it’s August, there’s a chill in the air and the trees have lost their leaves…

 My lawyers await the verdict of the court, chatting amongst themselves. I have moved away from them and I am looking out the window of the courtroom, watching the rain beat down on the sidewalks and the lawns of the park. It’s August, there’s a chill in the air and the trees have lost their leaves, although there seem to be a few glimmering buds among the branches. This winter weather reminds me of a childhood spent in Liverpool. I know by heart the nature of this country where I grew up. I know its colors, its people and their feelings but I have never known a sense of belonging here.

Yesterday while walking along the Writers’ Walk I noticed, among others, the words of an Italian writer, Umberto Eco. I seem to remember reading a book of his – a murder mystery set in medieval times. The words struck me; I recognised myself in them. Engraved on the stone were the words “Australia is not only at the Antipodes, it is far away from everything, sometimes even from itself”. That phrase summarized the identity crisis of a country that for a long time believed itself to be a suburb of London; you suddenly realize you are living your life against a geographically and politically unpredictable backdrop. One side of the country opens itself to South-East Asia, offering services and technology with dizzying rates of growth, while the other reaches out for points of contact with the avant-garde cultures of the Western world on the far side of the Pacific, not knowing whether to consider itself the far west or something else entirely. Anyway, to us they are still in the Levant. This consolidates a new cultural character, one which is forgetful of the old continent and is skeptical about the American dream. It is more open to the East, to indigenous cultures and to the more recent influxes of Italian, German, Greek and Slavic immigrants. These play a crucial role in the defining of their cultural identity, an identity that wants to distance itself from the Anglo-Saxon and the Anglo-Celtic, as someone prefer to say nowadays. The multicultural nation is perceived as the ethical and political goal of federal politics and as the solution to the integration of uncontrollable waves of immigration. Above all it is the solution to all those people coming from a new Asia, an Asia that is suddenly less poor and more aggressive, willing to pay our universities to form their own ruling classes. A population whose citizens have the necessary capital to start businesses which are useful to us and are therefore welcome. They come in their droves to spend their holidays on our beaches, no longer just cheap labor and mouths to feed, but instead customers to be revered.

What with all this multiculturalism, Australia is far away, even from myself. It has drifted away. My parents arrived here in 1971, forced by the recession in England. The Australians call us English immigrants pom. Apart from this harmless title, in reality we have never been seriously discriminated against. It is we ourselves that sometimes feel different, and this has increased in recent years.


 I said to the person writing this story: “Go ahead and write the stupid thing – make me out to be any way you like. But you will never understand that my attempt to change my name and identity is something much deeper: it has nothing to do with some trivial hoax perpetrated to win literary prizes and to mock the critics.”

He replies: “If I thought that, I wouldn’t be here to support you…”, but it’s clear that he says it just to please me. He has his doubts. He unexpectedly adds: “but to have two passports and still expect to be within the law is pretty foolish, even for me!”


Here we go; the judge calls the lawyers and asks them to make their closing arguments. The prosecutor is lost in a series of tedious citations of judgments and technicalities to which the judge pays professional attention, but I can’t follow. When my lawyer begins to speak, I go on dozing distractedly. At some point, I hear him speaking more and more passionately, enough to capture some of my fleeting attention. I’m amazed when I hear him shout:

“I wish I were a Muslim woman. To put on a veil to mask my identity. To remove it to confirm it. I would like to be a black, lesbian, Muslim woman. But instead I am a white, integrated Western man. I’m American and I speak only English. I’m not even gay! And even if I were, there wouldn’t be much left for me to call for.

I envy all minorities, but most of all Muslim women. They have something to believe in, something to fight for. I also envy Muslim men, they are discriminated against and are forced every day to choose their own path between opposing reasons and different traditions.

I want to be a Muslim woman. I want to wear a burqa; to watch without being seen, then to take it off and show my naked body without embarrassment and challenge those who try to force me to cover up. I want to put it back on to hide myself whenever I want, to protect myself from those who frighten me, from those want me against my will.

As a Muslim woman I would bear the stigmata of diversity and oppression that would give me the right to raise my voice in a society that represses its few remaining secret passions to a whimper. I would be considered weak and forced into submission. I might be that way for real. But I might also not be that way. And I’m not because I don’t want to be weak. Weakness is a crime. In many cases I would be forced to give in. I would suffer without seeing a way out. Is this not the condition of a great many human beings who let themselves fall into despair without reacting to the thousand moral and material exploitations? But I might not suffer at all. Because I don’t know any alternative. Or else because I fight and I make a virtue out of suffering.

