It’s our fault that some climate protesters go too far
Last Generation activists have also smeared and splattered famous works of art. Protesters in the UK, the Netherlands and elsewhere are performing similar stunts. In The Hague, a member of the group Just Stop Oil stuck his head to Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, while an accomplice stuck his hand to the wall. Elsewhere, protesters splashed mashed potatoes on a Monet and tomato soup on a van Gogh.
Even more extreme than vandalism against art or property, of course, is vandalism against bodies, including those of protesters. On Earth Day this year, Wynn Bruce, an American Buddhist, protested climate change by setting himself on fire in the Marble Plaza outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC. He died in hospital the next day.
Bruce was the latest in a long line of Immolators. In 1965, Norman Morrison, a Quaker, set himself on fire outside the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. He was probably inspired by Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk from Saigon, who set himself on fire to draw attention to the repression of the South Vietnamese regime.
If we were to describe protests on a spectrum, it might look like this: At one end is completely peaceful civil disobedience that nevertheless breaks some laws to make a larger point. A good example is Mohandas Gandhi’s salt march in 1930, when he and a growing crowd of followers went to the sea to boil water and extract salt, which was illegal for Indians under rule. British. Gandhi went to jail for this, but still remained true to his concept of satyagraha. Literally ‘clinging to the truth’, the word has come to mean non-violent resistance.
In the opposite corner is what those who don’t believe in a given cause would call terrorism. A number of people and groups in history have been too willing to blow themselves up and exonerate others in the name of national liberation, religion or whatever.
The best response to protest in a free society is therefore proportionate. We must prohibit and punish all forms of violence but tolerate satyagraha. In practice, the categories are rarely so clear cut. The reality is that protest is always about getting the attention of otherwise apathetic masses. And it’s best done by shocking.
The suffragettes of the early 20th century are an example of this. They clearly had history and justice on their side. And yet they had to continue their marches, hunger strikes and other stunts for years before women could vote. Meanwhile, the suffragist who has probably done more to change hearts and minds than anyone has taken her own life for the cause.
Emily Davison probably didn’t want to kill herself when she went to the Derby in 1913 and pulled ahead of Anmer, King George V’s horse, as he galloped around a bend at the speed of a speeding car on a country road. Maybe she was just trying to put a suffragette flag on Anmer’s reins. But she was hit and died a few days later in hospital. The jockey was also injured.
The King called the incident “scandalous”, the Queen found Davison “horrible”. But who can say what role Davison played in getting people in Britain and elsewhere to reconsider their inherited prejudices and open up to an idea we now take for granted?
The truth is that progress doesn’t always come in response to patient, polite presentations at seminars and orderly petitions. Giving women the right to vote, freeing Indians from British colonialism or black Americans from Jim Crow also took the courage of some individuals to stand in front of the indifferent majority.
The activists blocking the highway in Berlin were wrong to gamble with the lives of innocent people. Vandals who defile art also need a good conversation. Leave van Gogh alone and have manners.
And yet, the rest of us also have an obligation to listen to what drove these protesters to extremes. The folks at Letzte Generation say they’ve watched Fridays for Future rallies over the past few years, and how these failed to bring about a turnaround in most people’s energy policy or personal behavior.
“How do you feel when you see something beautiful and priceless being seemingly destroyed right before your eyes?” one of the two men vandalizing the Vermeer laughed at the gasping crowd in the museum. “Do you feel outraged? Good. Where is that feeling when you see the planet being destroyed right before our eyes?”
These activists have committed some sort of crime and must pay the price. But the rest of us are committing a different kind, by doing nothing meaningful about climate change. Eventually, we too will have to pay a price, and it will be infinitely greater.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion