Mayor Gualtieri checking out the Trevi Fountain in Rome, Source: Rome Municipality

Trevi fountain activists made their point, but was that smart?

Trevi fountain activists made their point, but was that smart?

The entire fountain has to be emptied and cleaned, in a year when the country is gripped by drought anxiety

Yesterday, 21 May, news headlines were awash with reports that environmental activists in Rome had poured charcoal in the waters of the popular Trevi fountain in a bid to protest public subsidies for fossil fuels.

The young protesters from Ultima Generazione (Last Generation) entered the waters of the fountain and poured the black-coloured liquid before the eyes of the visitors, and apparently, before the police officers could stop them. They were eventually arrested but they had achieved their purpose by attracting media attention in line with recent incidents by European environmentalists attacking famous artworks.

All in all, the trend of doing shocking things to heritage objects as a shortcut to getting an activist message across seems to not have subsided. But it is this very radical approach that stirs controversy and may actually backfire by tarnishing what would otherwise be considered a struggle for positive change.

The controversy of climate justice action

The controversy was visible even during the Sunday incident when some of the onlookers who happened to be at the site cheered the protesters while others booed them. That is because heritage sites, such as the Trevi fountain are quite beloved and treasured by the general public and it feels like an affront to a common good by many. But it turns out there was even another dimension which maybe was not well considered.

Rome’s mayor, Roberto Gualtieri, condemned the protest not only because it was a sign of a worrying trend of attacking art treasures, but also because it was itself not very environmentally sound.

"The intervention on the fountain will be significant, it will cost time, effort and water because this is a water recycling fountain. We will have to empty it, throwing away 300,000 litres,” explained the mayor.

He then directly appealed to activists:

Don't carry out interventions of this type. You can protest, it is legitimate, even a duty. But not with a wrong, dangerous and harmful method, which affects precious common goods such as our monuments. You risk damaging them and force the public administrations to intervene in expensive restoration, with a lot of waste. It is completely counterproductive to the battle.

Mr Gualtieri noted that there is an implied, obvious contradiction between stated aims and actions. It turns out somewhat hypocritical to destroy the environment while claiming to be saving it.

This is even more pronounced given that Italy and the Mediterranean region of Europe have been suffering from a drastic and prolonged drought. Even the recent floods that afflicted the country will not reverse that given that summer is only about to begin.

In fact, the drought itself has contributed to the flooding by making the soil more compacted and less absorbent of moisture.



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