Voices: I’m not sure what Just Stop Oil think they’re achieving any more

‘Rare lichen on the stones only survived thanks to the protest happening during a rare break in this summer’s downpours’  (Just Stop Oil/AFP/Getty)
‘Rare lichen on the stones only survived thanks to the protest happening during a rare break in this summer’s downpours’ (Just Stop Oil/AFP/Getty)

I’m not sure what the Just Stop Oil protesters think they’re achieving by vandalising Stonehenge, but upsetting the very people they need to support their cause seems perverse, to say the least.

In many ways, they could scarcely have chosen a less suitable target for the vandalism. It’s obviously a world heritage site (I didn’t even need to look that up on Google), it’s a monument where people have communed in a mystical fashion with nature for millennia, a magical place that entrances New Age types that you’d imagine would be naturally sympathetic to the environmental cause…and yet they go and, literally, desecrate it.

It’s owned and curated by a kindly charity, English Heritage, and it isn’t, last time I checked, sponsored by Saudi Aramco or Shell International.

I didn’t know, and I suspect no neither did they, that these old stones also play host to precious living things – rare lichens. The protesters may have thought they were being very clever by using soluble coloured cornflower, so that the monument wouldn’t be permanently vandalised. The lichen only survived thanks to the protest happening during a rare break in this summer’s downpours. If wet, the orange dust would not have been removed by experts quite so easily.

Had the protesters got their chemistry or weather forecast wrong, these previously unspoiled stones would forever have had a faint, faded tangerine hue to them, as if they’d once been used for an Orange mobile phone marketing campaign. Breaks the druidical sense of occasion, that.

A small but symbolic crime against nature, then – but endangered lichen deserve as much respect as part of our fragile ecosystems as more charismatic creatures such as snow leopards and our old friend, the King’s favourite, the Patagonian toothfish. Hurt the moss and you hurt us all.

Ignorant people, then – and also, like all the other graffiti artists and yobs who make out streets feel unsafe, supremely arrogant. Who and what gives them the right to despoil our common spaces? How would they feel if counter-protesters, the kind of hotheads you see on social media, found out where the members of Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion and all the others who take the law into their own hands lived and broke their windows?

Laurence Fox, never the most even-tempered soul, has suggested “someone should start a movement called “Just Love Oil”, where members gather up old tyres into a pile and have a nice big rubbery bonfire whenever Just Stop Oil try and paint something orange.” (I’ve taken the more offensive bits out of the quote…). I assume he’s being satirical, but you never know.

Thus far, most of the eco-protests have been nuisances, though damaging to the lives of people who don’t deserve it. Late for work or school; missing a job interview or hospital appointment; ambulances delayed; funerals missed, that sort of distressing thing. Every so often, the government changes the law and the police and courts are granted new powers to deal with the protesters. But, as the strangely traumatic Stonehenge incident shows, the protesters will always get through, because we don’t live in a police state (and nor should we).

As a society we try to balance rights, including the right to peaceful protest. But with rights come responsibilities, and with the eco-protesters that includes respect for others, for their property and for the common cultural inheritance we share – great works of art, buildings, historic sites. Lichen, for that matter. This is another reason why the protesters need to exercise self-restraint, and not to abuse the right to protest – which is not an unlimited right.

One day someone or something is going to suffer grievous and irreparable harm as a result of one of these stunts. A plate glass window at a corporate HQ can be replaced. A bus delayed by a sit-in will eventually arrive at its destination. But the smile on the Mona Lisa, once ripped apart and attacked by acid is never going to return. The furious car drivers who push the placid protesters into the pavement will eventually break someone’s skull, and leave them with life changing injuries, or worse.

Rather than breaking into Stansted Airport and cheerily spraying paint on private jets, possibly Taylor Swift’s (not sure why they would want to irritate her vast fan base…), they’d be shot dead by a trigger-happy cop guarding some head of state on a shopping trip.

What the peaceful protesters do is often actually violent or provokes violence, and in such circumstances things can escalate out of control before the police turn up. None of this helps their cause of slowing climate change, and only tends to make otherwise reasonable people think they’re more like terrorists, and should be dealt with as such.

The eco-protesters sometimes believe so passionately in their cause – the transcendent one of preserving life on earth – that extreme tactics are justified, that the ends justify the means. That is a deeply corrosive mindset, however, and leads to darker places. The leaders, such as they are, of Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion and the rest of them should think again about where all this is taking them.

They’re not going to save the planet by alienating people. In the end it’s about politics, and democratic politics at that. Just Vote Green would be a much better idea.