Just Stop Oil's strategy in their own words
Guest post by Samuel Light
Not a lot of people like Just Stop Oil. They would admit themselves that they can be annoying. Journalists and politicians spend a lot of time denouncing and criminalising their chosen forms of protest. Even those who sympathise with the cause are inclined to criticise the group’s brand of civil disobedience as unreasonable or counterproductive. The most common thing I am asked when I say I am researching Just Stop Oil is why they disrupt members of the public. Wouldn’t it make more sense to disrupt the oil? Whatever the answer, it is rare that JSO members are given a platform to properly answer these questions.
Contrary to many of these criticisms of Just Stop Oil, there also is a large body of academic literature arguing that radical activism could be beneficial for the environmental movement as a whole. In the 1980s Herman Haines showed how groups like the Black Panthers, who were often seen as extremists at the time, played an essential role in reframing moderate figures like Martin Luther King and making them look reasonable. More recently, several polls and surveys show that the use of disruptive radical tactics can increase awareness of key issues and generate support for more moderate groups in the same movement. Other studies show that radical tactics are effective when they are contrasted with a set of moderate demands which the government can easily adopt. While most studies agree that the radical fringe groups can help drive social change, there is disagreement within the literature about what radical tactics really are and why they work. This can lead to some confusion about the precise strategy groups looking to produce radical flank effects should pursue. As Just Stop Oil have explicitly engaged with radical flank literature, I interviewed twelve supporters, asking how radical flank effects function when applied outside the ivory tower of academia.
Just Stop Oil began with a campaign of trespass and sabotage to disrupt fossil fuel infrastructure, occupying oil depots and blockading trucks to attempt to force concessions from the government.However, as their focus has shifted towards more public-facing forms of disruption the group are often asked why they don’t pick targets more closely related to fossil fuels. Most of the people I interviewed were frustrated by the idea that the group should go back to targeting depots, feeling that a lot of armchair generals were unaware that this approach had already been tried.
“I've been told so many fucking times, go to Parliament Square, go to an oil refinery or whatever. I've locked myself to an oil tanker for 36 hours. Nothing. I was just at Parliament Square for three days with 60,000 people, nothing happened. But my best friend throws soup on a fucking van Gogh and we're in the news for months.”
In descriptions of this initial strategy civil disobedience was seen as a tool for gaining leverage to force through its demands. In multiple interviews, this strategy was associated with Roger Hallam, who founded Just Stop Oil and advocates for a direct confrontation with the state in his books.
“Yeah [Strategy] has massively changed, it was originally a classic like Roger Hallam idea. Like almost too simplistic, like too good to be true, which was that 12 oil terminals were responsible for 80% of the petroleum supply within the UK. Something like that. So, if we get 3,000 people who are willing to take action, we'll be able to hold those for like three weeks and massively affect the petroleum supply in the UK. So, it's very simple. You put on X number of talks that get X number of people, and that shuts off the fuel supply. I remember even when we were leading up to the action, we got this speech for morale. It was like: alright we can cut off the fuel supply or whatever. Within four hours, the top police commander takes notice. Within 8 hours, it lands on the minister of energy's desk. Within 12 hours this happens. You know, within 24 hours, there's a meeting of UK ministers to discuss how to deal with it. And then that basically forces a response from the government.”
This member describes the initial strategic approach as akin to a kind of non-violent frontal assault on the capacities of the state, which, as the tone of scepticism suggests, was eventually seen as naïve. Through this contrast, JSO members described a strategy which imagined the group as a kind of vanguard which was able to force concessions from the government and from industry without relying on public opinion or the media to apply pressure.
“It's the idea of what is called radical flank theory. The idea is that they'll hate the messenger, but they'll get the message. So, while people say: ‘oh I don't like this group of people because they take it too far’, they have to acknowledge that the demand is feasible.”
The initial infrastructure-focussed approach was still justified using radical flank theory however, as it was imagined that the contrast between Just Stop Oil’s ambitious plans to cut off oil to the south of England would force the government to concede and adopt their comparatively moderate demand.