To me, a Muslim woman born and raised in the West, I am given the chance to fight with conviction for rights that are recognized by everyone in the world I live in, but that a weird tradition refuses me. I can fight for a just cause having the support of many, perhaps of everyone. Would I risk my life because of some fanatic? Maybe, but the game’s worth the candle. Most likely I will come up against discussions and conflicts within my own community that here in the West doesn’t count for much. The influence of native communities on the social behavior of Muslims is limited and as a consequence, family and personal influence is reduced. But we are growing gloriously in identity and respect after having been humiliated for centuries by you in the West.

I would like to be a Muslim woman so that I could show the stigmata of my marginalization and have a reason to exist; fighting for something real. I would like to be a black, lesbian, Muslim woman, to prove every single day that I am normal, that I speak the same language and have the same feelings and the same ambitions as everyone else. That I want the same human and civil rights that my community has no right to deny me and that the state and civil authorities must guarantee me.

I would like to be a Muslim woman – a black, lesbian Muslim woman, but not an ignorant one. When other people, who consider themselves normal, realize that I too am like them and that there is no reason either to discriminate or to not understand one another, that each of us expresses ourselves in different ways and that culture, skin color, gender and sex are just a veneer, a thin skin. When they realize that the substance of all human beings is one and the same, that when they speak to me they soon forget my color, my religion, my sex and even my foreign accent…I would like to be a Muslim woman so that I could cry out that this is not true!

I would put my veil back on to confirm my identity and to cry even louder that you Westerners are not the only ones in the right, that we decide what dignity is and from under my veil I will terrorize you. Don’t be afraid of the bombs that I could carry under my long garments. Your fear is born within you, terrified of my ability to live among you whilst dressing differently, not believing your dogma, and feeling beautiful and veiled. Excluding you. Before me you feel naked, cowardly and poor. You are the different ones now, you few who still believe to be the spearhead of a civilization to which everyone must conform, a civilization that you can no longer define or even love. You are without a country and without religion. You destroyed them to free the people and you succeeded. But now you are afraid of loneliness. You neurotically create surreptitious and instrumental countries and religions that don’t penetrate your hearts and barely brush your pale skin. Country, religion and family have ceased to exist for some time in the West that you wish to defend. Whether there are many of you or few of you it simply doesn’t matter; there will always be few of you because you count for so little. Your units don’t count – they are just a shapeless mass of littleness. You are alone, a people without a name who wander aimlessly among the ruins of old decaying monuments. You have deliberately pursued this goal and you were great while you were still far from it. Now that you have achieved it, you have nothing more to dedicate yourselves to and you don’t know where to go.

Your lover has left you. The passion had been dead on both sides for quite some time. But you reassert your old love, as weak and nervous as it is unreal and deceiving, but you perceive it as being immense and profound. You speak desperately of love and of the future and of good times gone by, trying to exhume its rotting corpse. You speak desperately of country and of progress and of deep roots. You can feel it but you can’t admit that the future is gone now, that the story has ended. Religion and country are spiritless bureaucracies. How could they give you back the soul that you wanted to free yourselves from and in the end lost forever?

When I was born, women wore veils, they wore mourning and if they weren’t virgins, they didn’t marry. Adulteresses weren’t stoned to death, but were sentenced to harsher punishments than men. I’m sixty years old! The women of my childhood were no different from the Muslim women of today. Social classes were rigid and not even money could overcome their separations. I was the son of a laborer, the grandson of a farmer. There were social classes and people fought to abolish them. And I, which class do I belong to now? It seems like we have won; social classes no longer exist, we have crushed them. Injustices remain however, but they are new and so different that we don’t know how to combat them and perhaps not even how to recognize them.

The women of the ‘fifties and my comrades of ’68 fought against discrimination and their demands were met. But in order to fight wars we must arm ourselves. Once success has been reached, it is difficult to put down our weapons. In order to win, they got organized, resulting in the various associations that they have today. Us men, no, our sex doesn’t exist, it isn’t recognized. Simone de Beauvoir complained when it was said that only one sex existed – the female. If first it was a privilege reserved for men to consider themselves the norm, today it is quite different. In a world of minorities and exceptions, being normal subjects you to serious discrimination.

I was looking for the freedom, wellbeing and social respect that my parents were denied. I achieved it, along with everyone else. At least I’m no longer on the lowest rung of the social ladder, neither by income, nor by culture, nor by mentality.

I grew up as a revolutionary and now I can be nothing but conservative. I am forced to do so because my generation completed the revolution. Identity crises are the price of victory. As Wellington said, “the next dreadful thing to a battle lost is a battle won.” This is how I find myself feeling guilty for being a man who is white and Western. Women make me feel guilty. I’m afraid.

But if, as well as being Muslim, I was also a woman, with or without a veil, I could fight for the freedom of all women. Without the veil when it is an imposition of a violent and tribal culture. With the veil when the West compels me to adhere to a commercial and standardized model of femininity. As a Muslim woman I would fight against corporative and arrogant feminism that coasts along, not having anything more to demand with regards to equality with men. I would affirm an alternative and creative feminine diversity, a way of being in society that is different from that proposed only by men to other men and to women who agree, thereby masculinizing themselves. I would also fight to change the whole of society – western society, male society, and my society. Society is by necessity based on power and it is always unjust because good powers do not exist. But who in the West still criticizes society? Instead, we require more power to repress the rising delinquency. We absorb and accept everything. The absolute differences of each one of us from anyone else renders us all the same. Social entropy is growing.

With the veil I would be saying that I want to be a woman even without showing my body. That being a woman can be a way of life, feeling, and taking part in society with a specific role. With the veil I could distinguish myself from those who believe that the West is the best of what God has given us and that he has charged the “whites” with spreading it. With the veil I could avenge the humiliation of the poor all over the world, who absolutely do not feel poor in their souls.

If then, one day, I go out without my veil, it would be to say that I don’t accept impositions either from those outside the Islamic world who would want me to be naked like all us Westerners who are without sex and all identical; or from Muslims who would want to impose upon me a symbol from which they do not allow me to escape.

No one today is freer than a Muslim woman. She is presented with opportunities to fight for just and opposing principles. Those which I no longer have.  Muslim women can fight side by side with their men against anti-Islamic racism, which was once latent, but now has clearly exploded. They can fight against Western arrogance that would impose its own undisputed principles. Muslim women can also fight alone against whoever denies them the chance to leave home in search of a social identity based on individual choice.

I of course challenge those who passively obey the truculent and exploitative slogans of some leaders who are manipulated by others more powerful than them. Islamic movements are the only ones who nowadays despise our way or life and our material wealth. We cannot understand why they hate us and they fight us, sure that they will win. They treat us with a sense of superiority to which we don’t know how to respond, overcome with anonymity and doubts.

I live in a suburb of Indianapolis and I speak only English – that is American, like in the movies. It seems to me that everyone considers me a Homer Simpson type. Everything that happens here depicts the normality of the world. It’s true that many strange and wonderful things happen in every corner of the world, but for us, this is all there is, or better, everything else is referred to us.

But since I want to be a Muslim woman and I dare to deny that which I am and believe only in the struggle to assert myself, there is no one more Western man than I. And as such I will be condemned to death…”

Having finished his pitiful plea and the court having retired, we drank a beer almost without speaking. Who knows what that stupid statement of wanting to be a Muslim woman was about? If there had been even a remote possibility of being acquitted, my lawyer had managed to lose it once and for all. Luckily it doesn’t matter to me too much and we head for a walk from the centre to the ferry that will take us home to the other side of the river in Brisbane. On the way there the only people we meet are drunken Anglo-Saxons and aborigines.  Who knows who the “others” are? Where do they go to get drunk? Do these “others” really exist?


I was six years old when I moved to my new country. We didn’t even consider it a real emigration, a new country. Rather we considered it a normal move to another culturally close region, though so remote that there were none more distant. But English was spoken there, tea was drunk and at least us English, we could preserve our deplorable habit of feeding ourselves disgusting slop and doing everything with an irritating calm.

At school I spoke with an English accent and my classmates teased me for it. Sometimes even the teacher corrected me. It was different for the other immigrants. They spoke English normally, that is with an Australian accent, the one everyone spoke with. If they still had the inflection of their parents’ language because they hadn’t gone to pre-school, they lost it within a few months. And anyway their diversity made them interesting in the eyes of the Australians who believed they knew everything about us English and so they didn’t care too much about us.

