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Does Throwing Food Help?Diana McCaulay

Diana McCaulay portrait by Jonathan Chambers
Diana McCaulay portrait by Jonathan Chambers
Diana McCaulay
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Diana McCaulay is a veteran environmental activist in Jamaica and a novelist. Her most recent book is Daylight Come, published by Peepal Tree Press in 2020.


Recently two women threw a can of soup onto the glass protecting Vincent Van Gogh’s Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers in London’s National Gallery, and then glued their palms to the wall. Watching the YouTube video, I’m struck by how young they are. Their hands shake as they apply the glue to their palms, and there’s a tremble in the voice of the pink-haired girl who tells the camera why they did it. How brave, I think, to walk into such a place, heavy with history and teeming with security guards, a place which celebrates art through the ages, understanding all that will come their way afterwards: ridicule, hatred, accusations of derailing the entire climate movement, arrest, fines, and maybe jail time.

I want to offer support.

I also want to tell them it was a bad idea.

I’m a Jamaican environmental activist with three decades of organizing and advocacy under my belt. Speaking from an island in the global south, I offer my assessment of this type of direct action.

Was it pointless theatre which has only served to alienate many from the climate movement? Well, it depends on its objectives. If the hope was to attract widespread support, especially from among the indifferent, my judgment is that it failed. But direct actions have different goals. Sometimes the aim is to shine a light on the perpetrators. Take Greenpeace’s 2021 action blockading the port at Rotterdam, or the civil society rally against Shell’s operation in the Ogoni Delta in Nigeria in May 2022. Or it can be to call out the facilitators: take Extinction Rebellion’s action outside of Lloyd’s of London, also earlier this year. The many road camps and tree-sits all over the world are examples of direct action against certain economic activities.  Sometimes direct action is carried out to stop something, such as small inflatable boats putting themselves in the path of whaling ships, the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US, or the demonstrations in Uganda regarding the East African Crude Oil pipeline. Such actions often involve people’s bodies in harm’s way.

Direct action can also educate and animate the public via rallies, concerts and protests, or inspire by a single example, such as the lone 15-year-old girl, Greta Thunberg, who sat outside her nation’s parliament with a message that galvanised an international climate movement. And sure, direct action can seek to attract attention by causing inconvenience (such as Extinction Rebellion’s blocking of Tower Bridge in London) or shock, in the form of the symbolic smearing of works of art or even images of public figures. In the wake of the soup-throwing action, two members of a German group called the Letzte Generation pelted Claude Monet’s Haystacks in the Barberini museum in Potsdam with mashed potatoes, and Just Stop Oil activists smashed a custard pie into the face of the wax figure of King Charles III at Madame Tussauds in London. If attention was the goal, these types of actions succeeded beyond measure.

But has all the debate been positive? Definitely not. Has it merely hardened positions, turned people off? Likely. Is it even clear what throwing food at art or pies at wax figures of kings has to do with the climate crisis? Not really. But the debate has been ignited precisely because these acts are controversial, even confounding. Look at the comments under any article on the subject. People are hashing it out, changing positions, and talking about what ‘appropriate’ direct action would look like in the face of the most serious threat humanity has ever faced.

Many call such actions harmful failures. But social justice campaigns, including environmental ones, can’t be assessed in the short term. They unfold over decades, and even centuries. And the cause of even the biggest victories is not easy to identify, because who can tell what caused what? In my experience, successful campaigns consist of dozens, even hundreds of acts, large and small, in public or behind closed doors, by many different actors and groups.

I’m glad the paintings were not damaged and I’m sure wax can survive a bit of pie. I hope the headline-grabbing actions will continue to spark conversations between families and friends, and that more of us will join existing climate movements. And if they are poorly-conceived, then may we learn – not be told – how to do it better.

I’m grateful young people are protesting at the failure to halt the continued growth of fossil fuels in so many different ways all over the world.

But I’m just as grateful to those whose efforts are never covered by the media.



Amplify the voices of the global south. There are many who struggle to change government policy in their home countries, to bring attention to what our fossil fuel based civilization has cost and who is paying the highest price. Some examples in the Caribbean are:

Jamaica Climate Change Youth Council

Stay Alive and Thrive by Caribbean Youth for Climate Action

Caribbean Climate Justice Alliance led by the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI)

Jamaica Environment Trust

Support these groups financially, if you’re able. And if you visit our islands as a tourist, consider connecting with climate activists and offering your help.


Diana McCaulay is a veteran environmental activist in Jamaica and a novelist. Her most recent book is Daylight Come, published by Peepal Tree Press in 2020.