Soup on the van Gogh: The painting's fine, and the kids are all right

Was the London soup-throwing incident an absurd plea for attention? Absolutely — it was also totally justified

By Émile P. Torres

Contributing Writer

Published October 22, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

Climate protesters hold a demonstration as they throw cans of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers" at the National Gallery in London, United Kingdom on October 14, 2022. (Just Stop Oil / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Climate protesters hold a demonstration as they throw cans of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers" at the National Gallery in London, United Kingdom on October 14, 2022. (Just Stop Oil / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

"Let's stop giving these attention seeking adult-toddlers the coverage they clearly crave," British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly tweeted last Saturday (not long before his own government collapsed). That came in response to a shocking viral video of two young people slinging canned tomato soup onto a glass-covered painting by Vincent van Gogh in London's National Gallery, and then gluing themselves to the wall behind it. Gasps can be heard in the background. Someone says in astonishment, "Oh my gosh." Another calls for security.

Meanwhile, the two activists — both in their early 20s — have been called just about every name in the book, including "philistines, barbarians, idiots, [and] terrorists." Others have baselessly suggested that since the organization these young people represent, Just Stop Oil, is funded by Aileen Getty, this act was just "performative. Oil companies pay them to make actual real activists look 'crazy.'" 

That's clearly untrue. Aileen Getty is the granddaughter of Jean Paul Getty, who became a billionaire — and possibly the richest private citizen in the world in the 1960s — because of his success in the oil business. Aileen Getty inherited some of this fortune, and in 2019 co-founded the Climate Emergency Fund, which states on its website that it has funded 39 organizations with a total of $4 million. Just Stop Oil has received $1.1 million from Getty's fund.

There is nothing conspiratorial here. The economies of the Global North have put the entire future of humanity — indeed, of the whole biosphere — in jeopardy, and since the more diplomatic strategies of presenting the facts, educating the public, confronting politicians and even blocking traffic have thus far failed, it might be time to pursue more radical (yet still nonviolent) measures.

When the Kyoto Treaty went into effect in 1995, there were 360 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. By the time of the Paris accords of 2015, that number was 401 ppm. In the room where I'm writing this article, a CO2 monitor reads 456 ppm.

Climate scientists have been speaking truth to power for decades: James Hansen told Congress in 1988 not merely that Earth's thermostat was rising, but that "global warming [had] reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and the observed warming." Nothing happened. The catastrophic consequences of climate change were explored in Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," one of the most successful documentaries in history, and which resulted in Gore receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Nothing happened. And Sir Nicholas Stern sounded the alarm in his 700-page Stern Report, commissioned by the British government, which concluded that climate change "is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen." Nothing happened.

When the first IPCC Assessment Report was released in 1990, there were an estimated 354 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide, or CO2, in the atmosphere. Five years later, when the first UN Climate Change Conference was held, that had risen to 360 ppm. By 2005, when the Kyoto Treaty entered into force, the concentration of CO2 had risen to about 380 ppm. By the time the 2015 Paris Accord was signed, the global average concentration of CO2 had reached 401 ppm. This year the number reached 421 at the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in Hawaii, and the room where I'm writing this article, on a university campus in Germany, has a CO2 monitor that reads 456 ppm.

What is it going to take to convince the major nations of the Global North to take the climate crisis seriously? Civil disobedience is part of the answer, but so might tactics that draw global attention to activist organizations like Just Stop Oil, which is precisely what's happened. "This was the tomato toss heard around the world," as Dana Fisher, a University of Maryland sociologist, noted. And the message is clear: Do something now, because time is running out. As one of the activists declared after gluing herself to the wall:

What is worth more: art or life? Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people? … Crops are failing. Millions of people are dying in Monsoon wildfires and severe drought. We cannot afford new oil and gas. It is going to take everything we know and love.

