Glued to the future
They call themselves the Letzte, or Last Generation. Greta Thunberg is their Gaia. Their weapons of choice are epoxy resin, canned soup, or biodegradable spray paint. They are launching headline-grabbing stunts — to the howls of indignant elite protest — for disturbing the lifestyles of the rich and famous. They used a truck to block the air-conditioned recreational vehicles of tens of thousands of San Francisco festival ravers from their beloved Burning Man compound.
They have risked their limbs to glue themselves to European streets, airport runways, and last week to $300 seats at the U.S. Tennis Open in New York City. To the outrage of liberal art patrons, they have thrown tomato soup over Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” cake at the Mona Lisa, and runny mashed potatoes at Monet’s “Grainstacks.” (All had glass to protect the art.)
The ‘haves’ are not happy. Chants of “kick them out! ” rang out across Arthur Ashe Stadium as police struggled to unglue the protestors. Earlier in the summer, spectators at the usually uptight Wimbledon tennis tournament booed and shouted “losers” after protesters disrupted tennis by throwing jigsaw pieces and orange-colored confetti onto the courts.
Authorities are also angry. The jigsaw-polluting pensioners were charged with aggravated trespass and criminal damage. “We will be uncompromisingly tough on the selfish protesters intent on spoiling our world-class sporting occasions this summer,” said U.K. Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Such acts of tennis sedition are “unacceptable.”
Of course, climate activists think the U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is being seditious in approving hundreds of new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea, ignoring calls from the International Energy Agency and the United Nations to stop the development of new fossil fuel projects.
Not to pick on Sunak, but he is emblematic of the frustration driving these protests.
Not to pick on Sunak, but he is emblematic of the frustration driving these protests. He is a Prime Minister, a billionaire, an enabler of the fossil fuel industry — and a world-class carbon emitter. He and his wife are estimated to be richer than King Charles III. For pleasure, he has a choice of four estates ranging from a heritage-listed countryside mansion in England to a Pacific oceanfront penthouse in Santa Monica, California.
The Walmart yacht Kaos
So perhaps there is a method to all this seemingly obnoxious activist madness.
Consider the attack last week at a Barcelona, Spain’s mega-yacht port (yes, there is such a thing). Here, they graffitied…twice…the $300 yacht aptly named Kaos — of Walmart heiress Nancy Walton.
Why? A 2022 Oxfam study reports the world’s poshest 300 yachts emitted 285,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent to the emissions of an entire country. It also says just 125 billionaires produce more carbon pollution than France.
Billion dollar defense
Billionaire defenders say activists are missing the point. The wealthy are providing crucial philanthropic climate funding. They point to a record $4-10 billion in donations in 2019 alone to fund climate mitigation projects. That is good, right? Not sure. That same year, the yachting set spent $6.58 billion alone on yachts more than 125 feet long, according to luxury.com.
Fighting for attention
Creating audacious political theater, say activists, is the only way to break through the media clutter, no matter how annoying. “We tried sitting in the roads, we tried blocking oil terminals, and we got virtually zero press coverage, yet the thing that gets the most press is chucking some tomato soup on a piece of glass covering a masterpiece,” Mel Carrington, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil, told the New York Times.
Activists have little time for pretentious whining. Says one: “We are in a climate catastrophe, and all you are afraid of is tomato soup or mashed potatoes on a painting?”
The art of greenwash
This includes the nitpicking of climate champions like Project Drawdown’s Dr. Jonathan Foley. “I’ve spent 30 years on this issue, so my sympathies are with the protesters, of course.” But, oddly, Foley seems less worried about carbon emissions than the glass protecting the art masterpieces. They were not “designed” to protect against seeping liquids, he says.
Creating audacious political theater, say activists, is the only way to break through the media clutter, no matter how annoying.
More surprising is how he dismisses the connection between the art world and the wealth inequality that fuels climate change: “People say, ‘It’s fancy art for billionaires.’ But no, the billionaires keep their art in their homes, and it’s insured. You’re not hurting them by doing this.”
He is wrong. The owner of the potato-splattered Monet? He’s an anonymous billionaire who paid more than $110 million for the picture in 2019 — and has clearly lent it out to polish his philanthropic halo among the art-owning elite.
Last week, Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum hurriedly closed the museum, fearing another climate “guerrilla art installation” by activists who had tried this Spring to put their anti-fossil fuel message in empty art frames. Worried of a repeat, museum director Peggy Fogelamann closed the museum, fearing an assault on the empty art frames where a Rembrandt and Vermeer were once displayed might trigger “painful reminders” by its more sensitive members of an art heist three decades ago. “It’s heartbreaking,” she told The New York Times.
Climate activists counter that it is heartbreaking that more than 1 million species of animals and plants have been pushed to near extinction since the art was stolen in 1991 (not to mention the human death toll due to extreme heat and weather). “The loss is staggering,” says protest organizer Extinction Rebellion. “Each of them is a piece of art created by nature.”
So, is this all fair? Absolutely not. Desperate? Perhaps. Dangerous? No. What is dangerous is doing nothing about the rampant burning of carbon that imperils human civilization.
Mocked by the masses
The interesting news is that less elite Americans are increasingly in on the joke. Beating up on the coastal elite and their baubles is now a national sport: The thousands of affluent San Francisco revelers bogged down in a mud-caked desert, made Burning Man an internet punching bag over the Labor Day weekend.
So, is this all fair? Absolutely not. Desperate? Perhaps. Dangerous? No. What is dangerous is doing nothing about the rampant burning of carbon that imperils human civilization. Now it’s our turn and ramp up pressure on political leaders to put a cap on new fossil fuel development and to impose new eye-watering taxes on gas-guzzling mega-yachts and other carbon-emitting toys of the wealthy.
Featured photo: Video still from Just Stop Oil media gallery