A Brief Look at European Climate Activism
It is an exciting time to be walking the streets of major European cities. In recent months, there have been raucous political protests of diverse kinds in Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam, Leipzig, Kiel, and London. Germans, Czechs, Austrians, Dutchmen, and Englishmen have been making signs, shouting slogans, and disrupting civic life through dramatic expressions of political dissatisfaction, though not all for the same causes.
In fact, the differences in those causes and the motivations behind the protests reveal something about the worldviews of the protestors. Very roughly, these worldviews can be categorized as those that support human flourishing and those that work to hinder it.
Taken in order, the protests of Dutch farmers, along with those of citizens of England, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria, against rising fuel prices all have as their motivation promoting basic food-and-shelter level welfare of the average man and woman on the street. I will call these motivations “Maslow Base” concerns. Drawing on Abraham Maslow’s well-known hierarchy of needs, these matters would be matters of survival – meeting basic needs to provide one’s family with food and shelter.
The protests of environmental activist groups like Last Generation, by contrast, have as their motivation the pursuit of ill-defined, quasi-utopian political goals based on scientifically debatable projections into the future. These I will refer to as “Maslow Peak” concerns. The needs these protests seek to meet fall in the “self-fulfillment” category. There are of course some points of contact between the groups, and these I will make clear in the following.
Maslow Base Protests
Fuel prices have risen astronomically in Europe over the last two years. In Germany, the price of electricity is up 28 percent since 2019, while the costs of natural gas, heating oil, diesel, and E10 gasoline have risen by 99, 100, 55, and 36 percent respectively in the same period (link in German). Admittedly, the Russo-Ukrainian War and the resulting departure of Russia as a natural gas supplier for Germany has played a role in spurring the rise, but a significant portion of that increase had been predicted by economists years ago as an inevitable result of pursuing green energy goals set by the United Nations.
The immediate toll in human suffering, particularly among the poor, that this fanatical adherence to the most dire, least rational set of beliefs about climate change has, to date, been a matter of some indifference to the UN and other authoritarian committees, who appear to be committed to “saving the planet” over your dead body.
Instead of doing something both rational and beneficial, like increasing production of energy, both green and conventional, the governments of the EU have taken mostly cost-controlling or cost-alleviating measures to offset the effects of their own policies, in hopes of convincing those who would be most affected by them that the results won’t be so bad – not like costing them their life savings or livelihoods.
Not surprisingly, large swaths of the populations in Britain and Europe (and America for that matter) aren’t buying it. Farmers in the Netherlands, rightly seeing an inflexible adherence to EU “climate change” goals, specifically the goal of reducing nitrogen emissions from agricultural effluent, as a threat to their very existence – a Maslow Base threat, have been blocking traffic and burning hay bales to express their extreme distress at their own government’s apparent vendetta against their industry and way of life.
Note, however, that these protests are nothing new. The Dutch government has been on something of crusade against nitrogen emissions since 2019, and the farmers’ protests began almost as soon as liberal MPs began working on a plan to force farm closures in order to meet nitrogen emissions targets. Whether those targets are in any way justifiable in a cost-benefit analysis based on real world factors, and not climate change forecasts of questionable trustworthiness, is a matter Green policy makers seem not at all interested in debating honestly. It’s all question-begging, all the way down.
Farmers in the Netherlands are not the only ones who have been publicly demonstrating against policy decisions. Joining them have been Britons, Germans, Czechs, Spaniards, Austrians, and just about everyone in Europe who has to pay for fuel of any kind or for electricity.
Maslow Peak Protests
The other set of protests have been mostly those of young (under 30) climate change activists gluing themselves to roadways in Berlin and Munich. Or they have glued themselves to, or hurled foods at, some of the most important and revered works of art from the Western tradition, such as Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring in the Hague, Monet’s Les Meules in Potsdam, and in what is now perhaps the most widely known incident, the attack on van Gogh's Sunflowers in London’s National Gallery. Actually, they threw tomato soup at the painting and glued themselves to the wall before haranguing museum visitors and staff (more about that below).
Though the protestors themselves have come from different groups, “Last Generation” and “Just Stop Oil” being the two most prominent, their unifying motivation is the “fight against climate change.” The two young ladies in London, for example, railed against what they supposed was a preference for art over human life and human flourishing, shouting at shocked museum patrons, “What’s more important? Protecting the painting or protecting human life? The painting or food?”
One rather wonders if “protecting human life” for these young ladies includes protecting the most defenseless and innocent of humans, namely the unborn. My educated guess, based on the evidence available to me, is that they regard unborn humans as lives not worth protecting, but perhaps (hopefully) I am mistaken.
Another question is whether there is any reasonable expectation that their actions, or those of their fellow climate change protestors, will have any impact on public policy or popular opinion. I mean, action in the direction they want. Now, certainly there are those in the press who are not so subtly cheerleading for the protestors, such as the author of an NBC News opinion article about the attack on the Monet painting. The problem for them is, the public is not buying it. The activists who attacked The Girl with the Pearl Earring have already been sentenced to prison terms.
As for the people who glued their hands to the floors in the Porsche Pavilion at the Volkswagen Autostadt? The museum employees shut off the lights and heating and just left them there to widespread, if virtual, applause. The museum protests have provoked such a significant backlash that even people who support the cause are starting to question their efficacy. Throwing soup on a painting or gluing one’s hands to a roadway is not going to change the weather or anyone’s mind. The latter form of protest might get someone killed, and in fact has.
The needs being sought here are not the needs of those struggling to feed, shelter, and clothe their families in the present, but the self-actualization needs of self-satisfied and self-righteous urban elites. Maslow Peak needs, in other words. The inefficacy and indeed possibly counter-productive nature of the histrionics of groups like “Last Generation” and “Just Stop Oil” raise another question: if the protests are not “protecting life” or averting climate change, then what possible needs are they fulfilling? Only the ego needs of the protestors, it seems.
People Before Utopian Fantasies
Returning to the Dutch farmers, they were protesting to protect their industry, which is the production of food. Keeping the food supplies high and thus prices low most benefits the very people the “Just Stop Oil” protestors claim they care about – the poor. The folks on the tractors really do feed people and really are contributing to human flourishing. So does the art the climate change activists attack, though they are too blinkered in their philistinism to know this.
One more point: the people imposing the very policies that provoked farmers to take their tractors out on the highways already agree with the food-throwing vandals. They already want to “save the planet.” Their worldview and that of the “Last Generation” already harmonize. But the farmers and the old-age pensioners demonstrating against high energy prices caused in part by Green policies place a higher priority on human well-being in the present than on fighting a phantom disaster in the future that may never happen.
One slogan popular among the environmental radicals has been, “People before profits.” It would be better if they would start putting people before utopian ideological fantasies.John D. Martin
is a professional translator, missionary, and writer living in Germany, where he works with several different ministries, and lives in a Christian intentional community. He has written academic articles on medieval literature and culture and has published essays in Salvo, First Things, and Boundless. He is a native of Indiana.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/dueling-protests-dueling-worldviews