Don’t call them criminals. Don’t call them heroes. 2023 began with the action of a group of Last Generation activists who in Rome daubed the facade of the Senate with orange washable paint. A gesture that has shown us once again, perhaps definitively, how the way climate activists communicate in Italy and in Europe has changed. More radical, more provocative gestures. Bigger and bigger performances: the soup on Van Gogh, to be clear, was just an appetizer.
Does defacing artwork help the cause of environmentalists?
The communication strategy can be read as follows: the media saturation is answered with the escalation of gestures. Let’s try to reflect. In 2018 a little Swedish girl sits outside the Swedish parliament holding a placard. A revolutionary gesture, that of Greta Thunberg, which gives birth to youth movements for the climate. Demonstrations and strikes followed, bringing millions and millions of boys and girls to the streets. If in recent years we talk about the climate with greater care and act with greater awareness, it is thanks to them. Then the pandemic arrived, those squares emptied, the media perhaps even got bored. Meanwhile governments and companies were still doing too little for the climate. Then the activists got even more angry, feeling powerless and underrepresented: they started demonstrating in a different way. Fewer people, higher media impact.
Hunger strikes, roadblocks, colorful masks and dances. There are even boys who set themselves on fire to body parts. 2022 was the year of the smeared paintings. Each action must be more serious than the previous one, to fulfill that narrative promise typical of any story. Just like the blockbuster sagas of Hollywood. With each new film the enemy must be bigger, the final battle more global. But just like in the cinema, growth cannot be infinite. Otherwise it empties of content and becomes pure form. Manneristic performance, chasing excess for its own sake. We have to remember that in the last elections the most climate-conscious parties are also the ones that got the least votes. And that environmental movements are getting smaller and smaller, nuclear. They even appear to compete with each other: Ultima Generazione has surpassed all the other groups in terms of media. The washable paint used was orange, not ambient green (or Fridays for future green), not black like fossil fuels and the interests of politicians and businesses. The group explains that orange is the color of emergency, but at the same time it is the color of their graphics. They signed the action with their colours. The medium is the message. The medium is the message.
In this sense, the Senate simply looks like a bigger picture. And then one wonders: what will come after the Senate? How many more times will the “provided we talk about it” rule apply? Provocation is a communication tool that has worked very well in the mass media in recent decades. But it is a system that is increasingly creaking: Donald Trump teaches it, who won the first election but lost the second; Elon Musk shows it every day, who has lost his charm as a prodigy entrepreneur with exaggerations. And Greta Thunberg herself – who last November announced a step back so as not to personalize the environmental mission too much – and Extinction Rebellion, which on December 31 on its English website announced its intention to pause the disruptive actions, are well aware of this public. “They divide too much,” write the British activists, “it didn’t work.” “Now we seek dialogue.”
But the action in the Senate also offers us another level of interpretation, as the activists themselves have made clear. If roadblocks get in the way of ordinary citizens, and spark criticism; if the staining of the paintings attacks art and beauty, and triggers criticism; then you have to blame those directly involved, to reduce the collateral damage. Skip the intermediaries and go straight to the bad guys: politicians, the Senate, the Government, or the most polluting companies. If we are in this climate emergency situation, the responsibility lies with their inaction. We need to take note of it and repeat it, make it understood also through the contradictions of the protest. Protest, by definition, is uncomfortable and can seem wrong, excessive. A comfortable protest is useless. Our history, progress in the fields of rights is studded with acts of disobedience.
“They are actions carried out to bring attention to the collective suicide we are heading towards”, explains Ultima Generazione. There are those who don’t think so: too divisive, too scenic. It can be difficult these days to say and feel like environmentalists if the environmentalists are the Last Generation ones, a small group that makes a huge noise. Environmentalism one would think, needs heroes. Of good examples that inspire. Of leadership. Of leading figures. Is there only performative activism left to make a difference?
But if there are those who do not feel represented, many people have applauded the action and offered support. The last generation has been defended by other climate movements, even in the face of those who hypothesize a fracture in the environmental front. Fridays for future on social media replies: “Performative actions have always been a fundamental part of all activism, why does it surprise us right now? Faced with a media apparatus that neglects global problems and chases novelty, it is inevitable to experiment with new methods, we are well aware that if we activists are not the ones to draw attention to the climate crisis, the media as well as politics will ignore the issue and its seriousness.And it is equally natural that different movements experiment with different methods, but this does not mean they compete, rather in on various occasions we converge and give each other support. The radicalization of practices does not mean becoming dangerous or necessarily emptying a message, it is also very much up to the media to use these actions as a hook to deepen the claims of the movements”.
And Fridays suggests: “It would be nice to read more articles that delve into what drives activists to deface a building or block a road rather than wondering whether or not they’ve lost their minds.” An idea that gives way to address another issue: the disproportionate criminalization of the gesture. We can discuss all we want about method, strategy, activism, we can argue about what is environmentalism and what is not, and even think that she has lost her mind. But the boys and girls of the latest generation cannot be treated as terrorists. The parade of statements and threats received from political forces, especially those of the government coalition, is aberrant. And draw a future where dissent is repressed. Every act of disobedience brings with it consequences. Activists know this. But the response must be proportionate, appropriate and democratic. In this, solidarity with Last Generation must be total. A healthy society responds to protest and dissent with more democracy, not less.
More democracy, more debate. These days we should not only talk about the latest generation of washable ink. But also of these crazy temperatures that Europe is experiencing. We experienced the hottest January 1 on record in Italy. In eight countries of the Old Continent the national records for the maximum temperatures in January have been broken. We come from years of temperature records. It’s not good weather, it’s climate collapse. Yet we pollute relentlessly and do very little to eliminate fossil fuels from our lives. The inaction of governments, the indifference of companies, the lack of attention of individuals: of course we are talking about climate change, everyone knows him by now. But he talks about it too little. The world of media and politics have many faults. But not all: dirtying the Senate has made people talk about it but not about the climate emergency. The engine that transforms desires and eco-anxieties into political demands is completely jammed. We all have to take responsibility for a story that no longer works: the escalation of performances does not correspond to a wave of awareness. It’s time to look for other ways. Let’s do it together.