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Just Stop Oil’s Stonehenge stunt betrays the Romantic vision

Just Stop Oil protestors target Stonehenge yesterday

June 20, 2024 - 10:00am

For all the outrage they provoke, the targets of Just Stop Oil’s vandalism up until now have at least made a certain kind of sense. Art galleries can (almost) plausibly be seen to represent Western decadence; the Chelsea Flower Show a display of bourgeois excess; and historic monuments symbols of imperialism and colonialism. All of these, however tenuously, fit within a stock narrative of the West and modern capitalism as drivers of environmental destruction.

The same cannot be said of an ancient pagan site in the middle of the verdant Salisbury Plain. And yet this was to be the victim of their latest publicity stunt. Yesterday a group of protesters stormed Stonehenge, spraying the 5,000-year-old megaliths with their signature orange coating (in this case cornflour). This came just one day ahead of the summer solstice, when thousands will gather around the site to watch the sunrise on the longest day of the year.

Such a sacrilegious gesture seems to wholly contradict the ethos of the environmental movement. Far from being complicit in the sins of modern industrial society, the prehistoric pilgrims of Stonehenge quite literally idolised the natural world — as do many of those who will come bearing druidic robes and ceremonial drums this evening. If anything, they represent the embodiment of that which environmentalists claim to support.

The earliest advocates of the green movement thought as much. In fact, most protests against the destruction of nature have historically been accompanied by a reverence for pagan spirituality. One immediately thinks of the counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies, but their notions of “returning to nature” can be traced back to the 18th-century Romantics. Just as the hippies venerated the divine feminine and sought to get back to lost forms of worship, the Romantics aspired towards a spiritual communion with the landscape.

Running through both movements was the notion of a clear distinction between the Enlightenment paradigm of man’s domination over nature — associated either with Protestant Christianity or scientific rationalism — and an ideal, pre-modern paradigm of harmony with the environment. This was the contrast described by the German sociologist Max Weber as the “iron cage” of modernity versus the “great enchanted garden” of antiquity, and which has long influenced the ideals of environmentalist thought.

Surely, Stonehenge is the perfect symbol of such a “great enchanted garden”. Indeed, this was how the ancient monument was presented by William Wordsworth himself, perhaps the pinnacle of the romantic return to nature. In his poem “Salisbury Plain”, he contrasted the disillusionment of his own time — symbolised by the main character turning away from Salisbury Cathedral — with the primordial sight of Stonehenge at sunset:

The Sun unheeded sunk, while on a mound

He stands beholding with astonished gaze,

Frequent upon the deep entrenched ground,

Strange marks of mighty arms of former days,

Then looking up at distance he surveys

What seems an antique castle spreading wide.

Hoary and naked are its walls and raise

Their brow sublime; while to those walls he hied

A voice as from a tomb in hollow accents cried.William Wordsworth, 'Salisbury Plain'

For Wordsworth, Stonehenge was the perfect representation of pre-modern idyll, standing in direct opposition to disenchantment. Faced with such potent symbolism, one would think Just Stop Oil — seemingly the inheritors of the Romantic reaction — would take a similar view. And yet they have chosen to desecrate it.

Little could be more revealing of an environmental movement which has not only lost touch with its historical origins, but any real philosophy of what an alternative relationship to nature might look like. For better or for worse, the Romantics at least had such a philosophy — but as garish neon paint pollutes the ancient stone, it seems their vision has been gravely obscured.


Esmé Partridge is an MPhil candidate at the University of Cambridge who works at the intersection of religion, politics and culture.

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Robbie K
Robbie K
1 month ago

The choice of target is of course to cause outrage, which by some twisted logic appears to be that ‘all publicity is good publicity’, despite being the biggest own goal achieved to date.
What JSO really need however is the astute campaigning and expensive PR companies employed by the fossil fuel industry, which have managed to create a genuine pushback against environmental causes with clever messaging, misdirection and misinformation.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago
Reply to  Robbie K

What JSO really need is to be prosecuted in accordance with criminal law and also to be obliged to pay for all damage they have caused.

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 month ago

What JSO really need is to be prosecuted in accordance with criminal law and also to be obliged to pay for all damage they have caused.

