In my day-to-day life, I don’t encounter many people who are politically active. As such, whenever I’m in a conversation about Just Stop Oil, it’s with someone who’s unimpressed at best, and downright incensed at worst. This has put me in an interesting position. Although I agree with the position that we need to just stop oil, I’ve also found these protests to be more annoying than anything. So why is that?
After a year or so thinking about it, I’ve got my thoughts in order. My verdict is that Just Stop Oil is fighting to make people aware of the issue, but a lack of awareness isn’t the problem.
Specifically, I’m talking about the Just Stop Oil protests which involve halting (or slowing) traffic. My understanding is these protests are enacted to raise awareness of the issue, and the Just Stop Oil site seems to confirm this. On the donate page, you see:
Interestingly, the same page features this quote from James Özden (director of Social Change Lab):
THE EXPERTS WHO STUDY SOCIAL MOVEMENTS NOT ONLY BELIEVE THAT STRATEGIC DISRUPTION CAN BE AN EFFECTIVE TACTIC, BUT THAT IT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT TACTICAL FACTOR FOR A SOCIAL MOVEMENT’S SUCCESS.
Just Stop Oil is undoubtedly getting a lot of coverage, but how “strategic” are their actions? This drive to get coverage seems to hinge on the idea that people are largely uninformed about the situation we find ourselves in, and that if the masses only understood, they would rise up and take action. I’d argue, though, that people are actually very informed about climate change, and the issue is they simply feel powerless to enact change.
I’d also argue that Just Stop Oil’s protests are – if anything – reinforcing this sense of powerlessness.
The informed masses
Firstly, let’s look at the statistics.
In July 2022, Ipsos Political Monitoring polling showed that:
strong levels of concern about climate change amongst the British public. Overall, 84% are concerned about climate change, with more than half (52%) ‘very concerned’. Levels of concern overall have increased 8 points since April  but are consistent with findings in July 2019 and August 2021 (both 85% concerned).
Similarly, when we ask when Britain will start feeling the effects of climate change, 72% say we are already feeling the effects. This is up 5 points from April but matches the 73% that said the same in both July 2019 and August 2021.
The people who are “very concerned” – 52% – is a percentage great enough that any political party able to command it would have a super majority in parliament. So if people are rightly worried about climate change, why isn’t that translating into political action? I’d argue it’s because people feel powerless to affect change, and polling supports that too. According to the Electoral Reform Society in 2021, a:
poll for the Politics for the Many campaign and the Electoral Reform Society [found] that just 5% of people feel they have a lot of opportunities to influence decision in Westminster
The question then is are Just Stop Oil protests making people feel like they have the power to influence political change, or are they doing the opposite?
Put yourself in the mind of a commuter. You know that climate change is destroying the planet, but you try not to think about it because you have more immediate problems – problems you have some degree of control over (even if these problems do keep getting worse by and large). Now imagine you’re on your way to your shitty job when you get stuck behind a slow march protest. Two things happen at this point:
You find yourselves unable to tackle the daily challenges of your own life.
You’re forced to confront a problem you have no idea how to fix – a problem these people want you to personally solve somehow.
When people see a Just Stop Oil protest, they put themselves in the mind of commuters because they can imagine what it must feel like to be in that position. They don’t put themselves in the minds of the protesters because they can’t imagine what it would be like to stand up to the powers that be, and neither can Just Stop Oil – that’s why they’re standing up to commuters instead.
If you want to inspire people to feel empowered, you need to show them you have power – to show them we all have power. Instead, Just Stop Oil are forcing people to confront their own powerlessness, and they’re doing so in a manner which is proving counterproductively visceral for those watching.
So what does a more effective protest look like?
…and just start
To my mind, the recent Greenpeace protest covering Rishi Sunak’s house in black fabric was a significantly more effective protest because it:
Showed the power we have to act.
Targeted the people with the ability to enact change.
Made said people panic.
(As an added bonus, it also showed that we know where these politicians live):
Another recent UK protest was the action against arms manufacturer Elbit Systems. Elbit Systems has (and in many instances now had) various sites across the UK. Unlike climate change, most people are blissfully unaware of Elbit’s presence, but the protesters didn’t attack the problem by trying to raise awareness; they attacked the problem by attacking the problem:
Following the targeting of Elbit sites in England by Palestine Action, the British Ministry of Defense is cancelling £280 million worth of contracts with Israel's largest weapons company, Elbit Systems.
The company's share price has fallen 17% in one month.
As reported in the Canary, Palestine Action targeted sites directly – including sites of affiliated companies such as Elbit’s accountants. If they’d instead shut down traffic in the town’s surrounding Elbit sites, the government would have used their actions as a means to turn the public against the movement, and they’d undoubtedly have been very successful. The government will always do this, of course, but to get away with it they need to have a convincing argument. You counteract this by not giving them that argument.
Just stop oily politicians
Increasing voter awareness is good, but it’s not enough. Of course voters need to feel empowered, but that needs to coincide with politicians feeling de-powered – and not just de-powered – they need to feel scared – to feel terrified, even. These scumbags should be waking up every day in fear of what will happen if they fuck things up, because nothing will get done unless they – and the oil companies they’re protecting – feel that way.
We know everyone is suffering under the Tories - but the Canary is a vital weapon in our fight back, and we need your support
The Canary Workers’ Co-op knows life is hard. The Tories are waging a class war against us we’re all having to fight. But like trade unions and community organising, truly independent working-class media is a vital weapon in our armoury.
The Canary doesn’t have the budget of the corporate media. In fact, our income is over 1,000 times less than the Guardian’s. What we do have is a radical agenda that disrupts power and amplifies marginalised communities. But we can only do this with our readers’ support.
So please, help us continue to spread messages of resistance and hope. Even the smallest donation would mean the world to us.