laura conti: ecology and class

In Belgium, author and professor Geert Buelens recently won the Boon-literatuurprijs for his book on ‘the almost forgotten climate awareness of 1972′. (The Boon Literary Prize is named after 20th century socially engaged author Louis Paul Boon.) I have not read Wat we toen al wisten. De vergeten groene geschiedenis van 1972 (What we knew then – The forgotten green history of 1972), but I have read the prologue edited by the author and published in the weekly De Groene Amsterdammer January 2022. On the magazine’s website, that article is announced as follows: ‘In 1972, we already knew that the planet was in danger. Why did we do nothing?’

We – who is ‘we’? I don’t feel addressed by that at all – I’ll come back to that later. Apart from that, of course, there were people in the 1970s who were already developing an ecological consciousness and trying to act accordingly. To escape for a moment from the Anglo-Saxon dominated discourse on environmental justice, it is good to look at the discussions and practices that took place in Europe at that time. And I am not thinking then about the Club of Rome, but about someone as Laura Conti, for example, who made the link between environmentalism (ambientalismo), public health and class struggle in Italy.

Laura Conti (1921-1993) was an Italian resistance fighter, doctor, politician and writer. You’ll find more information and some photos on Wikipedia. In 1977 she published two texts: the comprehensive pamphlet Che cos’è l’ecologia: Capitale, lavoro e ambiente (What is Ecology: Capital, Labour and the Environment) and the report Visto da Seveso: L’evento straordinario e l’ordinaria amministrazione (Seen from Seveso: the extraordinary event and the ordinary administration).

Seveso 1976

On 10 July 1976, a large cloud of the toxic substance dioxin (TCDD) leaks from the ICMESA chemical plant north of Milan. A large area around the plant is immediately contaminated, particularly the town of Seveso.  At the time, Conti is a member of the then-powerful Partito Comunista italiano (PCI) and on the board of the Lombardy region. In Visto da Seveso, she describes not only the environmental impact of the disaster, but also how migrant workers and their families are particularly affected, and how the government seems to be unable or unwilling to respond to the interests and needs of the affected population. In detail, Conti shows how decisions are made at different levels and in different fields that make the environmental and social disasters inextricably linked.

First, after the explosion, it becomes clear that the Seveso company – and indeed the other major chemical companies in the area – were even before the disaster fully aware of the risks and potential toxic consequences of an accident. Once the accident happened, no one seemed to be in any hurry to inform the public about the damage that dioxin could cause to people, plants and animals. After the leak was discovered, the company was able to continue working as usual for ten days before people began to realise the seriousness of the situation. It also took a long time to clear the affected area, partly because it was initially denied that the dioxin would have harmful physical effects on workers and the population, especially pregnant women. The slowness and inconsistency of information, the repeated attempts to minimise the impact of the disaster and the lack of coordination between the various authorities involved meant that those who were eventually evicted began to return to their homes in October, even before the contamination had actually been removed.

The people who lived and worked in Seveso, but also in surrounding communities such as Cesena Maderno, Meda or Desio, were largely immigrants from the south of Italy or from Veneto, the poor region bordering Slovenia. They were building a new life in the immediate vicinity of the factories, and it is striking how in Conti’s report they complain about the lack of solidarity on the part of the local population. In other words, the affected population was largely dependent on factory work, and Conti notes that the protests were primarily against the failing government rather than the company that caused the disaster. For the workers and their families, therefore, the problem was primarily one of income and housing; pollution and environmental policy were not at the forefront of their reactions.

For Conti, however, Seveso made it clear that environmental politics and class struggle could not be separated, and that only by fighting on both fronts simultaneously living and working conditions could be improved. Industrialisation under a capitalist system, she wrote, was responsible for the exploitation of one human being by another, as well as for the exploitation of nature by man. The importance of habitats to people and the way they interact with them culturally implied that, for Conti, there was no point in trying to preserve or care for ecosystems without also defending the well-being of their inhabitants. Consequently, she co-founded from within the PCI the Lega per l’ambiente (later Legambiente), an association that would not only focus on nature conservation, but also on issues such as nuclear energy, hunting policy, health care and abortion.

