Throwing food at famous paintings doesn’t solve our climate crisis

March 7, 2023 — by Nicole Lee and Isabelle Wang
Photo by Isabelle Wang
Food thrown on Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting “Mona Lisa.”
Climate change activists’ attempts to raise awareness through annoying and pointless tactics just generate negative press for otherwise legitimate efforts of climate advocacy.

In recent months, some climate change activists have gained notoriety by throwing smashed cream pie into the face of King Charles’s wax statue or flinging mashed potatoes on a Claude Monet painting. 

The trend began in Paris’s Louvre museum on May 29, 2022 when a man attempted to smash the bullet-proof glass protecting Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” He then smeared cake onto the glass and threw roses everywhere while telling the audience to “think of the earth.” A few months later, more of these stunts went viral when Just Stop Oil, an environmental activist group, threw tomato soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” They then glued their hands to the wall and accused the audience of caring more about the protection of a painting than the planet. In the U.K., protesters with Just Stop Oil have been blocking roads around London as showcases of “civil resistance,” which the group claims to have resulted in 576 arrests.

We do need to acknowledge that activists have resorted to these extreme acts because they are desperate to capture the public’s attention and spread a sense of urgency. According to a study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, only around 72 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening. Even worse, not all of them even know the reason for global warming: 57 percent believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities and 64 percent think it is affecting the weather. Climate activists don’t have an easy job of spreading awareness about these serious topics, and have thus turned to extreme ends to gain attention.

Our planet is indeed in danger. Since 2021, global average sea level has risen 12-13 inches and is expected to reach 13 feet by 2150. Combined land and ocean temperatures have also been increasing at an average rate of 0.14 degrees Fahrenheit per decade. Today, around 11 billion metric tons of carbon are added to the atmosphere each year due to human activities like burning fossil fuels and clearing forests. If this trend continues, global temperatures are expected to increase at least five degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.

However, performing violent — even childlike — acts doesn’t gain any sympathy or spark a willingness to solve climate change; it only elicits disgust, annoyance and negative association with climate change activism. 

For example, Just Stop Oil believes in opposing fossil fuel licensing and production agreements in the United Kingdom, so expressing their points by trashing Van Gogh’s painting is completely irrelevant to their intended goals.

While their stunts were certainly shocking to the viewers, it’s lucky that the paintings were not damaged due to the glass protection installed. Meanwhile, the effect of their actions on the movement ending new oil and gas projects has been minimal. 

A select group of climate change activists have also taken a different approach by promoting veganism through violent means. In 2018, militant vegans in France harassed butchers through death threats and throwing fake blood on butcher shops.

The militant vegans in France had also strayed from their initial cause. Their initial goals were to promote greenhouse gas reduction and lower energy consumption, but they now break windows, spray graffiti and utilize violent means to communicate their beliefs. Some butchers have even asked the French government for protection from constant threats.

This new wave of activism begins to question where to draw a line at acceptable forms of protest like sit-ins, boycotts and marches.

Many believed that the militant vegans’ form of activism was too extreme. Instead of raising awareness of climate change, their behavior has  raised infamy, and many audience members quickly lost respect for the activists and their movement, a dangerous attitude that can inevitably affect non-violent activists too.

Activists need to stick to traditional non-violent protests that spread their message without damaging artifacts or hurting innocent people. Objecting to the negative impacts of pollution shouldn’t be done by more negative outbursts, instead, peaceful ones that garner positive attention that would gain more respect and support. A well-known example occurred when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955. Simple and peaceful yet clear acts such as this led to a larger movement, the Montgomery bus boycott, with the Supreme Court eventually ruling segregated public buses as unconstitutional a year later. These peaceful movements are what allow changes to happen, whether through boycotts, sit-ins or marches. 

While climate change activists were successful in capturing attention, these new damaging methods of activism brought no good benefit to their cause. Throwing food onto paintings and sending death threats doesn’t benefit anyone. 

Although the climate crisis is highly pressing, committing crimes and other unwarranted acts of harm toward paintings is still not accomplishing climate activists’ goals. These food-throwers should instead follow the footsteps of non-violent activists. 

One such activist, Elizabeth Wanjiru Wathuti, has planted over 30,000 tree seedlings in Kenya to encourage the youth to discover and care for nature. Younger activists such as Greta Thunberg initiated a solo protest outside of her school, which led her to attend the United Nations climate conference in 2019 to express her thoughts. Many other student organizations, including Saratoga High’s Green Committee, are also implementing activities within their community to help raise awareness for the cause. 

Such actions garner respect rather than elicit emotional reactions. They communicate a sense of urgency and convince people that change is needed without inflicting unwarranted harm. While it is necessary for the public to learn more about climate change, activists do a disservice when their otherwise sound messages go too far.

1 view this week