Rome is scorching hot. This beautiful city is becoming unbearable for other reasons, too. Although every corner of the beaming metropolis is a monument to historical grandeur, from the Colosseum in Rione Monti to the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in San Giovanni, it is now struggling under the weight of its own contradictions.
In Via Appia, for example, bins are overflowing with rubbish, which often spills over onto the streets. The smell, especially during Italy’s increasingly sweltering summers, is overwhelming.
Meanwhile, many parts of the country are literally on fire. Since 15 June, firefighters have reportedly responded to 37,000 fire-related emergencies, 1,500 of them on 18 July alone.
A week after that, I drove between Campania, in southern Italy, and Abruzzo, in the centre of the country. Throughout the journey, I was accompanied by fire and smoke. On that day, many towns were evacuated, and thousands of acres of forests were destroyed. It will take months to assess the cost of the ongoing destruction, but it will certainly be measured in hundreds of millions of euros.
Italy is not alone. The whole of southern Europe is ablaze, as the region is experiencing its worst heatwaves in many years. Greece, Spain, Turkey and the Balkan states are fighting wildfires that continue to rage.
Across the Atlantic, the US and Canada are also trying desperately to contain their own wildfires, mostly direct outcomes of unprecedented heatwaves across North America from Vancouver to California, along with the whole of the American north-west. In June, Vancouver in Canada and Portland and Seattle in the US all set new temperature records with 118o, 116o and 108o Fahrenheit (48o, 47o and 42o Celsius) respectively.
While it is true that not all fires are a direct result of global warming — many in Italy, for example, are man-made — unprecedented increases in temperature, coupled with changes in weather patterns, are the main culprits of these unmitigated disasters.
The solution is more complex than simply having the resources and proper equipment to contain wildfires. Their impact continues to be felt for years, even if temperatures somehow stabilise. In California, which is bracing for another horrific “fire” season, the devastation of the previous years can still be felt.
“After two years of drought, the soil moisture is depleted, drying out vegetation and making it more prone to combustion,” the New York Times reported on 16 July. The problem, then, is neither temporary, nor able to be dealt with through easy fixes.
As I sat with my large bottle of water outside Caffettiamo Cafe, struggling with heat, humidity and the pungent smell of rubbish, I thought about who is truly responsible for what seems to be our new, irreversible reality. Here in Italy, the conversation is often streamlined through the same, predictable and polarised political discourse. Each party points a finger at the others, in the hope of gaining some political capital prior to the upcoming October municipal elections.
Again, Italy is not the exception. Political polarisation in Europe and the US constantly steers the conversation somewhere else entirely. Rarely are problems addressed at a macro level, independent from political calculations. The impact of global warming cannot and must not be held hostage to the ambitions of politicians, though. Millions of people are suffering, livelihoods are destroyed and the fate of future generations is at risk. In the grand scheme of things, whether the current mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, is re-elected for another term or not, is insignificant.
Writing on the Columbia Climate School website, Renee Cho highlights the obvious: the relationship between our insatiable appetite for consumption and climate change. “Did you know that Americans produce 25 per cent more waste than usual between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, sending an additional one million tons a week to landfills?” Cho asks.
This should lead us to think seriously about the existential relationship between our insatiable consumption habits and the irreparable damage we have inflicted upon mother earth.
Here in Via Appia, the contradictions are unmistakable. This is the summer sales season in Italy. Shop window signs proclaiming “Saldi” — “Sale” — are everywhere. For many shoppers, it is impossible to fight the temptation. This unhinged consumerism — both the backbone and the fault line of capitalism — comes at a high price. People are encouraged to consume more, as if such consumption has no repercussions whatsoever for the environment. Indeed, Via Appia is the perfect microcosm of this global schizophrenic attitude: people complaining about the heat and the rubbish, while simultaneously consuming beyond their needs, thus creating yet more rubbish and, eventually, worsening the plight of the environment.
Collective problems require collective solutions. Italy’s heat cannot be pinned down to a few arsonists and California’s wildfires are not simply the fault of an ineffectual mayor. Global warming is, in large part, the outcome of a destructive pattern instigated and sustained by capitalism. The latter can only survive through unhindered consumption, inequality, greed and, when necessary, war. If we continue to talk about global warming without confronting the capitalist menace that generated much of the crisis in the first place, the conversation will continue to amount to nothing. In the final analysis, all the conferences, pledges and politicking will not put out a single fire, neither in Italy nor anywhere else in the world, unless they lead to concrete changes in human attitudes and behaviour.