The latter topic is partly inspired by the Seveso movement. In the months following the disaster, it becomes clear that dioxin has toxic effects, not only on adults and children in general, but particularly on pregnant women and their foetuses.  Contamination can lead to spontaneous abortion and the substance can cause cancer and malformations. At the time, Italy is still debating whether to allow abortion in general, but in early September it is announced that hospitals will be allowed to perform ‘therapeutic abortions’ on women who request them, provided they come from the dioxin area and are within the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. However, it soon becomes clear that in the midst of the fierce national abortion debate, both Catholic health institutions and many doctors are systematically opposing the abortion option. Even part of the population concerned, themselves predominantly Catholic and doubtful about the moral acceptability of abortion, is persuaded by campaigns to minimise the cancer and deformity causing properties of dioxin. Conti notes that the bodies of the women of Seveso, who are already living in a confused state of fear, poverty, economic and family insecurity, become the battleground of an ideological struggle. For her, these are the clear political and ethical dimensions of what elsewhere is simply described as an environmental disaster. Dioxin exposure is not neutral, she writes; it does not affect everyone in the same way, and she makes clear how gender discrimination and the marginalised social position of migrant workers permeate approaches to the problem.

What is ecology?

Around the same time as the Seveso report, Laura Conti publishes the 150 pages of Che cos’è l’ecologia: Capitale, lavoro e ambiente. For her, ecology is both a science and the awareness « that there is a future, a responsibility for that future ». Ecology is therefore inseparable from politics – politics in the sense of the art of governing and as the art of living as a community. That way, ecology is a field of struggle, or more precisely, of class struggle. The struggle for the environment encompasses the workers’ struggle for a clean working environment, for healthy living and working conditions – and vice versa: public health requires a clean environment. In contemporary terms, one would say that in Laura Conti’s approach the material and discursive aspects of environmentalism, feminism, workers’ interests, science and knowledge all add up to what she calls l’ecologia. Ecology is science, politics and ethics all in one, inherently intersectional – not intersectionality of identities (there was hardly any of that in the 1970s), but intersectionality of goals.

So again, who is this ‘we’ of ‘why did we do nothing’? Laura Conti, Seveso and Legambiente were not isolated cases. Closer to home, for example, in the same period, near Antwerp, there was the problem of lead poisoning caused by Metallurgy Hoboken. A factory right next to the residential area of Moretusburg, where people and animals, houses and gardens and streets were contaminated by the heavy metal waste that flew freely from the factory site into the neighbourhood. Here too, the first victims were the factory workers and the people living in the housing estate around the industrial site. This is where the group practice of Geneeskunde voor het volk (Medicine for the People) was born. Here, too, it soon became clear that capitalism was equally responsible for the exploitation of the working population and the abuse of the environment. And also that class is the primary angle from which to analyse environmental problems, and that pollution should be tackled from a class perspective. Both Seveso and Moretusburg showed that ‘politics’ will only act when the pressure from the affected population becomes strong enough.

Moreover, and on a personal note, I am sure I was not the only one who, from the early 1970s onwards, opted for an ecologically responsible lifestyle, as far as possible and as far as was known at the time. The influence of the ‘counterculture’ was also felt in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Germany. Housing, food, mobility, pacifism, education, gender relations… there were countless areas in which people sought an ‘alternative’, both personally and politically. And these alternatives were almost always more or less in line with the ecology that Laura Conti was trying to formulate. So those who identify with the ‘we’ of ‘why didn’t we do anything’ identify first and foremost with established politics, not with those directly affected, the people who lived and worked in or around the industrial pollution, or those who were searching an ‘alternative’.

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