Just Stop Oil climate activist explains why they threw soup on van Gogh Phoebe Plummer, a climate activist with Just Stop Oil, speaks with NPR's Morning Edition about what the group wants, and why they're turning to controversial tactics to get it.

The activist who threw soup on a van Gogh says it's the planet that's being destroyed

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Phoebe Plummer has shocked some people in recent days and says that's fine.

PHOEBE PLUMMER: This isn't a popularity contest. We are making change. The suffragettes were famously despised. Martin Luther King was voted the most hated man in America when he was alive.

INSKEEP: Plummer is with Just Stop Oil, a climate activist organization in the U.K. Yesterday, the group sprayed orange paint in government and corporate buildings in London. In recent weeks, several groups in Europe have seized attention with protests against fossil fuel, and Plummer was involved in splashing a famous painting with soup. The painting was protected with glass, which can be cleaned, but Plummer intended to send an indelible message.

PLUMMER: My brother wants to have a kid in the next year. I'm doing this so that one day I can look my niece or nephew in the eye and say that I fought for your future.

INSKEEP: Plummer is a 21-year-old university student who joined the movement earlier this year and came on the phone from their dorm in London.

PLUMMER: Just Stop Oil started going out into action in April. And all through April, we went to the heart of the fossil fuel industry. We climbed up on tankers to stop them moving. We formed blocks in front of oil depots so none of the tankers could come and leave. We had incredibly brave people dig tunnels under oil terminals, so the roads had to be closed off and staying in these tunnels for weeks sometimes. We went to petrol stations and smashed up petrol pumps and destroyed the machines that are destroying us.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. Digging a tunnel under the road - so the person is essentially saying, if you want to drive on this necessary road, you're going to have to kill me.

PLUMMER: Yeah. It risks the driver's life and the tunneler's life.

INSKEEP: Now, at what point did the group get into this practice of targeting museums, paintings?

PLUMMER: Since October, we have been engaging in disruptive acts all around London, because right now what is missing to make this change is political will. So our action in particular was a media-grabbing action to get people talking, not just about what we did, but why we did it.

INSKEEP: And what did you do?

PLUMMER: Me and my amazing friend Anna threw soup on the Vincent Van Gogh sunflower painting.

INSKEEP: In the National Gallery of Art there in London.

PLUMMER: Yes.

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PLUMMER: What is worth more, art or life? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?

INSKEEP: There's the two of you. You're wearing Just Stop Oil T-shirts. You've gone beyond the rope that protects the painting. There's tomato soup all over the painting on the wall. And each of your left hands are on the wall. What's going on there?

PLUMMER: So we had our hands glued to the wall behind us.

INSKEEP: What did that feel like?

PLUMMER: Well, I've glued quite a few times. And people always ask me, doesn't it hurt? Isn't it uncomfortable? It really isn't. I mean, the police have this solvent that they use which just de-bonds you from the wall. It's not painful at all.

INSKEEP: It still seems maybe like it'd be annoying until they get you off the wall that you're stuck on the wall.

PLUMMER: Yeah. Admittedly, we didn't choose the most comfy positions.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Why tomato soup?

PLUMMER: One, to grab people's attention. It hasn't been done before, and it was something new. But almost more importantly, to draw attention to the cost of living crisis. In the UK, we are facing a horrendous cost of living crisis, and it is part of the cost of oil crisis.

INSKEEP: How did you choose Vincent Van Gogh and that particular painting? What did he do to you?

PLUMMER: Because of its notoriety, and it's a beautiful work of art. And I think a lot of people when they saw us had feelings of shock or horror or outrage because they saw something beautiful and valuable, and they thought it was being damaged or destroyed. But, you know, where is that emotional response when it's our planet and our people that are being destroyed?

INSKEEP: I think that a majority of people at this point would understand the problem that you're laying out. But there is the question of a policy solution. Do you want to just stop oil, as the slogan says? Is that your policy answer?

PLUMMER: So our demand is that the government immediately halts all new fossil fuel licenses. In the U.K., we have eight years worth of oil in reserves, so those eight years need to be used to make a just and fair transition to a renewable future. And that transition needs to include training for people who work in the fossil fuel industry currently - there's a lot of transferable skills - so that they have job security in a renewable future. It needs to include the insulation of British homes. And it needs to include subsidized public transport.

INSKEEP: So you understand the incredible complexity of this, where if you were to stop oil in a way that raised energy prices dramatically, it would harm the same people that you want to help? It would harm people who are poor, for example.

PLUMMER: Oh, yeah, but - of course, and that's the last thing we want. Nobody should be left behind in a renewable future, but renewables are nine times cheaper. The largest solar farm in the U.K. was built in just six weeks, whereas these new oil licenses that the government are proposing - it takes 15 to 25 years for any oil to even come out of the ground from these.

INSKEEP: Do you feel you understand the way to build a political majority for this? Because that would also seem to be required - not just a momentary political majority, but a long-term political majority in favor of change.

PLUMMER: Yes. So this is why Just Stop Oil uses these tactics of civil resistance, because history has shown us that civil resistance works. I'm sat here today as a queer person, and the reason I'm able to vote, I'm able to go to university, hopefully someday marry the person I love is because of people who have taken part in acts of civil resistance before me.

INSKEEP: Suppose you were talking to someone who agrees with you about the danger of climate change but is not on the same page with you on the policy solution. I mean, it might be President Joe Biden, it could be a U.K. official, someone who says, I understand the long-term need to address this, but the immediate situation is that we're in this conflict with Russia involving Ukraine. There are high energy prices. And as a matter of fact, it's getting to the point where it endangers political majorities and could bring people to power who would do terrible, terrible things. We have to do this very carefully. How would you answer someone who says that?

PLUMMER: The fact is we don't have any time to waste. Last year, the former chief scientific adviser for the U.K., Sir David King, said that what we do in the next three to four years will determine the future of humanity. When are we going to start listening to the scientists? When are we going to wake up and realize that if we don't act now, we are going to see catastrophic outcomes?

INSKEEP: Phoebe Plummer, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thanks so much.

PLUMMER: It was so lovely to speak to you. Thank you so much for talking to me.

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