On 14 October, social media platforms were flooded with the picture of two women wearing 'Just Stop Oil' T-shirts, throwing tomato soup on one of Vincent Van Gogh's most renowned paintings, the Sunflowers, in London. The act was meant as a protest against the rising oil prices in the UK and the EU, aimed at the powers-that-be for caring more about art and less about working-class people.
In fact, a series of similar non-violent protests have taken place in museums and galleries across Europe. Since early October, Just Stop Oil has been aggressively opposing the UK government's plans with regards to fossil fuels, and gas price hikes.
Though the very expensive painting of 'Sunflowers' belongs to the National Gallery in London, the real grip over 'sunflower oil' is in the hands of Ukraine and Russia. In 2021, Ukraine supplied 43% of the global sunflower oil, while Russia supplied 23%. As a consequence of war, the working class and middle class have no other option but to look at the beautiful poster of 'Sunflowers' painting, instead of buying sunflower oil as food.
Just a week before the incident, on 7 October, another highly awaited event was the talk of the town: 'The Nobel Peace Prize 2022'.
There was a clear divide among the nominees of 343 candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022. The committee members had a choice in their hands. They could have either given the peace prize to a 'Climate Change Activist' or to an anti-Putin, pro-democracy activist.
In the anti-Putin camp, the notable nominees were Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and other anti-Putin figures and human rights organisations. On the other hand, the notable nominee for the climate change camp was British naturalist David Attenborough, Swedish Climate Change activist Greta Thunberg, Arctic Council, IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services).
As we know - the committee finally chose to highlight pro-democracy values and send a 'Timely Birthday Gift' to Putin by awarding the Nobel Peace Prize 2022 to Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski and two other post-Soviet human rights organisations – Memorial (Russia) and Centre for Civil Liberties (Ukraine). Undoubtedly, this is a moment of pride and validation for the pro-democracy and post-Soviet Union Eastern European block.
But it did not come without criticism. What does a Nobel Peace Prize really stand for? Does 'peace' only mean a political stand? Or could the peace prize also address an existential issue for all humans in all corners of the world, for example, climate change?
According to projections from the International Environmental Partnership (IEP), 1.2 billion people might become "climate refugees" by 2050 worldwide. This number is more significant than the number of refugees from Ukraine to the EU (around 8 million). A clear shout-out to the pressing climate change issue would have been a 'Timely Gift to The World', not just one megalomaniac dictator.
The Nobel Peace Prize could have focused on preventing people from becoming climate victims. This war is pushing forward the factors that will deteriorate and exacerbate the effects of climate change faster.
Before the war, Germany aimed to completely phase out the production of electricity from coal by 2038, to slow down the effects of climate change. But now, it is restarting the coal-powered station to tackle energy prices and reduce dependency on Russia. As a result, in effect, the population in countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan will soon bear the brunt. They will lose their land to rising sea levels.
At least, in London, activist groups can buy a can of tomato soup, afford a ticket to enter the National Art Gallery and throw the soup on Van Gogh's sunflower to get the attention of the world media. But people will be wiped out in countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan without war or missiles.
The last time when a major war broke out (World War II) in Europe, countries far from European and American land paid the highest price. A Bengal famine took the lives of almost 3.8 million people in the subcontinent (now Bangladesh and India) in 1943.
Today, in 2022, while the war in Europe and Russia rages on, devastating floods affected around 33 million people in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The Nobel peace prize could have shed some light on this universal phenomenon, rather than taking a political stance. The committee also had the option of not awarding the Peace Prize this year.
The Russian Nobel Laureate journalist Dmitry Muratov set an example of proper utilisation of a Peace Prize by auctioning it for Ukrainian Child Refugees to raise $103.5 million. If we survive this continuous threat of nuclear war, another Nobel Laureate may auction the gold medal for climate refugees someday. Some cans of tomato soup might get distributed among the climate refugees with that auction money.
Samia Binte Alamgir is an Erasmus Mundus Scholar of European Politics and Society, writing from Barcelona, Spain.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.