Just this year, Pakistan suffered unprecedented flooding due to climate change. Nearly 32 million people have been displaced, and more than 500 children have died. "Roads and bridges have been washed away," and the World Health Organization now warns of a "second disaster" caused by water-borne diseases. According to Babar Boloch, spokesperson for the UN Refugee agency UNHCR, it could take "up to six months for flood waters to recede" in some parts of the country.

Or consider the 2022 Living Planet Report, which found that since 1970 wildlife "populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians" have declined by a staggering 69 percent. Freshwater populations have been especially hard hit, with declines of an even more mind-boggling 83 percent. Other studies affirm that we are in the early stages of only the sixth major mass extinction event in life's 3.8 billion-year history on Earth, and that humanity has already crossed five of nine planetary boundaries, which are defined as the "biophysical preconditions for human development." Yet another study warns that humanity now faces a

risk that self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a "Hothouse Earth" pathway even as human emissions are reduced. Crossing the threshold would lead to a much higher global average temperature than any interglacial in the past 1.2 million years and to sea levels significantly higher than at any time in the Holocene.

As a paper in Nature published the following year declares, "if damaging tipping cascades can occur and a global tipping point cannot be ruled out, then this is an existential threat to civilization." Or to quote Aileen Getty — the woman supposedly part of some conspiracy to make climate activists look bad — "Let's not forget that we're talking about extinction," to which she added, "Don't we have a responsibility to take every means of trying to protect life on Earth?"

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

This brings us back to the Just Stop Oil activists. Were their actions "attention seeking," as Cleverly wrote? Yes, and in fact by tweeting this out, Cleverly himself — rather uncleverly — gave them even more publicity. Young people are desperate, and their desperation is wholly justified by the best available science. The situation is dire: The livability of our planet, along with the survival of entire peoples and nations, are in the crosshairs — especially those peoples and nations, mostly in the Global South, that have contributed the least to the climate crisis. As one of the young activists who participated in the van Gogh incident later said in an interview, which is worth quoting at length:

I recognize that it looks like a slightly ridiculous action. I agree, it is ridiculous. But we're not asking the question, "Should everybody be throwing soup on paintings?" What we're doing is getting the conversation going so we can ask the questions that matter. Questions like … "Is it okay that fossil fuels are subsidized thirty times more than renewables, when offshore wind is currently nine times cheaper than fossil fuels?" … This is the conversation we need to be having now. Because we don't have time to waste. Last year Sir David King said what we do in the next three to four years will determine the future of humanity. So we're using these actions to get media attention because we need to get people talking about this now.

I, for one, applaud her actions, which were taken in the knowledge that the van Gogh painting was protected by glass, and hence would not be seriously damaged. The kids are all right about the urgency of the moment, about the importance of starting a conversation and galvanizing political action. If people want to blame anyone for such actions, blame the politicians in power who have done nothing to stop the climate crisis and have pushed desperate young people to see such actions as the only way forward. If our political leaders had listened to James Hansen, Al Gore, Sir Nicholas Stern, the IPCC, Sir David King and every other climate scientist or activist who's been screaming for decades that our "house is on fire," none of this would seem necessary.

We should expect more stunts like this in the future — until meaningful action to curb the climate crisis has been taken. Indeed, Getty's Climate Emergency Fund has "vowed [that] similar attention-grabbing stunts will take place in various countries in the weeks ahead." Am I upset by what happened at the National Gallery? Absolutely, but not because of what those two courageous young people did to an artistic masterpiece that will be worthless if the climate crisis destroys our civilization.

By Émile P. Torres

Émile P. Torres is a philosopher and historian whose work focuses on existential threats to civilization and humanity. They have published on a wide range of topics, including machine superintelligence, emerging technologies and religious eschatology, as well as the history and ethics of human extinction. Their forthcoming book is "Human Extinction: A History of the Science and Ethics of Annihilation" (Routledge). For more, visit their website and follow them on Twitter." For more, visit their website and follow them on Twitter.

MORE FROM Émile P. Torres

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Activism Art Climate Change Climate Crisis Commentary Van Gogh