A tale of two Italys

A furious row over competing projects - one to build a flood barrier for Venice, the other to constr

When it comes to grand infrastructure projects, Italy rarely seems in a hurry. In the north, a plan to save Venice by means of a gigantic, multi billion-euro flood barrier system has been under discussion for 30 years. In the south, a plan to link Sicily to the Italian mainland by means of a gigantic, multibillion-euro suspension bridge has been under discussion for even longer.

Now, at long last, there is movement in both cases: it appears that the flood barrier system will be built, and the bridge won't. Why that should be so is a tale that offers insights into several aspects of modern Italy - the relationship between the central government in Rome and the outlying regions, the environmentalist movement, organised crime, the shaky public finances, and the contempt in which left and right hold each other.

The two projects were championed by the centre-right government of Silvio Berlusconi, who was prime minister from June 2001 to May 2006. They were the centrepieces of a charac teristically ambitious ?125.8bn (£85.5bn) programme to which Berlusconi committed his government, and which aimed to modernise Italy's crumbling infrastructure. The problem is real: Italy's expenditure on infrastructure, especially road and railway networks, has fallen far behind the western European average over the past 25 years. Yet it was never entirely clear where Berlusconi was going to get the money from. Italy's public debt, which is close to ?1.8trn and the world's third-highest in absolute terms, is larger than the nation's annual economic output. Funds for stupendous public investment schemes are stretched, to say the least.

All this emerged when Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition came to power a month after defeating Berlusconi in last April's general election. Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, Prodi's finance minister, told Italians that the cost of Berlusconi's projects had boomed to ?173.4bn (£118bn), but that the government had only ?58.4bn (£40bn) available. Hard choices were necessary; some projects would have to be ditched.

One could have been the Venice flood barrier system, otherwise known as Moses (the name conjures up biblical images of the parting of the Red Sea, but stands in Italian, more prosaically, for "experimental electromechanical module"). Massimo Cacciari, the mayor of Venice, disliked Moses. So did Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, leader of the country's Green Party and Prodi's new environment minister.

Various non-Italian conservation groups, not to mention many ordinary Venetians, were no more enthusiastic about Moses. On 2 February, four members of the European Parliament arrived in Venice to complain that Moses was "disastrous" and had "tremendous economic and environmental costs".

Yet Venice is a wonder of civilisation. Its artistic and architectural treasures are priceless. Some 60,000 people visit it every day. To the rest of the world, Venice defines something quintessentially Italian, even something magnificent and melancholy about mankind in general. It is irreplaceable. Moreover, the city's survival is genuinely threatened. Water levels have slowly gone up since the 1700s and there are even fears that, towards the end of this century, Venice may sink because of the rising Adriatic Sea. Some risks may be linked to global warming, some to the accumulation of silt in the Venetian lagoon, and some to the extraction of methane gas from the nearby sea. Whatever the causes, St Mark's Square, the lowest point in the city, already gets flooded dozens of times a year.

To prevent a catastrophe, Moses envisages the installation of 79 steel barriers, 20 metres wide and up to 28 metres high, that will be fixed to the seabed and rise up to seal Venice's lagoon from the Adriatic when high tides are forecast. If all goes smoothly, the barriers will be operational by 2011 or 2012.

The Prodi government, concluding that action was needed, undertook a brisk review of Moses and announced last November that it would go ahead. The decision was relatively easy to take, in the sense that preliminary work on the barriers had already begun three years earlier.

Yet there were other considerations, too. It helped that, unlike the Sicilian bridge plan, Moses was not tainted by the actual or suspected involvement of the Mafia. Prodi also felt a need to make clear, to environmentalists and to the many irksome local authorities which regularly obstruct central government proposals, that he would not back down on an issue where he deemed the national interest to be at stake.

Finally, although Berlusconi had identified his government with Moses and had personally visited Venice in May 2003 to inaugurate the project, it was never a specifically centre-right initiative. To proceed with Moses gave the lie to the oft-heard accusation from Berlusconi and his supporters that the centre left lacked vision and automatically said "no" to big infrastructure projects. Moses may cost at least ?4.3bn (£3bn), but in the final analysis Prodi's government considers it money well spent.

