Friday morning shortly after 11 o’clock, four activists from the environmental group Ultima Generazione They fired Eight kilograms of flour on a car painted by the American artist Andy Warhol in 1979, and exhibited in Milan at the Fabrica del Vapore in the exhibition “Andy Warhol: Declaration of Figure”. They stick their hands to the floor and remain seated in front of the work until the police arrive, responding to the criticisms and in some cases insults of several people in the hall. “They’ll take us to the police station, but I’m not afraid,” an activist told a woman who pointed a finger at her, accusing her of denying her Warhol art. “In Italy we don’t talk enough about climate change: I am more afraid of this. Look what we are forced to do for the future of our country.
At the beginning of November, activists from the same organization threw vegetable soup at a work by Van Gogh called “The Sower”, which was exhibited at Bonaparte’s Palace in Rome. Similar initiatives have been announced in many other countries by groups such as Just Stop Oil in the UK and Letzte Generation in Germany. In recent months activists of the last generation They blocked it Several times through the GRA, the Ring Road, one of the busiest roads in Rome. All these actions provoked very strong reactions both among the people present at the moment of the protest and among those who had read news of it.
Several activists have been insulted, kicked and dragged, dragged across the asphalt to the side of the road or out the door of a museum, as happened on Friday in Milan. There were also many insults and criticisms online.
It was all foreseeable and part of the plans: Anger is a positive sign, activists say, because the aim of the measures is to stir up conflict, creating enough disruption to make it impossible to ignore the effects of climate change. According to Ultima Generazione, protests succeed when they force millions of people to start discussing climate, including by confronting the legality of their actions.
In recent weeks it has been expressed Several doubts On how extreme climate action is perceived and understood by most people, but among the groups that organize it there is widespread frustration with the poor results obtained by the peaceful demonstrations organized in recent years. Faced with the so-called activist dilemma—that is, the choice between moderate measures that are largely ignored or more extreme forms of protest that attract attention and at the same time risk being counterproductive—Ultima Generazioni chose the second solution with tenacity and conviction, even at the cost of receiving insults. and complaints. No more time for moderation, campaigners say. In short, getting used to receiving hate is part of the strategy.
Ultima Generazione has been in existence in Italy since the end of April and defines itself as a “non-violent civil disobedience campaign”. About a hundred activists take part in the proceedings. They are men and women of different ages and social classes. Many of them have been part of other environmental movements such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Fridays For Future (FFF). Compared to the last two organizations, Ultima Generazione has chosen to pursue more radical forms of protest in both language and action, following the example of Just Stop Oil.
The requests to the Italian government during each garrison or siege are very concrete: immediately stop the reopening of the decommissioned coal plants and cancel the new drilling project for the search for and extraction of natural gas; Move forward immediately to increase available solar and wind energy by at least 20 GW and create thousands of new jobs in the renewable energy sector. “Concrete requests, within the reach of the government, serve to force an uncomfortable theme: we demand realistic targets to highlight the limits of politics,” explains Michele, one of the spokesmen for Ultima Generazione.
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At the same time, those who work in coal plants and drilling are considered “obvious” targets, because the real goal of the organization is another, more ambitious goal: to create confidence in civil disobedience, and in this way to push public opinion to consider climate change. It is an urgent problem, which must be solved as soon as possible through more decisive interventions by governments and a more sustainable organization of productive and economic activities.
The most cited political and philosophical references by activists are Mahatma Gandhi and his associates satyagraha, or “true power” or “power of love”, this is the principle on which nonviolent struggle is based. “Our goal is to impose a subject on public opinion: to do so there is no more time for the ‘soft’ road and for this we are forced to do things we do not want to do, such as blocking roads,” says Michelle. “For us, there is no bad publicity. Talking about a topic means making people emotionally attached to something. If they relate to us, that is fine, otherwise they will still discuss the problems we are talking about.”
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On Friday morning, a few minutes before entering the Fabrica del Vapore, the four activists embraced each other for strength. Even the throwing of flour on Warhol’s car, as well as all the other procedures, had been carefully worked out in the previous days: how to enter the room, when to throw the flour, how to react to possible insults and what to say to the man. the police. “Organizing the business in this way gives me a lot of peace of mind,” says one activist. “Personally, I bring myself to think a lot about nonviolence and how to act in the face of nonviolent conflict, hypothesizing different scenarios.”
Last generation activists spend a lot of time on how to deal with the reaction of people who cause them discomfort, even with the help of private trainers. One method is silence, which in some situations can be seen as an insult or a manifestation of indifference, and can provoke further anger. Another possibility is what is called “active listening”, that is, observing verbal and non-verbal messages that must be answered appropriately to show attention to the personal problem. A stuck motorist, for example, can be answered by saying that he is right and that he deserves more respect. There is an awareness among activists of the need to show empathy and listen, without responding to insults, which is driving the discussion about the cause of the protest.
This strategy is also drawn from the example of Gandhi, the main inspiration for an author The power of nonviolence, a 1934 book by Richard Gregg, was highly influential among American civil rights activists who began organizing segregation protests in the 1940s. Gregg, a Quaker lawyer, described the strategy as “ethical ju-jitsu”: by expecting physical resistance and receiving none, the opponent is eliminated as in martial arts.
Eos, the name given to herself by one of the activists who took part in the Milan protest, says that in recent years she has participated in numerous meetings and demonstrations for the climate, distributed leaflets, and spoken at schools and universities, but none of these others. Awareness-raising methods had tangible effects: they received less media attention than more radical measures and provoked little reaction among public opinion.
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The organized mobilizations of recent years have failed to remove what Eos calls “soft climate denial,” the belief that climate change, while real and documented, will only have an effect in the somewhat distant future. “There is still an illusion that changes can happen gradually, and in fact the only way to break the bubble of this supposed normality is to generate conflict,” he explains. There is already a struggle in our society, particularly between the need to reorganize society to face the climate crisis and the fact that a policy is being pursued that ignores these issues. Unfortunately, this struggle is still not very visible.
This strategy carries risks: actions, especially those organized against works of art, the media and public opinion can focus more on the activists than on the causes they support, feeding the perception that they fall under a specific form of “performance” activism, and moving it further. The narcissism of the protesters is more than a real attachment to the cause.
Then there is another possible limit regarding the efficacy of nonviolent civil disobedience in a region with widespread impacts such as climate change: the hoped-for awareness of public opinion can happen too slowly to have real consequences. This fear underlies more radical positions supported by a minority of activists, especially in northern European countries where environmental organizations have long been present.
Swedish ecologist Andreas Malm published it last year How to blow up a pipeline (Ponte alle Grazie, translated by Vincenzo Ostuni), article arguing that vandalism is an acceptable form of activism and that climate activists should step up their campaigns by abandoning nonviolent civil disobedience.
However, Ultima Generazione has made nonviolence its principle and does not plan to abandon it. “Every violent revolution has led to the deterioration of democracy,” says Michelle. The problem is that when food shortages start, people will start to act politically violent. We want to warn everyone about these dangers: let’s create discomfort without hurting or insulting anyone.”
The radicalization of environmental militancy has already begun in part, especially abroad: last April Just Stop Oil activists They are damaged Petrol pumps on the M25 motorway near London. Many tankers have been forcibly stopped and no less than 275 activists have been arrested. Last week in Italy, another yet more cautious environmental group organized an even more dangerous action: Extinction Rebellion blocked Bridge in Bologna, while Rome climate strikes break in At Ciampino airport to close the private aircraft terminal.
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