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ultima generazione
March 23, 2023
Climate Justice

Crimes without guilt: washable paint scandalises more than the climate crisis and environmental disasters by companies in Italy

Insight by Sara Manisera, FADA collective

Let's face it: in Italy there is a problem with priorities and emergencies. The reaction of the Mayor of Florence Dario Nardella in front of the non-violent, demonstrative action of Ultima Generazione at Palazzo Vecchio - you can find a brief summary here - is illustrative of the disconnect between Italian politics, the economic system and the climate crisis. In recent decades, there have been few reactions to the environmental disasters caused by private companies and publicly owned companies, thus represented by the political class. Yet there are many contaminations and pollutions for which one should be really angry and indignant.  

Suffice it to think of Eni's refinery in Gela, the petrochemical pole in Augusta, Melilli, Priolo, or Taranto with Ilva, Piombino with Enel's thermoelectric plant and the industrial dump of hazardous waste. And then Casale Monferrato with the Eternit company, the Terra dei Fuochi between the province of Naples and Caserta, filled with toxic and non-toxic waste, which has been arriving from all over Italy for decades. And then Brescia with its quarries and the ecological disaster left by the chemical company Caffaro with arsenic and mercury in the soil and groundwater. Then there is the Eni oil centre in Val d'Agri, in Basilicata, or the PFAS contamination that has polluted half the Veneto region between Miteni and the tanning district developed between the provinces of Vicenza, Padua and Verona, including the aquifer, the second largest in Europe. Or, remaining in Florence, the toxic waste from the tanneries that ends up under the road surface with the alleged strategic alliance of the 'Ndrangheta.

How come nobody is outraged by these environmental crimes of perennial and incalculable damage that will be inherited by the next two, three, four generations? 

How much is an aquifer lost forever worth? 

And hundreds of kilometres of soil no longer fertile? 

Is this permanent environmental damage not more serious than washable paint? 

The list could go on and on, but we will stop at some of the most infamous environmental and health disasters. In recent years, thousands of people and workers have fallen ill. Thousands will fall ill in the future. But these are considered 'non-victims'. 

In academic parlance, in fact, environmental crimes are considered 'victimless crimes' because it is difficult to prove the cause-and-effect relationship on the individual, given the large-scale spread of risk factors and the multifactorial nature of pathologies. Yet, both on a factual and scientific level, the data on the impact of environmental aggression on human health are now indisputable (1). The existence of damage in terms of mortality and morbidity, i.e. the frequency of a disease in a given community, is incontrovertibly demonstrated by numerous epidemiological studies.

While data and research on the relationship between pollution and public health proliferate; liability, damages and environmental justice seem to be completely absent from the public debate. The paradox, in fact, is the difficulty in proving, at judicial level, the correlation between industrial activity, pollution and disease. In many of the cases mentioned, epidemiological studies, tumour registers are lacking, crimes are statute-barred, and others have only recently been included in the criminal code (think of the crime against the environment, law no. 68 of 2015). 

We therefore speak of 'crimes without victims' but we should also speak of 'crimes without perpetrators'. It is easy to explain why. The violent aggression that has taken place over the last fifty years against the environment and people's health has been carried out by pieces of the economy, through real corporate crimes, thanks to corrupt phenomena and a welding with mafias and environmental crime. In other words, pieces of the economy in this country, and not only in Italy - companies, multinationals, public shareholdings - have been able to grow and make a profit, thanks to the systemic destruction of the environment and people's health.

Due to a logic of profit and savings - and the absence of regulations and a perception of urgency - the costs of business have been passed on entirely to the environment and citizens, instead of being paid by the company itself. What does this mean exactly? It means that in a society based only on infinite growth and GDP as the only welfare value, the negative or positive externalities of an enterprise are never calculated by the economic system. 

Let us take the example of a kilo of bread. How good is a loaf of bread made from organically grown grains, locally, by farmers who protect the soil, the water table and who employ disadvantaged people in their businesses? Does that bread only have an economic value made up of costs and revenues, or does it have a greater value in terms of protecting the environment, groundwater and the health of citizens? 

How much, on the other hand, does a bread made with weed-free wheat grown in monoculture, from Canada or Ukraine, transported on huge ships releasing immense quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, cost the community? In the price of this bread, made thanks to economies of scale, thus lowering production costs, the negative impact is never calculated, i.e. air and water pollution, soil loss and increased health costs that, in the long run, fall on the national health service, hence on citizens. 

It is precisely from here, then, that we should start again. From the economic system and the value, not of the market - made up of demand, supply and speculation - but of the value of caring for a given good, product, service. 

The data now speak for themselves. Action must be taken, and fast. The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reiterates that climate change is causing and will cause widespread and substantial damage in almost every aspect of human life on this planet, that the impacts on future generations depend on the choices we make now, and that these impacts already affect our health, our food sources and our water. Therefore, radical and quick political choices are needed. 

But in Italy, politicians are thinking about washable paint, renewing public subsidies to fossil fuels, the bridge over the Straits of Messina, and other wretched decisions that continue to favour that kind of criminal economy: an economy where profits go into the pockets of a few and the social and environmental costs are paid by the community. If there is anything to be indignant about, it is this type of economy.

(1) See, for example, the World Health Organisation's publications on the environmental burden of disease, which estimate the impact of environmental hazards, including those resulting from pollution, on human health; again, see the European Environment Agency's annual reports on the impact of air pollution on health.

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