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February 07, 2024
Environmental Justice

Climate is also a political issue: why we must imagine a new world to change it

The voice of Ferdinando Cotugno, interviewed by Michela Grasso and Chiara Pedrocchi

The voice of Ferdinando Cotugno, journalist for Domani and author of "Primavera Ambientale".

Q: How has the narrative of the climate crisis changed in recent years? How do you choose the words to reach everyone?

A: The narrative of the climate crisis has changed because the situation has gotten worse: 2023 was the hottest year humanity has ever faced, and 2024 will probably be worse. The climate crisis has forced itself on our attention with the non-negotiability of physical and material reality, forcing us to talk about it more and more. Furthermore, the arrival of climate movements has managed to make us visualize a problem that was known about for decades, but which was talked about rarely and badly. The birth of Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future brought huge masses to the streets all over the world, opening our eyes and bringing climate change to the top of the political agenda. When we talk about the climate crisis, we must also tell the facts. If we talk about "zeroing emissions before 2050", we must realize how many changes this entails, and what it means to adopt this decision in a very short time frame. It is therefore important to ask ourselves: when will the energy transition happen? Will we stop burning oil when reserves are exhausted, or when the possibilities for the human species to intervene in the climate crisis end? Talking about these dilemmas is difficult, and I try to give something back to my audience, evoking a sense of possibility. I don't know if we are the last generation, but we are a generation with an enormous responsibility, and we have it exactly in the span of our lives and our actions. The transition, while too slow and contradictory, is underway, and it is something I always want to remember. The difficulty of journalism lies in reporting the crisis without falling into unbridled optimism which can be very toxic, but not even into total catastrophism.

Q: Do you think that a collective conscience on climate-related issues is active in Italy? Who are the key figures who can determine activation and action?

A: A mapping of European political tribes, aggregated according to the main concerns of the citizens of each nation, was recently published. It emerges that what worries Europeans the most are: the economic crisis, the job crisis, inflation, and the climate crisis. In Italy, unlike other countries, economic concerns outweigh climate concerns. This does not mean that Italians are not afraid of climate change, we come from a frightening 2023 where we have seen climate change with our own eyes, and there is little room left for negationism. But, in a country with very high levels of poverty, the greatest fear remains that of the immediate, and when a menu of radical changes for the energy transition arrives, people prefer clinging to the fears of the present. I believe that Italians are aware of climate change, but do not have the tools to decode it. They struggle to say "there is a change underway which implies fears, but it also implies opportunities to unlock hierarchies, and change this country". In Italy, we have very strong activism, from Fridays For Future to Ultima Generazione, with a great impact on public imagination and discussion. Let us then remember that Italy had, at a certain point, the largest Fridays For Future movement in Europe, this is the legacy of a country where there has always been a strong civil and environmentalist society. But no party can translate this great and existing propensity for caring for the territory and the environment into politics. Unfortunately, those involved in politics lack basic preparation, the political class is not environmentalists and is ignorant about the topic. Furthermore, there are many entities with the possibility of bringing real change, but who avoid doing so: large banks that are highly exposed to fossil fuel financing, and energy companies such as Eni and Enel. Let's think of Eni, a state-owned company that instead of being controlled by the State, controls the State and even makes its foreign and energy policy, therefore, instead of being agents of change they become an obstacle to change. And finally, we are a country with little political participation, and this makes addressing climate change difficult.

​​Q: What do you think of the nonviolent activism we have witnessed in 2023, for example, that of Ultima Generazione? Do you think it is effective or not?

A: The actions of Ultima Generazione have had a very strong mediatic impact and demonstrate their skill in maneuvering the media system, bringing this topic where there was nothing before. I think that these actions are too isolated and that the Italian climate movements are too divided. If the actions of Ultima Generazione were also supported by protests and demonstrations, because not everyone feels like being arrested, this could create a joint front for speaking to casual observers, not only to those who are already mobilized. The great challenge is precisely being able to get out of the bubble, approaching those who do not have a political life but need politicians who can look after their interests because the climate is also a political issue. But I, a casual observer, can perceive Ultima Generazione as an isolated group of people setting up roadblocks, I perceive them as crazy people. Instead, if together with these actions I also see a large movement of support and supporters, I perceive the political value of their actions. Right now, these actions risk turning into a waste of human potential, because these activists then face trials and prison. There is human pain, a sacrifice that should not be lost but valorized.

