The two activists who threw tomato soup on a Van Gogh painting the other day were part of a group called “Just Stop Oil.” In the NY Times, Ross Douthat zeroes in on the incoherence of the statement they issued afterward:
Celebrating their vandalism, the group declared that the “disruption is in response to the government’s inaction on both the cost of living crisis and the climate crisis,” and that it was deliberately timed to protest both the “launch of a new round of oil and gas licensing” and “an energy price hike” that threatens to throw “almost 8 million households” into “fuel poverty.”
It’s a mistake to demand perfect consistency from activists, but if you read the preceding paragraph carefully you will note a certain tension. The activists are protesting both the expansion of energy supply, on the grounds that fossil fuels are pushing the world toward climate apocalypse, and the energy supply’s constriction, on the grounds that higher prices are cruel to struggling households.
This tension has always lurked beneath the surface of left-wing climate activism, whose vision often imagines rich societies accepting a certain austerity, a retreat from the growth mentality of capitalism, a simpler, more ecologically wholesome way of life … while also imagining that somehow this austerity will fall only on the greedy rich and consumerist upper middle class, while the poor and working class experience the post-capitalist, de-growth future as more affordable, not less.
Yeah. There is simply no way to move away from fossil fuels without some economic pain, and to move away as fast as radical climate activists want to will cause a lot of pain. Some of that pain will fall on the poor.
In fact Just Stop Oil is so incoherent that the internet is full of rumors that they are some kind of oil industry psy-op, out to discredit climate activism by their stupidity.
I suppose that's possible, but I don't find the incoherence of Just Stop Oil in any way surprising. It is part of a widespread sense that all of our economic suffering – long work hours, low wages, inequality, pollution, plastic bags, rude sales clerks – stems from "capitalism." Reading screeds from people like Just Stop Oil, you would think that oil wills are only drilled so that evil capitalists can get rich.
But in fact oil wells are drilled so the rest of us can drive our cars, fly in airplanes, enjoy fresh produce trucked to our local stores, and so on. The share of the blame for this that falls on oil executives is, in my view, very small. Electric cars have been around since the 1970s, but nobody bought them. This was our choice, not forced on us by oil companies or anyone else.
The modern oil industry is not even all that capitalist, as big industries go, since so much of it is controlled by the countries that own the oil. As it happens I was just reading about the origins of the oil industry in Iran. The wells were drilled, and the pipelines built,by a company called Anglo-Iranian, which was partially owned by the British government and operated as an arm of the empire. Making a profit was well down on this list of its priorities, after keeping Russia out of Iran and supplying oil for the British fleet.
Here in Maryland we rely heavily on coal for our electricity. Far from being a capitalist conspiracy of some sort, this was engineered by the state in the 1960s as a way for wealthy eastern Maryland to subsidize the impoverished coal country in the west. And Maryland's devotion to coal is a small thing compared to that of the German government, which has massively subsidized their coal miners for decades.
Meanwhile the current European energy crisis has been caused by a long list of government actions, including the closing of nuclear plants, the building of gas pipelines to Russia, and then Russia's decision to use energy in its war with Urkaine.
To blame all of this on "capitalism" strikes me as absud. And if we are ever going to escape from out dependence on oil and gas, wicked capitalists like Elon Musk are going to play a big part in the transformation.
But to get back to Just Stop Oil: it is their incoherent rejection of the the whole politico-economic system that makes them symptomatic of our time. We are trapped in a system that some of us think is wicked, but we have no idea what to do about it. We don't trust big companies or our governments, but can only fantasize about alternatives to their power. Throwing soup is not going to accomplish anything, but for people of their anarcho-communist-environmentalist mindset, I don't know what actions would.