Some of us Anglo-Saxons, including some poms who were better integrated than me, felt superior to others. More than superior, we felt that we were more correct, that we were as one should be. We took on all the common prejudices learned from our parents and we often said things like “I would never go out with an Italian or a Greek or a German”. To us, the dominant group, all Italians were gangsters, all Greeks were thieves, all Germans were obtuse, and so on.  Implicitly, even with all the defects we recognized in ourselves, we took for granted that at the end of the day, in every case, we were better than the others. Sometimes the discriminations would become real persecutions, usually implemented in an implicit and subtle way, almost inadvertently, if it wasn’t for the fact that at the foundations there simmered a very real violence arising from our own frustrations. It happens like that everywhere; no wonder, no real remorse.

Over the years, however, we learned that one shouldn’t consider themselves superior and that no one should in any way be discriminated against. Teachers, the television, the newspapers, and the immigrants’ organizations aroused more and more interest and curiosity for non-national groups. Discrimination remained in the memories of those who had suffered it and those who had perpetrated it, without too much humiliation for the former and without any real shame for the latter who nowadays are accused of arrogance. The Anglo-Saxons felt that they were the owners of this land that they had taken, as was God’s will, with the goal of civilizing it. And the natives considered it opportune, for their own good, to assimilate the newcomers into their culture, one which, in good faith, they considered superior. The immigrants were essentially in agreement with this way of thinking. Above all else they wanted assimilation.

When I arrived in Australia, there was no longer any real discrimination. Ethnic minorities had become the subject of much study and attention. The sufferings of assimilation and segregation experienced by the immigrants concerned the parents of my peers. The classmates who belonged to ethnic minorities, integrated and assimilated as much as was necessary, enjoyed the increased interest that came along with an ethnic identity. In particular they enjoyed the stigmata of martyrdom conferred on them by the bullying and the exploitation suffered in the past, instances that were somewhat exaggerated, almost by some form of masochism and self-denial on the part of the Anglo-Saxons. Pardon, Anglo-Celtics. My Italian, Vietnamese, Greek and Slavic peers could be proud of their ethnic roots, of the sufferings that ennoble the members of an oppressed people. And their privilege was the fact that in reality none of them had personally experienced any real harm because of their ethnicity.

We are continually robbed of our Anglo-Saxon identity, we are nobodies. We have all become American without being anything else. Nobody seems to notice our maladjustment. We can’t even claim to be pitied. We don’t have our own culture because we have the culture: but this is no longer ours, we are forced to share it with everyone. And even this has changed. We don’t hold the mystery of a world where we can be part of the community. Everyone sings and knows our songs, they read and they quote our books, either translated or in their original language, they drink our drinks – tea, whisky – they know everything about us thanks to American films. Americans suffer more than anyone else in this situation. They spread their culture with the enthusiasm of the generous and in doing so they lost it because everyone else usurped it. We are denied the privacy that we cared so much about. We are denied the strangeness that drove Rosenkranz and Guilderstern to say that in England crazy people go unnoticed, because everyone is crazy.

Since Australia has chosen the route of multiculturalism, everyone is granted a quality that is becoming more and more precious every day. Everyone but us English. A quality that I believed I possessed, for who knows what reasons, but that went unnoticed by others. Today, this quality is the most precious in the society that we live in: the personal identity obtained through the ethnic community one is part of, and a role in society legitimized by their diversity. The essence of multiculturalism. And another great thing: the ability to hide oneself and protect oneself in a mysterious and protected place, a language unknown to most of those around you. More prosaically, it seemed to me that my classmates were protected by their diversity. If they did something wrong in front of everybody, in many cases it was tolerated because, it was said, it was part of their cultural system, of their way of thinking, and it must be respected.

I too, I believe, for these reasons felt the need for a cultural identity, even a multicultural one. I immediately began to perceive this need. Of course it was in a confused and emotional way, as would happen to a ten or eleven year old girl. Of course my problem was not just ethnic. There are many poms and children of poms who are perfectly integrated. And other misfits do not react in the way that brought me to this courtroom. I could have looked for an identity and evaded anonymity by having a tattoo done on my forehead or a by having my cheek pierced. I chose another route.

There are people who feel that the more they resemble other people and the more they can hide in the crowd, the more they feel protected and safe. Others look for security in feeling that they are being looked at, observed, hated and despised, as long as they are different. They had desperately tried to resemble the crowd. Then, having lost that battle, they committed themselves to being different.