Where interviewees did defend actions targeting infrastructure it was often on moral grounds, or because they felt empowering to participate in, rather than because they were effective. This is how one interviewee spoke about sabotaging petrol stations around London.
“It was kind of nice to let your anger out on something physical; like an actual external thing of the climate crisis you know? These are the bombs, these are the things that are killing our earth, so I have a right to dismantle it if it's in my home.”
There is an attractive simplicity to the idea that environmental activism should focus on the things that are destroying the planet. For activists anxious about their own role in the climate crisis these moral justifications were often deeply connected to their initial motivations to ‘take action’. The use of militaristic language to describe fossil fuel infrastructure as a ‘legitimate target’ was also a common theme in the interviews. Yet most people I interviewed admitted that, while they did not like inconveniencing the public, actions which focussed solely on infrastructure were ignored by both the media and the government.
“Well with the infrastructure it was brilliant because we shut that shit down. Problem was nobody reported it. Nobody heard about it. It didn't get out there because the media won't cover you if they can't vilify you. We hate having to rely on the media, but right now we need our messages in the heads of as many people as possible and that doesn't happen without the media being used as an amplifier.”
The global visibility the group achieved after throwing soup of a Van Gogh was almost always seen as evidence of the superiority of public-facing protest and informed the shift from a strategy aimed at overwhelming the state’s capacity to process arrests and cripple the economy, to one which was ‘media-driven’ and which sought to engage with public opinion.
This new approach was also described using radical flank theory but, rather than contrasting radical tactics with the group’s moderate demand, Just Stop Oil as a whole, was contrasted with other moderate climate groups.
“I read this study about radical flank theory which found that there was a correlation between JSO actions like blocking the M25, and people going into groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. So that kind of shows that this is potentially working.”
This interpretation of the radical flank effect reflected a more democratic approach to activism which embraced the role of public opinion rather than direct leverage. In doing so this strategy acknowledges JSOs position in the broader climate movement. Rather than acting autonomously as a kind of vanguard, the radical flank was understood as relying on relationships with other activists, political parties, and the media to influence the parameters of debate.
“Because if you've heard about the Overton window – like shifting what's seen as publicly possible. JSO are the radical flank and they’ve pissed everyone off. Well not everyone, but they've made the public quite angry. There's been a lot of conversation about them, but it means that local councils can talk about climate policy, the amount of climate denial in the press might go down, and acceptance of activism might go up.”
Just Stop Oil have learnt that their impact depends on their ability to manipulate the attention of the media. This has led to a strategy which draws attention by generating spectacle in a way neither infrastructure-focussed actions nor conventional mass demonstrations were able to do. While blocking an oil terminal involves a level of confrontation and spectacle it will not be picked up by the media as protesters are not engaging with the public, yet most strategies focused on public approval tend to lack the necessary drama and confrontation to be seen as newsworthy.
“So 50 young people sat on oil tankers for two days, is to me, really exciting. It's like what we need to be doing basically, but then in the right-wing media, they don't find that very exciting because there's no one getting annoyed and no one getting angry. I mean maybe there's a few drivers, but there's not this kind of confrontation between public and protesters, and that's what makes the news.”
If they are to have a voice in the public debate, JSO has learnt that civil disobedience needs to be designed to suit the requirements of the media which demonises them, moulding their tactics to attract the attention of the editors and algorithms which dictate the day’s agenda. Even if you think it is a shame that this strategy polarises the discourse around climate change, it is this ‘pact with the devil’ that has given JSO such a powerful voice in British politics.
So if you’re asked whether it would make more sense for JSO to disrupt the oil? The answer is no, both because the legal consequences are so severe, and because it does not make strategic sense to do so. In fact, the move to public disruption, especially the use of slow marching and disruption of high-profile public events like the Grand Prix or Snooker, teaches us something about why radical activism is effective. Just Stop Oil’s story shows us that merely existing on the radical fringe will not automatically shift the parameters of debate, or force governments to submit to your demands. It is the use of radical tactics to generate spectacle that has made Just Stop Oil a force in British politics.
For a more in-depth discussion of my methodology and the way these strategic decisions have led to more progressive and democratic approaches to culture, hierarchy and movement building within Just Stop Oil, please read the full paper here.