Yesterday, a pair of Just Stop Oil protesters glued themselves to a John Constable painting in the National Gallery, covering The Hay Wain with a printout of an alternative vision of England. The cart crossing the River Stour in Suffolk is perhaps Constable’s most famous painting. But instead of a bucolic, biscuit tin Albion, Just Stop Oil’s version shows the Stour tarmacked over, a belching power plant in the distance and a commercial jet overhead. The message is clear: our modern world is sick.
I have some sympathy with these student activists, or at least I envy their certainty. Their view of the world is simple: bad things like fossil fuels, industrialisation, and consumerism can be stopped merely by taking a stand. If only they make their voices heard, those satanic mills will grind to a halt and man shall be free. We can return to Constable’s Britain if only we choose to. It seems almost comforting in its simplicity.
But I wonder whether these two Brighton students have asked themselves why we built power stations and roads in the first place. There is no scurvy in Constable’s painting, no rotting teeth nor death in childbirth. But those things certainly existed in the 1820s. Industrialisation came about not because of humanity’s innate hatred for the natural world but because of a desire for something more than subsistence living. The faint grin of Constable’s wagoner would have been wiped from his face had he returned home to discover his son dead from typhoid. You can’t have developed healthcare without development, without roads and electricity and all the paraphernalia of industry.
Just Stop Oil is only the latest group in a resurgent hippie movement – further proof, along with stagflation and a new cold war, that we’re slipping back into the 1970s.