With these thoughts in mind, I await the verdict of a court that I do not trust. Decades of judgments tainted by racial prejudices against non-English immigrants are weighing on me. They will probably add something about the massacre of the aborigines to the charges against me. I will be held responsible and with my sentence their consciences can we washed clean, having reaffirmed the strength of multiculturalism. They won’t accept the fact that I feel – no, I am – really Ukrainian. More Ukrainian, more multicultural than the Ukrainians themselves. Because I want to be. I want to be because I need it for my mental health. Or for my social health. And there is not a single law that forbids me to feel Ukrainian. Why then, while I am allowed to obtain citizenship of another country, am I then thrown into the prison of the ethnicity that was assigned to me by birth? I tried to avoid the “English” prison and I ended up in an Australian courtroom! This unfair court will substitute the racial prejudices with others of a multicultural character. But they will only ever be prejudices, nothing to do with a justice that puts everyone on the same level. I am and I want to be as I like. Above all because the world that surrounds me requires me to define myself by the parameters of a “culture”, even though I am no longer able to ascribe myself to a race, a social class, not even to a family bond.

My friend approaches me and says: “Don’t worry Helen, the identity switch you are being accused of shouldn’t result in a harsh sentence. When it comes down to it, you only misrepresented yourself – you didn’t falsify any documents in order to gain an advantage which can be proven objectively.” In order to defend me, he and the lawyers mean to hurt my innermost feelings.

“Okay,” I answer him, “but you know that I don’t care about any of this. I can go by whatever name I want and they can’t take that away from me. And that’s not even enough for me, I want more, for myself and for others.”

He’s not malicious, nor is he stupid. It’s just that he was raised in the Italian community in Brisbane. He was protected by the fact that he had somewhere else to go, a faraway country, an abstraction, in some ways. But he could escape the discomfort of feeling trapped in a cultural prison, in the determinism of a chosen way of life. He is more Australian than I am, for sure. He knows how to navigate our bureaucracy, our laws and our way of thinking, which are as much his as they are mine and everyone else’s. The structures of the modern states are easily learned, they are all the same, all it takes is a generation or even less. However, if you belong to an ethnic group, you retain other structures which are more complicated and full of nuances. They are difficult to acquire, impermeable to the outsider, impossible to penetrate. And even if you do succeed in doing so, they deny the fact and in any case try to stop you.

I turn my gaze back to the park and to the rain beating down, trying to suppress a wave of violent rage and succeeding, but only because I catch the calm and curious eye of a passing dog that turns towards me and seems to say “stay cool, this matters to you.” It’s still raining and the smells that rise up from the earth and the trees are even more evocative. I could kill the lawyer for the superficiality of what he said. At the very least I could cave his face in. Like I had done to my classmate Claire Kennedy in school when she was teasing me because she had found out one of my many lies. That my mother wasn’t Irish, from Galway, that she didn’t speak Gaelic and that she hadn’t spent her childhood on a farm, grazing sheep and cultivating barley and potatoes. And that we weren’t so poor. And that we weren’t even farmers.

My mother was entirely English, born and raised in the city of Liverpool in a middle class family, a generation after having been working class. The Irish words that I made up I had taken from a book I found in the library. Claire laughed and said I was a stupid liar. That I was more stupid than I was a liar. That it made no sense to talk crap. That if you really wanted to lie, it was worth making up a juicy lie, like that you were noble by birth or your uncle lived in a castle. She didn’t understand the deep significance that lie held for me.

So I caved her face in with a well-timed hit straight to her left jaw, like I had seen done in the more typical Irish pubs. In the more typical Irish pubs in the cinema and on American TV, at least. And if my mother wasn’t Irish, at least I was quarrelsome and violent like a true Irishwoman. At least Claire would have recognized this, even if in her mental patterns I continued to be English, or pom, and my violence was a personal trait that I could not justify in any way culturally or ethnically, and therefore not even ethically.


“Helen Darville, state your particulars,” says the judge solemnly.

“Which ones?” I answer him defiantly.  He is momentarily stunned. We are gathered here to establish who it is that I am – how can he ask me to give my particulars? Nevertheless, because he is narcissistic and histrionic, he decides to abandon the solemnity and to proceed in a craftier manner.

“Tell us your names, then, if you want to give us more than one!” A few titters are heard in the courtroom, while the rest hold back their laughter, sensing the tension.

