The Drought in Turin

Rees Nicolas

Striking Fiat workers in Turin in the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969

I arrived in Turin on a dull February morning to find a city preoccupied with meteorological portents. There’d been no rain or snow since early December: a dry spell that would last 110 days all told. There were unseasonal wildfires on Monte Musinè, which had all but lost its winter coat of white, with the more distant Alps following suit. Hydrographic readings at Lago Maggiore were low for the time of year, and trending sharply downwards. Most worrying, the River Po was unusually lethargic, and there were whispers of a drought ravaging Italy’s northern breadbasket come the summer.

The climate movement, however, after two years of pandemic-imposed hiatus, was beginning to revive. A network of activists – from Extinction Rebellion to Non una di meno (an Italian offshoot of the Argentinian feminist group Ni una menos), from school strikers to autonomous social centres – had begun to plan for a Climate Social Camp for the last week in July. The clunkiness of the name was an indicator of the gap it wished to bridge: over the last decade, climate activists in the Global North have come to accept that the movement needs to wed environmental demands to social and economic ones. Yet the path connecting the two has remained stubbornly impassable, hampered on both sides by lingering distrust and the perception of conflicting interests. That this need not be the case was axiomatic to the organisers of the Climate Social Camp, but how the situation might change remained unclear.

Since the collapse of the old order of Italian party politics thirty years ago, several proponents of green-red populism have come and gone, but none has been able to establish itself in the country’s political life. For a moment the Five Star Movement looked capable of offering voters at least a NIMBY environmentalism coupled with modest social programmes, but its time in government was notable in part for the number of local green causes it betrayed: from the campaign against the Turin-Lyon high-speed railway in the Val di Susa to the battle for the closure of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline in Puglia.

The first planning meeting for the camp that I attended took place in a small community centre whose façade still bore the faint traces of a shop sign advertising ‘Carboni – Legna’, coal and firewood. Rather than a practical meeting, the night was given over to political discussion as part of a ‘strategic workshop’. Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline was quoted from approvingly by attendees pushing for a shift from symbolic protest to the material interruption of the carbon economy. The activists in the room need not have looked far for examples of the ‘soft sabotage’ advocated by Malm. In March, a group of residents tore out newly installed cycle racks on via Santa Giulia and dumped them on the side of the road, replacing a ‘works underway’ sign with another reading ‘the end’. They were upset at the loss of parking spaces.

Even in Italy, the EU member with the second highest rate of car ownership, Turin stands apart. It is the city with the highest number of cars per resident (63.7 per cent, compared to London’s 30 per cent). Turin is Italy’s Motor City, home since 1899 to Fiat. Still its centre of economic gravity, for much of the 20th century the manufacturer was Turin’s largest employer, at one point in the 1930s listing a third of the city’s workforce on its payroll. In 1934 Le Corbusier visited the newly-opened factory at Lingotto, praising its rooftop test track as an improvement on ‘the urban planning of our machine age’ and suggesting the time had come to imitate the ‘daring of the Fiat bosses’, proposing the construction of motorways above the roofs of residential neighbourhoods from Algiers to Rio de Janeiro.

The population boom of the postwar economic miracle required rapid urban expansion, and Turin was reborn in the image of Fiat. Yet Le Corbusier’s dream of roads in the sky gave way to a city of wide, punishing avenues and discontinuous urban satellites catering to the needs of commuting drivers and little else. It was the sprawling city-within-a-city of the Mirafiori factory, spread over two square kilometres, rather than Lingotto’s compact motorway in the sky, that became a model for the city as a whole.

The history of car manufacture has left its scars not only on the city’s design, but also its lungs. According to a study in Lancet Planetary Health, 24 of Europe’s worst 38 cities for air pollution are in Northern Italy, nearly all of them in the Po basin. Turin’s PM 2.5 and NO2 levels are among the highest in Europe. On a clear day, looking down from the surrounding hills, you struggle to see the city centre through the cloud of fumes. The area in the north-east of the city where the Climate Social Camp was to take place was already known at the start of the 20th century as ‘borgh dël fum’ (‘smoke town’).

As the date of the camp approached and organisers papered the town with posters announcing ‘the climate social rebels are coming’, the temperature climbed. On 19 July, workers at Fiat Mirafiori downed tools, citing temperatures in excess of forty degrees and an impossible work rate for a labour force with an average age of 54. On 21 July, at the parts manufacturer Dana Graziono, Luca Capelli died from a head injury after fainting from heat exhaustion. His colleagues staged a walkout and strike.

The fight against exploitation by Fiat has long been the reverse face of the company’s domination over the city. In the 1960s, a new, combative interpretation of class struggle, operaismo, took shape around an analysis of the changing composition of its working class. The ‘mass worker’, typified in the figure of the young migrant unintegrated into party or union, militated not only for improvements in wages and conditions but also against the organisation of the factory system and the society it fostered. During the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969, absenteeism, sabotage, the refusal of work, internal marches, mass picketing and occupations combined to push Fiat’s control over their workforce to the limit.

A call for a new ‘hot autumn’ in 2022 echoed across many of the discussions at the Climate Social Camp. A protest march on 27 July gave an idea of what it might look like. Demonstrators vandalised a local office of SNAM, the owner of more than 90 per cent of Italy’s gas transport and storage network and the funder of a controversial new LNG regassification terminal off the coast of Tuscany. They draped a banner reading ‘Stop Fossil Fuels’ over the offices of Intesa San Paolo, a bank with nearly $4 billion invested in the carbon industry, and set up a roadblock at the entrance to the main motorway out of Turin. Shirtless protesters riding on a fibreglass sphinx planted at the centre of the roundabout unfurled a banner: ‘Drought, heatwave, welcome to the climate crisis!’

But with only a thousand protesters, the demo fell far short of the large-scale demonstration that organisers wanted to build towards. The route to that sort of mass participation remains elusive. The hot autumn didn’t materialise, except in the most literal sense: temperatures in October were 4°C higher than the thirty-year average.

An attempt to answer the question of the missing social base came at the Climate Social Camp’s closing debate. Malm, in person this time, outlined three conventional paths into the climate movement. The first and second – learning about the science; solidarity with the struggles of those suffering the consequences of climate change – were loosely attributed to the Global North. The third – direct contact with the climate crisis – was tied more strongly to the Global South and MAPA (Most Affected People and Areas) communities.

Yet as this summer has shown, who understands themselves to be affected by fossil capitalism is a question not only of geography, but also of political analysis and organisation. The workers suffering unbearable heat on the shop floor, the rice farmers of Piedmont who lost up to 75 per cent of their crop this year amid worsening drought, the growing ranks of the fuel poor looking at unpayable energy bills and inflated food prices, the residents of Northern Italy choking on pollutants – they, too, are affected.

If environmental activists want to learn from the history of Italian workerism, and there’s good reason to think they should, then it will not be enough simply to repurpose slogans or tactics. They must also take on board its strategic lessons: in particular, the need to reconstruct the conditions that make contemporary struggle within and against fossil capitalism possible, that turn affected people into political agents, that bridge the social and the political, determining the key antagonisms of the next phase of the climate movement. After the debate, Turin was hit by its first proper night of rain in months. It was long overdue, but it wasn’t enough.

This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.