Activism takes many forms. As defined by Bill Moyer, the four roles of activism are the citizen, rebel, change agent and reformer. An activist should first be a good citizen. This is how they earn the respect of the public and gain followers. Then activists need to follow a set of principles and make their voices heard in protest of social and environmental policies and actions that violate those principles. This is the rebel. In the process, activists should educate and inspire the public as change agents. With the right pieces in place, the activist can then step into the role of reformer where they work alongside policymakers to change laws and institutional policies.

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Today’s climate activists take many routes to maneuver through these roles, most commonly including social media or print campaigns, strikes, boycotts, writing letters, petitions, votes, demonstrations and protests. This year, there’s been a wave of non-violent, yet vaguely destructive demonstrations that, when put together, might constitute a movement that damages the very messaging they’re attempting to relay.

Related: “The Scream” painting is targeted by climate activists

Recent acts

In early summer, a group of five people from the activist group Just Stop Oil glued themselves to a 500-year-old copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper” at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and spray painted a message below the artwork. The next month three Italian activists from the group Last Generation glued their hands to the base of “Laocoön and His Sons”, an ancient sculpture in the Vatican Museum. And as recently as November, Norwegian police reported two climate activists tried to glue themselves to Edvard Munch’s 1893 “The Scream” at a museum in Norway

In each of these cases, the climate activists aimed to create chaos that would pressure the government to make an environmental policy change. They drew attention using famous and well-protected works of art to engage concern for the historical pieces and create a sense of urgency.

Sculpture of Laocoon and His Sons in Rome

Is it right?

So the question becomes whether activists like these are effectively getting their message across or if these actions border too closely on illegal activity. Are these climate activists going about things the right way or tarnishing the reputation of all activists? Are their methods effective in drawing attention to climate change and, if so, are the blurred lines an acceptable price to pay to facilitate change?

Activism is a difficult pursuit. It’s challenging to spread messaging, especially when it instills fear or mandates change–two things humans would rather not deal with. So when an activist demands the government abandons oil or coal production or insists on investments in renewable energy, it often falls on deaf ears. What’s an activist to do but to make a very public scene, perhaps crossing a line in the sand in the process.


Here we pause and head back to the top of this article where we introduced the roles of activists. In recent examples, small groups took a stand en route to breaking the law. Those rebels skipped the first step of being good citizens and earning the respect of a following. This essential step is the difference between having a community of consolidated voices and standing nearly alone in the effort.

Then there’s the matter of illegal activity. In the cases cited above the works of art didn’t appear to be damaged, but in other cases, the art’s protective covering or surroundings were harmed. Even if society understands the messaging behind these acts, it’s rarely effective in creating a productive movement of change. Looking back through history, positive role models inspiring local, national or international progress stand out for that reason. People feel better about following someone with a positive, hopeful message.

Historically, consider Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela as examples of leading activists with a large following. Each attained this without blatantly illegal pursuits. Although examples like MLK certainly broke laws, he distinguishes between “just laws” and “unjust laws” with the former being “Any law that uplifts human personality” and the latter being “Any law that degrades human personality” (such as racism). The act of damaging public art is the act of breaking a just law. Inasmuch, MLK would be the first to oppose such action. 

There’s a valuable insight in the phrase, “You’ll attract more flies with honey than vinegar.” That applies when trying to draw in a support base to elevate climate activism goals.

A cardboard sign that reads "Planet over profit"

Setting an example

Take a modern example in Greta Thunberg. Not caring if she had a following or not, she began at step number one of being a good citizen by convincing her parents to make lifestyle changes to lower the family’s carbon footprint. Then she progressed into the other three roles by refusing to back down to world leaders, initiating change through information and education and reforming policies with a wide support base.

Can anyone imagine Greta Thunberg trashing public art to get her point across? You decide whose tactics are most effective.

Should we stand up to protect the climate? Of course. But there is a right and a wrong way to attract attention. Or perhaps more accurately there’s an effective and an ineffective way. Targeting public art does little more than make one look like a criminal rather than inspiring climate action change.

Via Commons Library 

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