“I am Helen Demidenko and sometimes I am Helen Darville, but soon you can call me by another name because I’m getting sick of both of those. Actually, maybe, as it stands, after having identified myself for so long as Demidenko and with the Ukrainian culture, I find it better to be the pom Darville, but I wouldn’t rule out …”

“We’re not ruling anything out Helen, we just want to get to the truth. Tell me how old you are.”

“That depends, Your Honor. Do you want my biological, psychological or social age? There could possibly be more ages and I’m the age I feel like being. I’ll say no more – I refuse to put my age on my ID card! It’s a violation of my privacy.”

“Now Helen, you maintain that everyone should be afforded the opportunity not only to change his or her name, but also to change his or her identity. All women, actually nowadays also men, would like to change their date of birth to be, or at least to be perceived as younger than they really are.”

“Your Honor, I wouldn’t be as extreme as all that. I think that one’s date of birth should be left as it is, although it remains a private matter. The issue is that one’s date of birth doesn’t automatically demonstrate one’s age, as we are led to believe nowadays. Therefore, when a person is asked for their personal details, they should be asked for both their date of birth and their age, which are two different things. It seems to me to be a compromise, right? So I was born in 1965, but now that it is 2004, I want to declare that I am thirty years old, or sixty years old, or however old I think is appropriate for my new identity.”

“Helen Darville, you are accused of handling documents addressed to Helen Demidenko!”

“Your Honor, I didn’t just handle documents addressed to Helen Demidenko. I am Helen Demidenko!”

“Well this is not sustainable to be the data in our possession, you are registered as Darville, Demidenko is an additional name that does not correspond to you. At the most is it a pseudonym, a nom de plume.” He pronounces “nom de plume” in a French accent to highlight his knowledge of the language that his parents or grandparents probably spoke. He has a French surname: Berger. Or is it German? This makes me even more livid because I realize that he can’t be on my side, at least emotionally. And what is more emotional than a trial?

“Who determines who I am, what name I have to answer to, what are the terms of this agreement and who defines them? You asked me my name, what I call myself; don’t I have the right to go by whatever name I please? And if you were to ask what name other people call me by; the correct question would be “what name do you answer to?” Don’t I have the right to answer to whatever name I want? If someone wants to call me by a name that I don’t recognize, or don’t want to go by, I could simply not answer. And if I don’t answer then there is no point in calling me by that name, unless I am obliged to bear the name that others have imposed upon me. This is the most serious denial of liberty that I can think of. Do you realize, Your Honor, the burden of this imposition?”

“Ms. Darville, in our country, albeit with some limitations, a person can change their name, if they wish to do so; it would have been sufficient if you had just asked for permission. There was no need to falsify the documents.”

“But I have no intention of changing my name and depriving myself of the identity of Darville in order to take on another identity. I want to have both, because I am both, depending on the place, the time and the emotions I am experiencing. In fact, soon I could need a third passport because I believe I am on the cusp of developing a new identity.”

“What would happen if everyone had multiple identities? There would be problems with public order; we would only be able to sentence half of a person, in the sense that we could only sentence the part of the person who had committed the crime…”

“Well,” I interrupt, “at least in that way the innocent half of them needn’t suffer unjustly,” but the judge ignores the provocation and continues.

“Everyone could claim to be anyone. It would be a disaster. Registry offices would be overwhelmed with work. Come on now Ms. Demidenko, or Darville, try to comprehend the absurdity.”

“Your Honor, the purpose of my two identities is not to hide or to escape from something. Rather, they allow me to be myself at all times. And you should be grateful that I decided to keep to my stated sex, because I could also have decided to have one masculine identity and one female one, as well as the two ethnic groups that ultimately are considered here to be the more serious crime.”

“But Madam, you know that the word ‘individual’ is derived from Latin and means something that cannot be divided. You want to divide yourself into multiple indivisible individuals. A person is not dividable, otherwise they would not be an individual. All the law does is ratify an incontrovertible fact.”

“Science and technology have allowed the division of the atom which is none other than the Greek translation of the Latin word ‘individual’. Your Honor, I ask you: why can’t philosophy and the law divide people’s identities? In this way the progress of physics would be mirrored in the human sciences. Why does personality have to be linked to individuality, to oneness? Perhaps the division of the atom led to the end of the matter? Rather it has led to scientific and technological progress. In fact, it also produced the atomic bomb … Would the division of a person enable the advancement of human freedom or would it lead to the end of humanity? It would be necessary to ratify by constitutional law the right to have multiple identities, in the light of new psycho-social and scientific discoveries.”

