Identifying Climate Villains Has Become Mainstream — But It Isn’t Enough
Last week, reality star Kylie Jenner attracted much hatred and criticism online for a 17-minute long flight on her private jet. Since then, several other celebrities have been exposed as serial offenders when it comes to taking wasteful trips on their own respective private jets — with many labeling them “full-time climate criminals.” Juxtaposed against this was news of young climate activists attempting to vandalize priceless art by gluing their hands to their frames. The paintings remained undamaged, but the activists were villified online for seemingly pointless acts of resistance.
There’s a common thread connecting the seemingly disparate events — the identification of the villains of climate change. Sometimes, in the case of the celebrities on jets, they have recognizable faces. Other times, the link between the villain and the object of public ire is more indirect — embodied in art worth millions, collected by the super-super rich. But of the two forms of collective anger, it’s the private jet-setters who have become the acceptable face of climate villainy. Anti-capitalist sentiments are seemingly on the rise, and “eat the rich” is a slogan familiar to everyone (even if its origins are not), making outrage against them an acceptable — even kosher — form of discourse. It’s when young people target art that we’re given to take pause — with many even mocking the activists of misdirecting their anger at valuable cultural artefacts.
The discordant responses to the two incidents shows how even as climate anxiety has become mainstream enough to prompt anger against specific individuals. But it doesn’t mean that tangible action follows. In other words, being mad at the Kylie Jenners of the world is easy right now because it’s popular. It is uniquely a feature of late capitalism in the age of algorithmic public discourse that a radical, anti-establishment slogan like “eat the rich” and similar sentiments have become part of the establishment. In some places one can now, literally, eat the rich in the form of their faces on popsicle sticks. The anger against specific individuals coalescing into climate anxiety all manifests in a kind of resigned malaise — one which begins and ends at merely pointing out the obvious: that some people are to blame more than others for the climate crisis.
But what’s next? The litmus test for judging where we are in the fight against climate change is looking at the response to the protest that still remains — at least for now — outside the bounds of “civil” outrage.
“We’re here glued to this painting — this beautiful painting — because we’re terrified for our future,” said Louis McKechnie, a climate activist associated with Just Stop Oil, who glued his hand to the frame of a Van Gogh painting at a London art gallery.
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“I’m an art student, myself, and it does sometimes feel like the art world views itself as existing in isolation from the rest of the world. But, you know, the climate crisis affects all of us,” Hannah Bright, another activist with Just Stop Oil, told Euro News about her protest involving gluing her hand to Horatio McCulloch’s painting ‘My Heart Is In The Highland.’
Most of the activists resorting to this specific form of protest are young — many in their early 20s — and are the recipients of a flood of criticism for resorting to “extreme” means to convey their message. Many of these activists have been arrested — and they join a long tradition of climate activists who engage in civil disobedience being labeled “violent” or otherwise villified for disruptive protests. Moreover, they are patronized for their age and inexperience — and amid all the conversation about how they did it, we’ve lost sight of the why. More importantly, the public indifference to the angst of young climate activists that’s driving their action betrays an indifference to meaningfully engaging with climate change itself. The young generation has been entrusted with saving the planet — and yet, their attempts are dismissed as incorrect when they try.
But the link between art and protest predates these activists’ efforts. The anonymous political artist Banksy shredded a piece of his own work as it was about to go up on auction as a way of commenting on corporate greed that commodifies art for the consumption of the elite. Then, Banksy parodied other great works of art to make a comment about societal indifference to climate change — with these parodied pieces then going on to fetch millions at auctions too. In the years that followed, climate critique became fashionable — action, not so much.
The climate change discourse then suffers from two key issues. One, we’ve sufficiently learnt by now who to blame, but we disagree on how to do something about it. Two, blaming someone is often seen as the end in itself, rather than a means toward an end. It’s why blame accompanied by action is so contested: it actually involves disrupting the status quo in ways that aren’t comfortable or pleasant.
It’s why systems of supposed accountability — the law — come down upon protestors who glue themselves to famous works of art rather than those whom we acknowledge to be the real climate “criminals.” For the outrage against celebrities with private jets to actually mean something, it means taking all climate action seriously — even the kind that we don’t like. It would also mean going a step ahead of identifying climate criminals — toward identifying with climate protestors. Philosophy commentator Abigail Thorne has noted how environmental activism has always been non-violent, and how these forms of protest have overwhelmingly not worked very well. Many activists and scholars point out the need for direct action that targets the actual machinery and devices that actively worsen the climate crisis.
“At what point do we escalate? When do we conclude that the time has come to also try something different? When do we start physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy them with our own hands?” wrote Andreas Malm, in How To Blow Up A Pipeline. The young climate activists targeting paintings may not have in their hands the things that are destroying our planet, but their form of protest comes close.