Just Stop Oil Has Declared Victory. What Now?

Direct action gets the goods?

by Richard Hames

10 July 2024

Just Stop Oil sprays paint on planes at Stansted airport, June 2024. Just Stop Oil/Reuters

When Just Stop Oil first burst onto the scene in early 2022, someone from the activist group told me that its aim was to get a quick win for the environmental movement.

Now, the group – a Millwall FC chant (“No one likes us, we don’t care”) made flesh – claims it’s won.

Since it was founded, JSO has had a one key demand: no new oil and gas licences. In a rare moment of clarity, the manifesto of the UK’s new Labour government states:

“We will not issue new licences to explore new fields because they will not take a penny off bills, cannot make us energy secure, and will only accelerate the worsening climate crisis. In addition, we will not grant new coal licences and will ban fracking for good.”

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the government will actually carry out its manifesto promises. But with both a large majority and the Salisbury Convention in place, this one shouldn’t be too hard to make good on.

This news of victory may come as a surprise to those who follow the group. It may even come as a surprise to JSO activists who have given up their freedom and gone to prison for it, some for years at a time. After all, JSO’s actions have appeared in a chaotic-enough manner that at times it’s been difficult to thread together its strategy.

Recently, the group “decorated” Stonehenge in orange powder paint. Then, mere moments later in social media time, while the takes were still rolling in, it sprayed a couple of private jets orange.

The first action roused a widespread grumble of faux-reasonableness: concern for lichen came from all corners, including those who’d seemingly just found out what lichen is; a worry that a formation of stones over 4,000 years old might be ineluctably stained orange; and, of course, a sense that a British institution was being undermined.

Triggering these kinds of disproportionate responses is part of JSO’s strategy. The stakes of climate change are so unbelievably high that more or less any response looks like special pleading. And those stakes are becoming clearer by the day.

The second action silenced many critics. Private jets are unpopular, but JSO’s spray-painting came with serious consequences: both the activists who carried it out were remanded in custody for much longer than expected, a JSO spokesperson told me. This is arguably part of a backlash against environmental protests that has been ongoing since 2019.

So what now? 

JSO’s new strategy involves both significantly broader aims, a broader political formation at home, and broader alliances internationally.

Back in 2019, a proposal to declare a “climate emergency” was accepted in the House of Commons after pressure from the Extinction Rebellion movement. But this declaration didn’t have any specific implications for climate policy, or tell the government how to act.

New initiatives are looking to change that. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty – the brainchild of Dr Tzeporah Berman – presents itself as a “concrete, binding plan to end the expansion of new coal, oil and gas projects and manage a global transition away from fossil fuels”. In short, this is a significantly more robust plan for the non-proliferation of fossil fuels, based on the non-proliferation treaties around nuclear weapons. 

So far, 13 countries (mostly small island nations) have supported the proposal for a treaty. Likewise, a JSO spokesperson told me that its new aim is to push the UK government “to establish a legally binding treaty to stop extracting and burning oil, gas and coal by 2030, as well as supporting and financing other countries to make a fast, fair, and just transition”.

To achieve this, JSO is now part of a broad alliance to coordinate nonviolent civil resistance internationally called the A22 network. This coordination, a JSO spokesperson said, will allow the group to scale the level of disruption it can cause. Whether or not the group’s actions around airports, announced for this summer, will be a flavour of the kind of disruption to come remains to be seen.

JSO has changed shape in the UK too, as one of a collection of projects sitting under the umbrella of a group called, catchily, ‘Umbrella’. 

One project is Youth Demand, which combines climate demands with a call for a two-way arms embargo on Israel. Concerns beyond direct climate mitigation aren’t new, even in a group that’s been accused of excessive levels of focus on one objective. Last year, JSO activists attempted to block the paths of buses carrying migrants to the Bibby Stockholm, arguing the conditions on the barge were both horrific in their own right and a sign of even more extreme measures to come in an era of climate-related migration. Just weeks after those actions, Leonard Farruku, a 27-year-old Albanian migrant, seemingly took his own life on the barge.

Another project is Assemble, a direct democracy project whose first test was to be the UK general election – until it was called early. Despite the snap election, Assemble stood and endorsed 27 independent candidates including Shockat Adam, who won in Leicester South, and Andrew Feinstein, who came in second place to Keir Starmer in Holborn and St Pancras. Assemble is now putting together an alternative legislative body called the House of the People, which is proposed to replace the House of Lords.

Such ambitions can be found in the lineage of the organisations JSO grew out of. Extinction Rebellion activists have long argued that theirs wasn’t just a climate group, but – as co-founder Roger Hallam recently told me – “a formulation for a new civilisation, based upon a new form of democracy”.

It’s this kind of direct democracy that isn’t just needed in order to make policy to prevent the worst escalations of climate change, but – the organisation says – to build the dense social fabric that can survive a future of food systems collapse and the accompanying fraying of social bonds.

JSO celebrated its victory this morning by spraying the road next to Parliament Square orange. But questions remain about its strategy – not least the problem of the backlash it’s triggered that might make nonviolent civil resistance in the UK ever-harder. The new government may have quietly adopted JSO’s demand – but a further crackdown on its method may be just over the horizon.

Richard Hames is an audio producer at Novara Media.

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