“It would be a terrible mess.”

“Only if we insisted on cataloguing everyone and everything. It would mean more work for registry offices. But I would be willing to meet them half way. We accept the fact that identity is first obtained by birth, so everyone can be properly controlled. I don’t like the idea in principle, but I understand that there may be reasons for it. If someone wants, they can keep their identity, if not they can change it or add another to it which allows them to be the person or persons they wish to be.”

The judge cuts me off and looks at me as if I were somewhere halfway between provocative and crazy.


To me, the trial, the charge to which I am called to answer is not for the falsification of my identity. I did not falsify anything. I simply added another identity onto my already existing one and I demanded that it be recognised. A civilized state, which respects the individual, should allow them to step out of their identity and to create another one. In theory this is possible in some cases. Why not acknowledge the right to have two identities? Two ID cards, two passports, two lives? All legal, of course. Is it not true that nowadays we live multiple lives, far removed from how it was in the past? There was a time where people had only one job that defined them professionally. Today most people have a second job and maybe a hobby that defines their personality and their social identity even more than their official occupation. People get married more than once and have children with more than one partner, to the point where the formalization of polygamy could be discussed, for now it is only a matter of time. We need to invent new figures and new names for relatives because the traditional ones are no longer sufficient to define and codify the current situations. The relationships between men and women, plus those of homosexuals, are blurred by nuances to the point of being indefinable. And if doubts about paternity, which one time remained veiled in doubt, can today be cleared up by DNA, then artificial insemination and surrogacy add uncertainty and a plurality of mothers and fathers. We change jobs, social class, habits and houses so often in life that life itself becomes a sum of parts. And rather than talking about our life we should talk about our lives, in the plural. And yet ethnicity should always stay the same! Why?

For the falsification of documents they can judge me, fine. If they punish me for it, then it’s only right and it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t even care about defending myself like the halfwit lawyer is trying to do. But I suffer because the entire trial is centered on the fact that two literary prizes were won under a false name. They are not prosecuting a run of the mill liar, but the very identity that I constructed while writing my novel. Any allusion to that effect makes me quiver with anger.

“Don’t be ashamed, Helen, it’s nothing! This room has seen much worse,” my lawyer tells me, diligent in the pointing out of his own stupidity, his inability to comprehend. I am red from rage, not from shame. True anger for those who do not recognize my right to be as I want, to decide who I want to be. My right to the past that I choose, constructed by my choices, maybe by my imagination and my dreams and not a past that is imposed upon me. I don’t want to feel chained to a prejudice. By all appearances, everyone recognizes the right to freedom of choice for the future, but this deterministic multiculturalism weighs me down with a past that I refuse, it deprives me of the right to choose the past for myself, and in doing so it limits my choices for the present and for the future. I am discriminated against for being in the majority. Unformed and therefore deformed. I feel sorry for those who suffer racial and cultural discrimination and I feel like one of them. But no one recognizes this feeling of mine. Officially I can’t understand it because standard Anglo-Saxons cannot have this kind of feeling!

“Of course allowing yourself to be interviewed while putting on the alleged Ukrainian accent of your father…how could you have thought up such a thing? Did you really expect that you wouldn’t be discovered immediately? You wanted to make a joke and it backfired.”

“It wasn’t a joke,” I tell him…get back to where you once belonged…a Beatles song comes to mind and I decide against explaining myself to him. He wouldn’t understand the drama of a person who is fighting for the right to an escape from the world of forced belonging. There is nothing ridiculous in what I did. Affirming that ethnic identity can be chosen is a dangerous act that subverts from common thinking. It means that we are free to choose the prejudices with which we want to be judged. If things were like that, then prejudices would lose a lot of their importance. How many would be willing to accept it? From the prejudices that I stole I reaped one reward. I will be charged with “theft of ethnic prejudice”, a new crime that will be applied in future case law. The critics deemed my book worthy of winning the prizes just because I had falsified my identity and that had given me the right to write as if I belonged to a minority, to a few minorities, even. Having failed to capture the essence of my work, they were disorientated by having said that in my writing “one feels the full weight of the Ukrainian Uniat’s opposition to Russian Orthodox fatalism”. What nonsense! They could simply have defended themselves by saying that I have shown that each and every one of us, should we so desire, can freely enter the popular identity of another culture. All you need is a little effort applied with conviction. After all, popular culture is a form of thought that is as simple and as weak as the many other thoughts out there. Yet among the many weak thoughts is the “non-thought”; this occurs when an invincible force of rage attaches itself to our unconscious. Does the fear of our unconscious entail the prohibition to challenge it? The discovery and acceptance of an overwhelming superego inflicts disgraceful humiliation upon human beings. The ego loses rational self-control. I had taken on and won the challenge with my book, which was perfectly in line – according to the critics themselves – with the Ukrainian way of life. They want to deprive me of a victory by means of a court judgment.