Or rather:
What the fossil fuel industry really need is to be prosecuted in accordance with criminal law and also to be obliged to pay for all damage they have caused.
But good to see that is starting to happen.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Yes, let’s criminalise all economic activity. Because ‘climate’.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago
Reply to  Robbie K

We would literally be living in abject poverty without fossil fuels.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago
Reply to  Robbie K

The devil made them do it.

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

No, the quest for profit made them do it.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

“For all the outrage they provoke, the targets of Just Stop Oil’s vandalism up until now have at least made a certain kind of sense.”
Stopped right there.
It’s never made any sense. It’s criminal damage. And juvenile attention seeking. End of.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

And after they jump in their petrol powered cars and drive back to their gas centrally heated homes or have they switched to electric – 33% (more on cloudy windless days) of which comes from burning fossil fuels.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Let’s not forget about the posts on social media where they brag about their holidays in Bali or another far-flung place . One could safely bet that they did not get there swimming or riding a bike,

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

Trust fund babies will be trust fund babies.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

*will be trustfundbabying 😉

More seriously now: it’s so easy when someone has a comfortable and secure life without having lift a finger for this, to get some excitement in the name of a ‘cause’.
If they had to earn a living, they would not even think about vandalising works of art, etc, in their little precious free time

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
1 month ago

They walked on water?

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago

Yes! That’s exactly what I meant 🙂

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

On the contrary, it makes perfect sense for a multi-millionaire in the renewables industry to pay a bunch of slightly dim and hysterical children to perform these stunts and thereby put pressure on governments to give him yet more subsidy with which to employ even greater numbers of slightly dim and hysterical children to perform equally pathetic stunts – although I understand he’s now switched to bribing the politicians directly.

John Murray
John Murray
1 month ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

My understanding is that Aileen Getty, of that ilk, has funded them, so they are literally funded by oil money. Whether this is done out of misplaced guilt on the part of the donor, or a ten-dimensional chess move in which she funds idiots to discredit themselves, I dunno.
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/10/19/just-stop-oil-bankrolled-non-profit-funded-oil-heiress/

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  John Murray

I love the idea of it being a subterfuge by the oil industry, but I was referring to Dale Vince of Ecotricity, the latter day Bernie Ecclestone who has openly confessed to funding one of these groups and who is now funding the Labour Party, who will no doubt reward him by increasing his subsidies and perhaps tossing him a peerage as well.

Richard Gasson
Richard Gasson
1 month ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

They’re not children. They’re old age people, pensioners, people who should know better.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Gasson

I was using the term ‘children’ in its broadest possible sense.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Gasson

Well, even if men can’t be women, can’t pensioners also be children?

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

“Art galleries can (almost) plausibly be seen to represent Western decadence; the Chelsea Flower Show a display of bourgeois excess; and historic monuments symbols of imperialism and colonialism.”

Why do those reasons make any sense? JSO is about the climate, not decadence, excess or imperialism/colonialism.

Dillon Eliassen
Dillon Eliassen
1 month ago

If Just Stop Oil were to, oh you know, actually try to stop oil, as in develop and market an alternative clean energy, or disable oil derricks, refineries and pipelines, as opposed to throwing soup at paintings and trying to block the M25, then I’d have some measure of respect for them. But they’re just vandals trying to get their names in the papers. The one thing I’ll say for Just Stop Oil is unlike pro-Hamas/Palestine protesters, most JSO people don’t hide their faces to avoid some accountability and responsibility for their actions.

Terry M
Terry M
1 month ago

disable oil derricks, refineries and pipelines
Be careful what you wish for; this would impact you far more than simply shutting down traffic on the M25.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago

So instead of doing relatively harmless protests, you’d rather they were actually destructive?

KM
KM
1 month ago

I think, to his credit, the writer is trying to make sense of a bunch of psychotic modern Talibans that should be locked away for their criminal intent to vandalise and deface just to make a splash.

I do not know what the law says in UK about such acts, but I would assume they are probably receiving some kind of gentle treatment. If prison time was guaranteed I think these Talibans would think twice

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
1 month ago
Reply to  KM

Hmm . . . perhaps such a Taliban would be welcomed in Saudi Arabia? JSO, MBS!