By contrast, it was clear from the moment of Prodi's election victory that the Sicilian bridge was doomed. Scarcely had Alessandro Bianchi been appointed Prodi's transport minister than he called the bridge "the most useless and damaging project in Italy of the past hundred years".

Such strong language is explained by the bitterness of Italian political rivalries - as well as the inescapable presence of the Mafia in Sicilian life. Berlusconi and the centre right swept Sicily in the 2001 general election, winning all 61 of its parliamentary seats. In last year's election, when Italy switched to a proportional representation system, Berlusconi's coalition thumped Prodi's alliance by 57.9 per cent to 41.9 per cent in Sicily. However, the Italian south as a whole voted for Prodi. What made Sicily different?

According to Antonio Giuffrè, a Cosa Nostra boss who co-operated with Italian prosecutors after his arrest in 2002, the main reason why Berlusconi has done well in Sicilian elections is that the Mafia decided, after the collapse of the locally dominant Christian Democrats in the early 1990s, to throw its weight behind his Forza Italia party. Votes would be traded for favours.

Passionate support

Forza Italia dismisses such allegations as rubbish, and certainly there is no proof of a formal arrangement involving Cosa Nostra. One should also remember that the testimony of Mafia bosses is often self-serving and unreliable. Be that as it may, three facts stand out.

First, Berlusconi and his centre-right allies were the bridge's most passionate supporters. It was during Berlusconi's premiership that the project took a big step forward when an Italian-led consortium won a ?3.88bn (£2.64bn) contract in October 2005 to build it.

Second, Salvatore Cuffaro, president of Sicily's regional government, who is also a big supporter of the bridge, was sent for trial in November 2004 for alleged collusion with the Mafia. Cuffaro, who maintains his innocence, belongs to Berlusconi's centre-right coalition. In spite of his court case, he was re-elected last May.

Last, anti-Mafia investigators in Italy and abroad thwarted an attempt by the Mafia to muscle in on contracts tied to the bridge when, in February 2005, they arrested a construction engineer in Rome and three other people in Canada, France and the UK. The arrests underlined how vulnerable such an expensive public works project is to Mafia penetration.

There were other dangers as well. The Strait of Messina, which separates Reggio Calabria on the Italian mainland from the Sicilian town of Messina, is where Homer imagined Odysseus and his men sailing between the monstrous duo of Scylla and Charybdis. It is an earthquake-prone area where a tremor killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people in 1908.

Stretto di Messina, the Italian company running the project, says that the bridge, which would have a central span of 3.3 kilometres, making it the world's longest suspension bridge, could withstand a quake of 7.1 on the Richter scale - a threshold roughly as high as the 1908 tremor. Not all geologists are convinced, however. Some fret that the bridge would not, in any case, survive Sicily's slow but irreversible drift away from the mainland.

A final argument against building the bridge was that it would not be used enough to be profitable. Designers thought it should be able to handle 6,000 vehicles an hour and 200 trains a day; at present, about 9,000 vehicles cross the strait by ferry every day. Many businessmen and travellers hate the journey, partly because of long ferry queues but also because of poor road and rail connections from Messina to the rest of Sicily, and from Reggio Calabria to other parts of the Italian south. It is these connections that need substantial investment; the bridge, if ever it is to be built, can come later.

So, at least, argued the Prodi government as it slammed the door shut on the bridge project. The centre right was outraged. "It took us five years to put this together, and it took the left five minutes to destroy it," Berlusconi complained earlier this month.

However, not for the first time, Prodi may have been more in tune with the public. The Sicilian regional government launched an online poll last month to see if people wanted the bridge. It confidently expected the answer to be "yes", but in the first few days of voting, 55 per cent said "no".

So there it is: Venice gets its flood barriers, Sicily doesn't get its bridge. But only a rash person predicts anything with confidence in Italy. Prodi's government is hanging by a thread, with the narrowest of parliamentary majorities. If he falls, Berlusconi, and Sicily's bridge, could make a comeback. Equally, opposition to the Venice flood barriers could resurface.

In the end, this is the fascination, and frustration, of Italy. Arguing about something is refined into an art form. As for taking a final decision - why, that just spoils the fun.

Tony Barber is Rome correspondent of the FT

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood