Eco-warrior vs Terracotta Warrior

A stunt to put face masks on the unique Chinese figures at the British Museum shows up the childish nature of climate change activism.

Josie Appleton

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The British Museum’s ‘Terracotta Army’ exhibition is regarded as the most significant since the Tutankhamun tomb exhibition in the 1970s. Yet yesterday a man leapt over the barriers to stick face masks on some of the prized warrior figures (1).

These are 2,200-year-old statues, part of the crazy 8,000-strong army built by Qin Shihuangdi, the first emperor of China, to enable him to continue his rule into the afterlife. Their exhibition has been the most attended, most talked-about art event of the year, an apparent triumph of East-West diplomacy. Yet these completely unique objects were potentially put in jeopardy by one protester’s actions.

What could justify this behaviour? The masks read ‘CO2 emission polluter’; their maker was one Martin Wyness, 49, who got the train down from Herefordshire with his two daughters. Wyness has a history of these kinds of protests, and the statues suffered no major damage. Still, the event is significant: it shows how almost any other consideration can be set aside in the name of climate change.

Challenged to account for his actions, the British Museum’s eco-warrior was unrepentant. He did it, he said, because he is ‘very, very concerned about the global inaction over climate change, particularly what is happening in China’. He did not elaborate on the nature of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi’s responsibility for climate change. He merely said that, in the face of all this frustrating inaction, he just had to act: ‘It was something I had to do to raise awareness of the problem.’

The terracotta figures after the
face mask protest

Wyness has every right to protest and there will always be situations when social conventions, like standing behind the barrier at a museum, or even laws, may need to be broken if the occasion demands it. But this protest fits into the fashion for media-oriented moralistic stunts. The simple message of Wyness’ tantrum is that ‘China is evil’.

Wyness may have assuaged his own anger, but to choose such a course of action smacks of petulance rather than a serious attempt to change the world. Wyness claims that the next generation is more significant than all this mundane stuff: after the museum banned him from future exhibitions, he said ‘it is a shame that I have been banned for life because I love the British Museum, all of their exhibitions are wonderful, but the future of my children is more important than my pleasure of visiting the British Museum.’

This sort of event could have been predicted, given the role that climate change plays in public life. Environmentalists often argue that the niceties of democracy pale into insignificance in the face of the climate threat. The green writer Mark Lynas says that green measures must be brought through by force, because ‘we need serious political action within 10 years or so’ and ‘we don’t have time for the public to wake up’ (2). Lynas knows all about petulant stunts having made his own name in 2001 by thrusting a baked Alaska into the face of Bjørn ‘Skeptical Environmentalist’ Lomborg – cringeingly justified as being ‘in solidarity with the native Indian and Eskimo people in Alaska who are reporting rising temperatures, shrinking sea ice and worsening effects on animal and bird life’.

When climate change is the biggest political issue, which is yet somehow beyond politics, it is no surprise that some individuals feel that they have a hotline to the planet and simply must take action. As a form of protest, this is not so different to those who feel that they have a hotline to Allah – both involve the same narcissistic, grandiose gestures, in the name of some imagined universal good.

Democracy may be flawed, but the basic principle that we should try to persuade the rest of society to change direction is far better than resorting to reckless actions that devalue meaningful protest and engagement with the public in the name of some pet obsession.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a pro-human campaigning network. She is speaking at the session Child protection: Has adult paranoia gone to far? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

(1) Terracotta eco-warrior, This is London, 15 October 2007

(2) ‘In conversation’, in High Tide, Mark Lynas, Harper Perennial 2005

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