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
1 month ago

Middle-class omnicause activists whose primary complaint is with western civilisation, not the destruction of the environment.
If they really wanted to “just stop oil” they would be directing their childish antics against the likes of Saudi Arabia who produce 10 million barrels of the stuff every day. Instead they desecrate one of the most important archaeological sites in Western Europe which has literally nothing to do with oil production.
Cretins.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago

Yes, they would be better off flying to Saudi Arabia, and taking the matter up with MBS. He seems like a nice chap, who will undoubtedly give them the time of day.

Adam Bacon
Adam Bacon
1 month ago

Perhaps our intrepid JSO zealots have discovered that our ancient ancestors had a ‘problematic’ racist agenda as well? And after all they presumably burnt wood, which after all is a fossil fuel..

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Adam Bacon

Why make out that a single issue protest group is actually protesting about something else?

And wood isn’t a fossil fuel.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

I am afraid you missed the irony in Adam B.’s post

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago

Except his irony doesn’t make any sense, as all it does is to conflate separate things.

It’s the same level as coming on here and attacking somebody making a statement about immigration by calling them racist.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
1 month ago
Reply to  Adam Bacon

Just contemplate the Stone Violence involved in quarrying!

Jacqueline Walker
Jacqueline Walker
1 month ago

If it’s cornflour won’t it just wash off in the rain?

Richard Ross
Richard Ross
1 month ago

I wondered the same, not that it makes the vandalism acceptable. Wish the author had addressed this.

glyn harries
glyn harries
1 month ago

yes it will, or a few buckets of water. this whole moral outrage is laughable. people so love getting worked up about nothing.

Amelia Melkinthorpe
Amelia Melkinthorpe
1 month ago
Reply to  glyn harries

What you either have chosen to ignore, or never knew, is that there are colonies of very rare plants and lichen growing on the stones, which will be materially damaged by these domestic terrorists.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago

Won’t someone think of the lichen!

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago
Reply to  glyn harries

You might think it’s okay for someone to spit in your face, but unfortunately, not everyone thinks that way.

Karen Arnold
Karen Arnold
1 month ago

The cornflour will harm the lichens growing on the stones, which in turn protects the stones. These vandals are deliberately harming the natural environment.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Karen Arnold

The stones have been there 4500 years. I expect they’ll cope.

Mike Wylde
Mike Wylde
1 month ago

The current thinking is that it won’t. It has been absorbed by the lichens that live on the stones and when they tried to wash it off it still stuck to those lichens some of which it seems are rare.

Arthur King
Arthur King
29 days ago

It will, but radicals escalate if not confronted, next could be hammers.

Jacqueline Walker
Jacqueline Walker
1 month ago

Also, being pedantic, but the builders of Stonehenge were farmers I thought which makes them the first tree choppers and exhausters of soils. Only hunter gatherers were really in harmony with nature.

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago

Objection!

Hunter gatherers are responsible for the megafauna extinction and they harmed nature faster than any farmers

Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
1 month ago

Just stop oil is a marxist anti capitalist / anti civilisation movement absolutely SA to do with the environment.

glyn harries
glyn harries
1 month ago
Reply to  Michael Walsh

paranoid nonsense! 😀

Arthur King
Arthur King
29 days ago
Reply to  Michael Walsh

As someone on the far right, I love it. They make clear that we need to defend our civilization by bringing in a new political class who loves & defends Western civilization.

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago

This is the symbol of the whole modern Green movement. I would like to see its participants heavily beaten with chanting “Remember Stonehenge”

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 month ago

I suppose I might spend a minute or two trying to figure out their intentions, their goals. But I can’t get past the stupidity of these people. Their antics aren’t even funny. The third time (or fourth or fifth) the same guy slips on the same banana peel it’s not funny anymore; just pitiable.

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
1 month ago

Fanaticism consists of redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.

— George Santayana

Ian_S
Ian_S
1 month ago

Apparently the Yamna / Bell Beaker people who came from Central Asia and contributed to Stonehenge just weren’t diverse enough for the plummy bourgeois activists of Just Stop Oil.

