by Sergio Vazzoler

It was easy to predict: the appeal from many quarters (not just from environmentalists) for greater discussion of green issues during the election campaign has gone unheard. This column foresaw the outcome, although we launched a list of 10 good reasons to talk about the environment in the months before the elections. Our viewpoint was as communicators, accused too often of all-out greenwashing, whereas PR specialists can actually be agents and accelerators of change (see this article from The Guardian published in our World Watch section).

So time has run out. But one point is worth stressing: the election debate continued to revolve around the economic crisis, unemployment, and new growth, something that looks increasingly like a chimera. This was understandable because these issues strike a chord with voters’ deepest concerns. The problem is the approach to economic questions. The focus is exclusively on taxes to be reimbursed, eliminated or reduced (depending on the politician), whereas a search for lateral or innovative solutions is hardly attempted. Starting from a problem involving the environment, infrastructure and legislation.

Again, it is evident that the political classes are out of touch with the country. The most recent emblematic example of just how convoluted the system is is the recent decision of the Pini industrial group to leave Lombardy and build its pork meat processing plant outside Italy, because it is exasperated by red tape and the protests of local environmentalists. In a region where 60,000 jobs were lost in 2012 alone, the possibility for 800 people to find permanent employment has gone up in smoke. And over the last year, countless investors have either given up on their plans or seen their activities obstructed by a series of vetoes and local protests typical of the Nimby syndrome).

This is not the place for an analysis of the merits of the individual projects; but the picture that emerges is an intolerable contradiction between the economic emergency and the bureaucratic, legislative and cultural impasse hindering potential industrial or infrastructure investments with a possible impact on the environment. There have conferences, surveys and inquiries on this for years, yet nothing has changed; the politicians seem to be entirely indifferent, and then find their hand forced when a territorial emergency occurs (the protests against the high-speed railway in the Susa Valley, the power pipeline between Calabria and Sicily, not forgetting the waste emergency in Lazio). It is true that the Minister for Economic Development Corrado Passera attempted to introduce the institute of public debate in Italy but, as usual, the end of the legislature has interrupted the passage of the bill and everything has now been put on hold.

All communicators can do is continue to highlight the contradictions and, at the same time, try to foster cultural awareness of the positive effects of institutional forms of public communication: not only does public debate anticipate problems, encourage consensus and, once a decision has been taken, accelerate implementation; above all, it achieves an effect based on the principle of communicating vessels: if contract awarders have the technical expertise, then associations, citizens’ committees and the public in general are more skilled at setting out the arguments. So, the institutionalisation of debate can help committees, associations and the public acquire greater technical expertise and encourage contract awarders to give greater attention to the discussion and simply their language.

A final point is the importance of setting an example: we need to avoid communication shortcuts and instead put the focus on careful governance of territorial relations and general and vested interests, as well as on reporting the successes that can be obtained with this approach.

Sooner or later, someone may notice…