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

Phoebe Plummer, pictured at a demonstration in London's Piccadilly Circus in early October, spoke to <em>Morning Edition</em> about the tactics Just Stop Oil is using to draw attention to the urgency of climate change.
Isabel Infantes
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AFP via Getty Images
Phoebe Plummer, pictured at a demonstration in London's Piccadilly Circus in early October, spoke to Morning Edition about the tactics Just Stop Oil is using to draw attention to the urgency of climate change.

Phoebe Plummer has recently gone viral, but they're not interested in being popular. They're more focused on helping stop climate change.

Plummer was one of two climate activists with the group Just Stop Oil who raised eyebrows worldwide after they threw tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers at London's National Gallery of Art in mid-October. It's one of the many public actions the group has taken in recent weeks alone, including blocking streets, spray-painting buildings orange and smashing a King Charles III wax figure with chocolate cake.

While the painting itself was covered by glass and unharmed, critics have questioned this method of protest. Even so, more people around the world are staging similar demonstrations to draw attention to the climate change crisis — and, in the case of Just Stop Oil, calls for their governments to stop new fossil fuel licensing and production.

Plummer, a 21-year-old university student who uses they/them pronouns, says they're looking to create a cleaner, better future for future generations.

"I'm doing this so that one day I can look at my niece or nephew in the eye and say, 'I fought for your future,'" Plummer explains.

Plummer spoke with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep about why the group chose these tactics and what they hope will happen next.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On why they joined Just Stop Oil and what the organization does

I joined back in August, largely out of a sense of fear and despairing. I tried all the more traditional forms of activism, I guess you could say. I've written to [lawmakers], I've signed petitions, I've gone on marches. I did all the things I felt I could do for the climate and eventually went vegan, stopped buying clothes firsthand. And I was so frustrated that I saw it not going anywhere. I saw it not making any meaningful change. So I saw what Just Stop Oil was doing, and for the first time I felt a bit of hope that I could do something to secure myself a future.

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.

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?"

Yeah, it risks the driver's life, the tunneler's life.

When did the group begin targeting museums and paintings?

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.

And what did you do?

Me and my amazing friend Anna threw soup on the Vincent van Gogh sunflower painting.

The two of you glued your hands to the wall. What did that feel like?

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.

It seems like it'd be annoying, until they get you off, to be stuck on the wall.

Yeah. Admittedly, we didn't choose the most comfy positions [laughs].

Why tomato soup?

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 U.K., we are facing a horrendous cost of living crisis and it is part of the cost of oil crisis.

How did you choose that particular painting?

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.

Just Stop Oil protesters block the roads at a major intersection on Thursday in London, England, the latest in its series of public demonstrations.
Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Just Stop Oil protesters block the roads at a major intersection on Thursday in London, England, the latest in its series of public demonstrations.

What does Just Stop Oil want?

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.

You understand, if you were to stop oil in a way that raised energy prices dramatically, it would harm the same low-income people that you want to help?

Oh yeah ... 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.

It seems you would need to build not just a momentary political majority, but a long-term political majority in favor of change.

Yes, this is why Just Stop Oil uses these tactics of civil resistance, because history has shown us that civil resistance works. I'm sitting 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.

How do you respond to people who may agree with your policies, but say that with with Russia's war in Ukraine and energy prices, we need to make compromises?

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?

The audio for this interview was edited by HJ Mai. Rachel Treisman adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lilly Quiroz (she/her/ella) is a production assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. She pitches and produces interviews for Morning Edition, and occasionally goes to the dark side to produce the podcast Up First on the overnights.