Q: Do you believe that “blowing up a pipeline,” as Malm advocates for, is more effective than nonviolent activism?

A: Reading his book, and listening to his interviews, I always think that his big problem is being Swedish. He is a person who does not understand what the consequences are within a society of violence. In Italy we have a long history of political violence and our history teaches us that there is no political violence on which we can have high or theoretical discussions. There are contexts in which violence has had an effect in human history. But, in the Italian context, political violence on environmental issues, even in the form of sabotage, risks dispersing the political and moral capital accumulated in recent years. The fossil fuel industry is waiting for nothing else, it is they who are hoping that someone will start putting bombs at petrol pumps, to present themselves to society as victims of the irrationalities of others. And if there's one thing that Malm doesn't understand, it's how uncontrollable the violence is. He describes it as very hygienic, clean, and efficient. We could even say that it is immoral but effective, yet in this case, it would be completely ineffective and would set us back in the public debate.

D: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism", says Mark Fisher. You often talk about imagination as a necessary tool to tackle the climate crisis: do you still have faith in the future? How do you imagine the world beyond the ecological transition?

A: I have hope, but I don't know if I have faith, that depends on the day. I don't lose hope, because it is an active and political feeling, while faith and optimism are reactive. I enter the world saying "I want to be active" and to be active I have to believe that it makes sense. Hope is a very precious political feeling, and I cultivate it with great difficulty. I can't imagine the world beyond the transition, and this is part of the problem: we know what society we want to give up, but we don't know in which direction we are going and the discussion on the climate is often a discussion made on deadlines. Science tells us what we need to do within a given year, but we don't know what will be, for example, beyond 2050. The contribution of social sciences, art, literature, and politics is missing, and this requires a great effort of imagination: to change the world, we must know which world we want to go towards. It would have great political significance to begin imagining the future and it is an invitation that I make to everyone. We already have the drive of fear, but we lack desire and imagination. Activism must commit much more to this because there must be responses capable of attracting, let's think of the twentieth-century movements and the very specific visions they had of the future. Only in this way can we stimulate a dialogue on the essence of our life, on the economic system, on the balance between free time and work, on the composition of the society we want.

Q: Earlier you talked about the splits within the environmental movement, do you think the same discussion is also applicable to the various social justice movements active in Italy?

A: The various movements need to talk to each other more and better. Some experiments demonstrate the willingness to try, protesting together. As in the case of the convergence between the climate movements and the movement of the former GKN in Campi Bisenzio: an occupied factory that is trying to become a transition model. Uniting the movements would be a precious method to be able to speak to more people and give the idea to those outside the bubble, to those who have political problems but do not have a political life, that an alternative that responds to our existential needs exists. If there is anyone who should give me a broad and not narrow reading, it is not environmentalists or feminists, but a single inclusive movement. Intersectionality must not become an evident content but a method. I can't go into society saying "I am an intersectional movement", because then people look at me but don't know what I'm talking about. Intersectionality must be a way of perceiving oneself, of dialogue, of making someone else's causes one's own, and at the same time of taking my causes and entrusting them to someone else. Intersectionality is a beautiful key to doing politics and reading reality, but it is not enough to just say you are intersectional, because it is not content, but something that must be put into practice.

Q: Why don't environmental activists translate their movements into a political party? Does such a political reality exist?

A: No, because at a certain point, the environmental movements clashed with reality: after all the activation done in recent years, the first major elections since their existence arrived and Meloni won, a negationist political cultural area won. And so it comes naturally to ask where everything that has been built ended up. At the moment there are small local experiments of people who, from climate activism, have entered city councils. As in the case of the "Brescia Attiva" list, which came directly from the schools. Unfortunately, it is not yet a systemic process, because in Italy there is a great barrier to the emergency of new figures. This derives from the fact that one cannot express one's preferences, and therefore choose people. In Italy, it is also very difficult to build a party from scratch. We are a country where politics is fast-paced, where one election is quickly followed by another even more important one. So it's about dialogue with the parties, keeping in mind your own identity, and trying to get into it a little. I believe that climate movements must try to dialogue with parties and not be afraid of them because parties are an irreplaceable tool for public participation. Among the activists, some people have practically grown up in the climate movements and there are people who are much better prepared than most of our parliamentarians, and it is right that they can engage with politics. We are trying but there is a lot of resistance, the Italian parties are gerontocratic, difficult to change, and distrustful. But this work is indispensable because where there are institutions, real actions can be taken.

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