Food fights will not save the planet

IIlustration+by+Hailey+Akau

Photo: Hailey Akau

IIlustration by Hailey Akau

By Hailey Akau, Illustrator

Real-life food fights are rare––for good reason.

In addition to wasting a perfectly good meal, throwing food in any context creates unnecessary and disgusting cleanup work and ultimately achieves nothing for an argument. So, it should come as no surprise that vandalizing works of art by throwing food at them is an extremely ineffective way to draw legitimate attention to environmental issues.

From Monet to Banksy, we have seen artists destroy their work for the purpose of communicating a larger message to their audience. Recently, climate activists started throwing food—tomato soup, cake, mashed potatoes—at famous works of art housed in European museums to draw attention to the current, global environmental issues. These acts of vandalizing art for the sake of a larger cause are significantly less effective when the artist is not the one making the decision to damage their work.

One of the groups involved in the food-throwing incidents is the U.K.-based organization Just Stop Oil, whose primary focus is “to ensure that the government commits to ending all new licenses and consents for the exploration, development, and production of fossil fuels in the U.K.” The group’s website justifies its methods of civil disobedience as a means of bringing forth change.

The majority of Just Stop Oil’s peaceful protests consist of roadblocks and sit-ins on major streets in London, but the nonviolent acts of civil disobedience have recently escalated to vandalizing display windows of high-end retailers and throwing food at famous works of art, like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

While the acts have drawn international attention and sparked major controversy among art and climate justice communities, none of the defaced artworks have been seriously damaged since they are protected by glass panes and frames. However, if the trend of publicly defacing art continues, these priceless pieces could see irreversible damage in the future. While some may argue that art serves little function in modern society, visual art illustrates the human experience through a creative medium and moves people on deeper, emotional, or intellectual levels. Additionally, some of these iconic pieces, like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, influenced creative movements throughout history and revolutionized contemporary art. 

The question arises: does this attack on art bring the right attention to climate change?

These stunts aim to draw people’s attention to the current climate crisis through nonviolent civil disobedience. In a Q&A on its website, Just Stop Oil defends its food-throwing campaign saying “attacking what people really care about pushes them to ask hard questions [about their values].” However, it is hard to see the correlation between appreciated art and the state of the climate crisis.

There is no “right” way to protest. But throwing food at artwork pales in comparison to dumping tea into harbors or marches at national capitals, or most other demonstrations for social justice, for that matter. 

Furthermore, targeting priceless works of art from museums located in predominantly-white, privileged countries throughout Europe is an extremely insensitive form of protest compared to the uncredited efforts of marginalized communities who are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. 

In an article for the nonprofit group Green America, Beverly Wright, CEO of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, said that “[communities of color] are on the front line of impacts from climate change, living in places where there could be more floods and a higher incidence of different diseases.” Wright also explained how poorer communities lack access to resources that reduce the effects of climate change on their everyday life.

Most of the public responses to the recent food-throwing stunts have been negative. Rather than keeping the focus on the activists’ message, defacing artwork simply turns the masses against the vandals who have attacked something considered sacred to human culture. The videos of these attacks on art rely mainly on shock factor for viral attention, and people wind up focusing primarily on the destruction rather than the purpose. While these provocative forms of protest have succeeded in garnering international attention, the concern is that this method of protest overshadows the cause.

In an article for the Associated Press, climate scientist Michael Mann said that the stunts “will draw negative associations with climate advocacy and activism,” which is exactly what is happening. Regardless of the intention behind the food-throwing campaigns, the public will simply view the participating activists as vandals. Drawing attention to the issue of climate change can work to build support for these groups and gain the numbers to make real progress, but property damage cannot substitute for a solid argument.

It is clear that action is already being taken to combat climate change––albeit the efforts may be insufficient––so why target something that has almost no relation to the battle being fought? While climate change is a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed, the lack of public awareness is not the root of the problem. The climate action page for the U.N. website lists burning fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions as the two primary causes of climate change. 

According to the 2022 Emissions Gap Report by the U.N. Environment Programme, the top countries emitting the most greenhouse gasses per capita include the United States, Russia, China, Brazil, Indonesia, the EU27, and India. Among these countries, the U.S. remains the top country with per capita greenhouse gas emissions, which is unsurprising considering the proliferation of market-based solutions, like carbon pricing, for climate change that tailor to a capitalistic society. 

Additionally, “greenwashing” has become a recent phenomenon in which companies mislead their customers into believing their products are environmentally sound. Corporations known for greenwashing include BP, ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola, and Volkswagen––companies whose products are mostly used in predominantly-white, higher privileged countries.

While the issue of climate change is far from resolved, government plans of action and global agreements are already being discussed and implemented to address the problem, so it is clear that the focus on garnering public attention may be a misconstrued solution to the real issue. According to the United Nations website, the main categories for addressing climate change are “cutting emissions, adapting to climate impacts, and financing required adjustments.” Considering the disproportionate causes and impacts of climate change, it is clear that most of the heavy lifting must be done by the dominating countries who contribute the most to the climate crisis.

It’s entirely possible that some people will be riled up enough by the sight of tomato soup on a Van Gogh to join the cause, but it’s difficult to see how defacing precious works of art will call for more substantial government action against environmental issues.

As art is an irreplaceable means of human creative expression, it should be protected and revered as a form of documenting the history of humanity––not smeared with mashed potatoes as a means of forming an argument. While climate change is a serious and pertinent issue, turning the conversation into a food fight is no way to advocate for a realistic or viable solution.