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.
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
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."