I was talking at the Emergency Festival in the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia about how history is not pre-written but made by the actions and choices of people acting individually and collectively. The setting could not have been more perfect. I was joining 1,000 people in the main square, in the shadow of the city cathedral that dates primarily back to the 13th century, although its 16th-century façade reflects memories of Reggio Emilia’s ancient Roman origins; it was founded in 187BC.
It’s a place that’s known a lot of history, of war, of struggle. Back when the cathedral was being built, the city was long in the grip of a struggle between the Scopazzati (noblemen) and Mazzaperlini (‘lice killers’, plebeians). A charismatic wandering hermit entered the city, gathering tens of thousands of penitent followers, and brought peace for a while.
It was a message of peace – about the possibility of choice – that was at the centre of the three-day festival, put on by Emergency, a large-scale and eminently important NGO, perhaps lesser known outside of Italy. Emergency is a humanitarian medical charity, operating primarily in war zones, such as Afghanistan (having been present continuously since 1999 and continued to work assiduously there when so few have), and some of the most deprived communities on Earth, including Sudan, Eritrea and Uganda. It aims not just to provide the basics of health care, but the best high-quality surgery and hospital care its late founder, Gino Strada, believed should be available to all. Since 1994 it has treated 11 million people.
It is also a major player in the terribly deadly refugee dance in the Mediterranean, unveiling at the festival a new rescue boat of its own, stepping in where nation states cowering behind ‘Fortress Europe’ populism have refused to live up to their humanitarian responsibilities.
Forging a regenerative path in a blighted century
The panel I spoke on, with filmmaker Malaika Vaz and Giovani Mori of the Fridays for Future movement, focused on the interaction of climate change and war. So naturally, Malaika brought up the recently launched Peace Dividend project – to get states to take a small but significant part of their arms budget and dedicate it to climate healing projects.
I focused my efforts on the individuals in the audience, who were there to do politics. I was intent on stressing that it is people gathering together at events like these, to talk, to plan, to lend support, and drive change, that will define the history of the 21st century.
Which was where the Mediterranean rescue boat came in. Because although when talking about climate change where population and the physical impacts of every individual on this planet are often talked about in negative terms – I wanted to talk about population, and people, differently.
Birth rate is, in the vast majority of nations, falling off a cliff. China may well this year be past its maximum population. And sadly, in many countries – including the richest, the United States – death rates are up and life expectancy is falling, not just because of Covid-19, also because of the rising economic and environmental turmoil of this age of shocks. We’ve seen Russian invaders in Ukraine kidnapping children, taking them to their territory and seeking to make them their own citizens in a manner replaying some of the most repugnant episodes in history.
Journeying into a future that holds refuge and promise
So when thinking about the desperate refugees in the Mediterranean, the Afghans desperately seeking refuge from a Taliban regime that hates their involvement with the former government, the children in Pakistan, whose parents are desperately seeking their family’s safety as the climate emergency-linked floodwaters rise around them, they must be seen through the eyes of compassion. They are not ‘problems’ to be fenced off from ‘us’ with walls and warships.
They are human beings – with the tremendous creative potential, talents and abilities to be found in every one of us. The world needs them to be allowed to flourish, develop and thrive, to tackle the multiple emergencies – economic, social, political, educational and environmental – that we collectively face. That means supporting restoration of their societies, wracked by centuries of colonial and neocolonial destruction, so people do not have to leave their homes; most people don’t want to. But it also means welcoming the refugees who have to flee, not trying to thrust them away.
What we must surely achieve, we must surely achieve together
The far-right approach that would do so is mired in the 20th century, is wedded to – and supported by – our current economic powerhouses, multinational companies and giant media tycoons. It is for the few. The only way we’re going to get through this difficult century is to make our societies work for all, to allow all to contribute.
The modern beauties of Reggio Emilio – a calm, clearly prosperous and beautiful city, its central streets thronging with pedestrians and cyclists, its fancy new train station linking it to the rest of Europe – show what can be achieved by people getting together to build communities. The festival audience – cheering heartily whenever #RefugeesWelcome was said – demonstrated it wanted that unity to extend far beyond Reggio Emilio’s ancient walls. It’s a spirit that’s spreading, the only spirit fit for these difficult times.