John Murray
John Murray
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian_S

I think Stonehenge was built by neolithic people before the Yamnaya (us) showed up? The Yamnaya massacred them.
https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24132230-200-story-of-most-murderous-people-of-all-time-revealed-in-ancient-dna/

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  John Murray

Stonehenge was indeed built by neolithic farmers. However, the Yamnaya did not massacre them – they lived side-by-side for a few hundred years, and modified Stonehenge, and the neolithic farmers were eventually assimilated. IIRC the modern UK population (excl recent migrants) is about 10% neolithic farmer.

Ian_S
Ian_S
1 month ago
Reply to  John Murray

Well then I suppose JSO are just protesting the genocide. They’ll be wanting to tear it down because it’s a monument to white supremacy.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  John Murray

This is fascinating. I have never heard about them. Thank you.

glyn harries
glyn harries
1 month ago

Desecrate? Spraying cornflower is now desecretion?!? People have become such snowflakes.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago
Reply to  glyn harries

Vandalism is vandalism whatever the product used. They need to pay for at least the cleaning costs, wouldn’t you agree?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

Here’s a clue: the vandalism will continue until it is met with harsh and disproportionate punishment. Not a fine, not probation, but prison time. Stupid games must lead to stupid prizes.

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado sings, “… let the punishment fit the crime, and make each prisoner pent, unwillingly represent, a source of innocent merriment, of innocent merriment!”
Why not summarily judge these people guilty when caught in the act and handcuff them beside the object they attack and let them stay there for a day or two on bread and water? Without their smart phones of course! Crowds would be amused and malefactors would think twice about doing it again.
I recall that the Volkswagen corporation was targeted by activists who came onto company property and glued their hands to the floor. VW just left them there for a day or so. I think they turned the lights off on them through the night and had a watchman go by occasionally. They were miserable and unlikely to do it again.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

JSO likely agree with you, but have a different opinion of what is being vandalised.

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
1 month ago

Why does anyone expect these people to know anything about 19th century Romanticism? That would take an education of the sort we don’t see these days; and people with such an education wouldn’t do this sort of thing.

Dave Canuck
Dave Canuck
1 month ago

Terrible publicity stunt, bad for the image of environmentalism, but most likely morons who have no clue of the impact or brats looking for attention, like terrorists some people are just too fanatical and irrational, all you can do is lock em up.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 month ago

I have a feeling these ‘Just Stop Oil’ chuckleheads are working for Big Oil. There’s nothing surer to infuriate the general public and make ’em oppose the anti-oil crowd, than attacking a beloved national monument such as Stonehenge or the Mona Lisa.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Funnily enough, even posters on the Guardian have come to this view.

Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
1 month ago

Attention seeking losers


Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Sylvestre

Indeed. Narcissism is off the charts there


Will K
Will K
1 month ago

There you have seen your true dark enemies of England.
Sick Father and Mother, who would have us children for ever.

Stephen, our land must live.
This land we love must live.
Her deep dark flame must never die.

Night is falling; your land and mine
goes down into a darkness now.
And I and all the other guardians of her flame
are driven from our home,
up, out into the wolf’s jaw.

But the flame still flickers in the fen.
You are marked down to cherish that.
Cherish the flame
till we can safely wake again.

The flame is in your hands;
We trust it to you,
our sacred demon of ungovernableness.
Cherish the flame,
we shall rest easy.

Stephen, be secret.
Child, be strange,
dark, true, impure and dissonant.

Cherish our flame.
Our dawn shall come.

jules Ritchie
jules Ritchie
1 month ago

Don’t forget that they likely made their plan using their mobile phones.. Maybe I’m wrong and they used carrier pidgeons.

Chipoko
Chipoko
1 month ago

People who organise and participate in these sorts of destructive/disruptive protests should be be the subject of criminal convictions and jail time. I’m sick of their crap!

Paul Hemphill
Paul Hemphill
28 days ago

“Oh, the Horror!” As Colonel Kurtz declared.the moral outage and stereotyping in so predictable. If it’s not this “desecration “, it’s something else that gets up people’s noses. The article however is very good, and apt. I agree that doing Stonehenge was dumb and exemplifies the historical illiteracy of many so-called progressives these days.

Alison R Tyler
Alison R Tyler
28 days ago

Distressing lack of understanding of a need for practical and considered changes in attitude and behaviour as fast as possible.
Their protest behaviour is infantile like thrown toys out of the high chair to be picked up by someone else. They add to the problem rather than becoming part of the solution