crisis goes beyond politics. I consider her resignation irrelevant when facing the things we’re facing. No government in the world right now is tackling this in the way it should be. We need coordinated levels of action and climate justice, and it’s so far away from that right now. Still so many countries are increasing more fossil fuel production when we do have the solutions – insulation, free public transport, switching to renewable energies… The UK is an island – we could be using tidal power. We could get over a tenth of our entire energy just from tidal power alone. That’s not even being considered. I’m doing my PhD in greener energy production, and it really saddens me to see that we have all these solutions which are being deliberately ignored and actively fought against. There's only one solution that really matters and that's mass civil resistance. 

So you've put your PhD aside to commit to Just Stop Oil full time?

Yes, I started in May and took seven months off, because when you consider the criminality of our government, doing things like scientific research just feels like mopping up with the tap open at this point.


Just Stop Oil has been bankrolled by the Climate Energy Fund (the US network set up in 2019), which includes Aileen Getty, the goddaughter of the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, who has openly stated that she applauds the Van Gogh protest. Has her involvement engendered any backlash?

Unfortunately, what we’re doing, facing a multi-billion-dollar industry, is very expensive. We need people to fund us, otherwise we’re not getting anywhere. We don’t care about people’s pasts – we only care about what’s going to happen right now. One of the people I work alongside is the former principal scientist for Shell, who is one of our spokespeople. He’s such an amazing guy. He’s realized his mistakes, he’s realized where he’s gone wrong, and now he’s trying to do everything he can. Same goes for Aileen Getty and all these big names that are trying to fund us – they know what the situation is, and they’re doing everything they can in order to make a difference.

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