A recent environmental threat to a small town in southern Italy, and the people's overwhelming response to it, made me wonder if we Americans have lost our zest for protest. The spontaneous uprising by southern Italians forced the government to reverse a decision that would have designated a rural village as the country’s sole repository of nuclear waste. It all reminded me of the American 'people-power' that existed in the 1960s and1970s.

Last summer, my 85-year-old mother, my brother and his wife, my wife and I traveled to the state of Basilicata in southern Italy to see the tiny town from which my mother's parents had emigrated at the turn of the 20th century. We were captivated by the charm of our ancestral village, Colobraro, and mesmerized by the beauty of Basilicata. During our two-week stay, we toured the area extensively, spending two days in the village of Scanzano Jonico on the Ionian coast. We met relatives we never knew we had, and we learned from them that Basilicata had not changed much in centuries. A poor area, packed with steep mountains throughout, the government in the north had found little use for this rural country.

Until November 2003.

That month I received an email from one of my new-found cousins, steering me to a website, NoalNucleareinBasilicata.com. It had been created to fight the Italian government's decree that Scanzano Jonico would become the repository for the country's nuclear garbage. Although Italian citizens had voted against the production of nuclear energy back in 1987, the government decided that existing waste, as well as that produced by hospitals and universities, needed to be consolidated in one place. That place was to be Scanzano Jonico, which scientists deemed the safest site in all of Italy.

Government geologists claimed that the area near Scanzano very much resembled the geology of the WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Project) site in southern New Mexico, and they pointed out that American scientists had studied that region carefully for 25 years.

The government decree outraged Basilicatans, who rose up in immediate protest. One hundred thousand strong, they successfully shut down the state — going on strike and blocking major roads as well as the main rail link into the area.

The blockade lasted 10 consecutive days, and the fervor of the protest was such that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was forced to reverse the decision: He ordered a panel of scientists to find another site within 18 months. Berlusconi criticized his ministers for creating a populist uprising, but a few weeks later the government announced that Scanzano Jonico was still on the list of possible nuclear dumpsites.

In the early days of the protest, I sent a letter of opposition to the president of the Italian Republic, and I emailed a WIPP fact sheet — detailing ongoing problems at the New Mexico site — to the creators of the NoalNucleareinBasilicata.com website. As a result, I was invited recently to participate in an online forum dedicated to those who oppose Italy’s plan for a sole nuclear repository.

Something I noticed upon first entering the forum impressed me, something that has been noticeably absent from many recent American demonstrations: a spirit of democratic empowerment.

Southern Italians are engaged wholeheartedly in ongoing discussions about how best to preserve not only their beloved portion of Italy, but all of the country. They are creating newsletters, compiling scientific databases and linking together other websites across the country in a common cause. An overriding sentiment seems to pervade the forum: a justifiable sense of pride in their successful act of civil disobedience. A banner on the NoalNucleareinBasilicata.com homepage describes the demonstration: E' stato un grande esempio di civilita e democrazia, which means, "It was a great example of civilization and democracy."

I admire the spunk and commitment of those southern Italians who moved so quickly and decisively to protest their government's decision, and I wonder why we Americans are so slow to react of late. Is it because the Basilicatans are poor, more closely tied to the land and value what little they have, and that we are too fat, dumb and happy to be moved to similar action by imminent threats to our environment?

Perhaps the sheer number of crises that threaten our country have divided us so that we are unable to speak with a common voice. Whatever the cause, we seem to have forgotten our commitment to government "by the people."

Robert Rowley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Las Cruces, New Mexico.