Why Are Climate Activists Attacking Art?

The answer is simple, and goes straight to the heart of the radical climate change movement.

You may have recently seen the photos or videos of radical climate change activists – often associated with the groups Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, and the Last Generation – who enter museums and proceed to douse works of art with foodstuffs before gluing their hands to the wall. If you haven’t, the video below, from Germany this past weekend, is a great example of the tactic.

This assault on art has been met with skepticism from some more moderate climate change groups and activists, but has also been praised by many in the media. According to the tactic’s defenders, these paintings are protected by glass and also, who cares about art if we’re all going to die in a decade due to the climate catastrophe?! I’ve written on the absurdity of the worst climate change hysteria before, and the use of emergency language to make an end-run around the democratic process; these activists embrace those tactics and language in their vandalism disguised as protest. Their talk about people “starving,” “freezing,” and “dying” is similarly ludicrous, as those results largely happen due to a lack of fossil fuels, not a surplus; I debunked this specious argument further in my latest podcast episode.

But what is most interesting – and telling – about the vandalistic protests which have recently found their targets in art museums is something which cuts to the very heart of the radical climate change movement: its fundamentally anti-human and anti-civilization ideology.

Art has been one of the prime outlets for human emotions and ideas for tens of thousands of years. Mankind has been creating lasting pieces of art that convey information, concepts, and feelings since the dawn of humanity as a species. We have examples of moving works of art that were painted almost 20,000 years ago in caves in France, as well as sculptural works and ornamented buildings that date back nearly as far. Drawing and creating art are activities that every child undertakes, almost instinctually, both to communicate their thoughts and to explore their surroundings and internal lives. These images, no matter how crude, are deeply human and are recognizable as such.

The creation of art has historically been a major sign of human progress and civilizational development. It shows a level of focused intellectual activity that is nearly impossible to achieve in purely subsistence societies. Over the millennia of human civilization, art has advanced (in fits and starts) to comprise Greek statuary, Medieval iconography, Renaissance beauty, and the modernist tweaking of those classic images. Yet it keeps its human identity and its emotional weight, no matter how or when the art was created. In this way, the creation and appreciation of art is one of the most truly human activities and a sign of the progress and development of human civilization. And that is exactly why radical climate activists are targeting it for vandalism and protest.

A 17,000 year-old cave painting of a bull in Lascaux, France.

The climate change movement, especially its more radical fringe, is at root a program which seeks to halt or entirely undo human progress and civilizational advancement in a quest to appease Nature. Their crusade against fossil fuels, so strongly evinced by the recent art assaults, may seem outwardly reasonable, but falls apart entirely under scrutiny. Solar and wind power, given their natural inconsistency, are nowhere near the point of being useful for baseload power generation; in effect, they are helpful only as supplements to an energy system focused on either fossil fuels or nuclear power. Not only are they insufficient for electrical needs, they have little potential in human and cargo transport and even less in the large-scale industrial processes which create the conditions for modern society. In essence, climate activists wish to reduce the overall energy consumption of the world, not just change how we produce that energy. In making a full switch to so-called “green” technologies for our energy production, we are dooming ourselves – and specifically the developing world – to a future where we are worse off than our ancestors.

And that says nothing about the material uses of fossil fuels, namely the plastics and other synthetic materials which make up so many of the goods we rely on daily. Fossil fuels are key in agriculture and food production, from helping to create the machinery which makes feeding the world’s billions possible, to harvesting the crops, processing them into usable food, transporting them quickly to market, and storing them at safe temperatures. In fact, without fossil fuels, the climate protestors would struggle to find the products they need to vandalize famous works of art (or glue themselves to it). Understanding the massive role of fossil fuels – and energy more generally – in modern society is perhaps best done via a concrete[1] example: the smartphone – the epitome of 21st century technological modernity.

Think about all the things that go into a smartphone: the computer chips, specialized touchscreen material, plastic and metal components, wiring, and the parts which hold it all together. Now think about the processes which were needed to create those components, from locating and extracting the raw materials, to the several steps of processing needed to transform raw materials into usable commodities, to the actual production of the semi-finished goods which are added into the final product. Then ponder the same thing, but for the machines which are needed at every step of those processes. When you combine the energy requirements of all those steps together, you would have enough to satisfy the energy needs of premodern society several times over. The energy resources we can bring to bear enhance the power of human labor and thought and save enormous amounts of human effort which can be redirected into other, more fruitful pursuits. This is the recipe for civilizational development.

World energy consumption by source, 1820 – 2010.

The energy consumption of a society is a great indicator of its level of technological and civilizational advancement. Modern societies utilize absolutely mind-boggling amounts of energy, producing a species which has reached the stars, dramatically improved human living conditions and lifespans, and radically eased our natural conditions. These feats and accomplishments are exactly what the radical climate activists despise and seek to overturn. Their ideology sees human manipulation of nature – which is the very essence of energy production and use – as inherently immoral, destructive, and evil. Many suggest that the world would be better off without humans in it, and seek a reduction of the global population to that effect. They not only hate fossil fuels, they hate their result – that is, modern human civilization.

In that sense, attacking art makes perfect sense. These activists want everyone to be as miserable and anti-human as they are, and thus seek to damage that which we hold so dear. Assaulting beautiful works of art is a shorthand for a quest to destroy civilization itself, and the human flourishing it creates. But we do not have to let these radicals win; we can support human civilization and the amazing products it blesses our lives with. The easiest way to do that? Ignore the breathless predictions of apocalypse and keep making, viewing, and loving art – that most human of pursuits.

[1] Concrete is also a product which relies on fossil fuels for production.

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