Illustration by Assel Mukanova

Tomato Soup for Future: Is the Latest Trend in Climate Activists’ Public Actions Truly Unfounded?

If scandal is what makes the media world go around, then the “Just Stop Oil” representatives might have found the solution to rekindling interest in climate activism.

Nov 7, 2022

It all started with a girl skipping school on a Friday. The young Swede would wake up early and prepare to go out, but instead of going to school, Greta Thunberg grabbed her sign “Skolstrejk för Klimatet” (translated “School Strike for Climate”) and sat down in front of the Swedish parliament. What followed was global climate action, led by students and young adults from all over the world, UN conferences where a 16-year old would address the leaders of the world as villains, and, finally, media coverage on climate change, challenging the overpowering conspiracy propaganda. It was the environmentalists’ time in the limelight.
The positive spotlight on environmentalism might all end with a tomato soup can splashed across Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” When on Oct. 14 two activists from the UK-based environmentalist group “Just Stop Oil” threw the contents of two Heinz tomato soup cans onto the famous painting in the National Gallery in London and then glued themselves to the wall beneath it, international media and the majority of Twitter users suddenly started singing a new song. “Radical,” “vandalism,” “extreme,” and “mad” are only a few of the labels that are now stuck with the ecoactivist movement because of this incident. At the end, even Lil Nas X weighed in and avenged Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in a comedic social media post as part of the meme wave that followed the event.
This is not an isolated case. On the same day, a separate “attack” on the iconic “New Scotland Yard” sign had taken place. Earlier this year, on July 6, members of the same group glued themselves to a copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. Just a day prior, July 5, “Just Stop Oil” had covered John Constable’s landscape painting “The Hay Wain” with posters showing a modernized, quite post-apocalyptic, depiction of it. And then also glued themselves to the frame. On July 4 the same organization had members sit on the Silverstone racetrack, disrupting the Formula 1 race. Another Van Gogh painting had also been the subject of vandalism by “Just Stop Oil” just a few weeks before the F1 disruptive action.
With all of these protests, why did the incident with the “Sunflowers” specifically cause such ruckus? It was because people thought the canvas had been completely exposed to the contents of the cans. For the first few hours the world was panicking that we had lost one of the (overly-marketed) art treasures of the world. Once the National Gallery in London revealed that the painting was protected by glass and only the frame was slightly damaged, the discourse changed from outrage against and name-calling of ecoactivists to excuses: “It’s not that I don’t support them, I just don’t support their methods.”
The reaction to the incidents speaks to why most climate action projects almost never go beyond the raising awareness stage. Yes, people do care more about a painting than the planet because it is easier to grasp the concept of the value of art than the value of scientific research. Schools have taught the public socially-acceptable ways of conceptualizing art and behaving in its presence. It has been a part of the curriculum of many schools, especially in Western Europe, the United States, and East Asia, but ideas from environmental studies are just now entering classrooms. We all have also practiced art in some forms and we consume it daily through various social media platforms, so we can identify ourselves with an artist and often even attempt to copy them. I am certain that most moms still keep their kid’s rendition of the “Sunflowers” somewhere in the childhood picture books. But climate action is a foreign concept. Most people only connect to the issue because of societal pressure. They feel it is important to support it, but they don’t understand why and how.
The purpose of movements, such as “Just Stop Oil” for instance, is to inspire people to pressure their government representatives to stop the production and purchasing of oil. How movements can seemingly best manage to do this, however, is by creating a scandal. Environmentalists learned the hard way that in order to be seen they must be disruptive. No other action would keep the media attention long enough. So, they achieved their real goal: now we are all talking about the incidents. We have all heard what the organization’s representatives had to say. Galleries around the world now feel targeted. As of late, this is the most we have talked about climate action since the fame of Fridays for Future slowly faded away, which shows how seriously people take all of the talks about facing climate change.
However, this initiative reached the same level of efficiency as many others before it: it got our attention. Now what? Does some tomato soup scare multi-billion transnational corporations or the oil industry? No. They remain outside of the spotlight when they are the only ones that need to be in it right now. Nobody asked them about the issue, nobody sought out politicians’ response to the demands of the activists. All the noise stayed in Room 43 of the National Gallery in London.
It raises the question what action is more powerful: disruptive performative action or concrete policy-based action. In the public eye, neither has done much. Then isn’t it time for that same public to take action into its own hands and further climate action themselves? And isn’t this message exactly what “Just Stop Oil” and other organizations aimed to communicate all along? If what is stopping us is the fear of the ridicule and mistrust that usually follow any ecoactivist initiative, then there is another social issue at play, which already is entirely in our hands and at the tips of our Tweet-ing thumbs.
Yana Peeva is Deputy Columns Editor. Email her at
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