For some, the past can mean security, a sense of continuity. “Blood and soil” Ms. Laura Laue, my history teacher in high school, would say. Ms. Laue would rather be called Laura von Laue, but according to her, the German government had abolished noble surnames. The presumed nobility, for her, meant emphasizing her connection to her birthplace and her roots – two things that Mrs. Laue was blatantly missing. An only child and orphaned of both parents, she had immigrated from Germany after the war, barely twenty years old, after her marriage to Oliver Kennedy, an army sergeant of the British occupation who immigrated to Australia to be a mechanic in Perth. Oliver had brought Laura with him, who had just qualified to be a teacher in Munich. All in all they lived a happy life together up until poor Oliver’s death in 1965 as a result of a tumor, perhaps due to the job he held at the factory. If a misunderstanding arose between them, they always blamed their cultural diversity, their different roots. All problems were resolved by saying that they could never fully communicate because of their different origins.

Ms. Laue was obsessed with the idea that we are in fact essentially “blood and soil”. An abstract idea and typical of a certain German culture that had so much responsibility in justifying to the masses all the wars and massacres of the last century. Ms. Laue also talked about Volksgeist, drawing on the readings of a young Herder. She celebrated her ethnic origins which started out from an obscure village to meander through Rosenheim, the Alps, Upper Bavaria, Bavaria, Germany, Central Europe, Europe and … that’s it. She always needed a reference area and never failed to remember her noble origins and the peculiarities of her parents’, grandparents’, great grandparents’ and great-great-grandparents’ lives. Whenever she talked about herself she couldn’t help but refer back to medieval ancestors of whom she believed to have retained many of their characteristics. She also mentioned more or less distant relatives such as with a well-known physicist, a certain Max von Laue. Ms. Laura Laue felt that she was what her alleged relatives had been. All the places she mentioned were small villages, particular communities. All the people who built her history denoted originality and were peculiarly suspicious.

I was ecstatic when Ms. Laue spoke and I envied her. I wished I belonged to a community whose members were united by blood ties and whose behavior was at one with the climate, vegetation, monuments and homes of families who lived there for generations. Laura Laue had lived in an orphanage for five years until firstly an aunt, then an uncle had taken her in with their children in rented homes. First at Rosenheim, then at Passau, and then finally in an anonymous suburb of Munich.

It was pretty obvious, especially to me, being as distrustful as I am, that Ms. Laue was just telling us ridiculous nonsense, all the fruit of her imagination. But they were such wonderful lies! Lies in which she believed and around which she had constructed her very existence. I decided to do likewise, but I had to find the pretext on which to base my fictional past, I had to find myself a bloodline and a motherland. I who, like the androids in Blade Runner, felt different to other human beings because I lacked memories, even just collective ones. My memories were all interrupted. They seemed commonplace. It seemed to me that to be human I had to be the fruit of past generations, of successive reincarnations. I had to have a physical place from whence to come. I, Helen Darville, was the pureblood fruit of the uprooting of modernity, of the globalization of culture, of anonymity and individualism. These were the values I could rely on, the ones my parents were raised on, the ones that culture – my ethnicity – had developed for centuries. If I had been allowed, I would have worked on this and only this to find my rightful place in a society that seemed to exclude me. But after having been taught this for centuries, it was all forgotten about and instead we were assured that we were the product of our culture and that we could not escape from this destiny. For centuries, my culture denied “cultures” and adopted a universal idea and a standard of progress that all of a sudden it now rejects.

Not too long ago it was all about race. Now it’s all about “culture”, but both terms serve the sole purpose of pigeonholing you into a category from which there is no escape. They judge you on the basis of your culture with the same prejudices with which they place you squarely into your racial stereotype. Blacks can sing and dance and Jews are intelligent and the Japanese work a lot and are neat and tidy. In his Réflexions sur la question juive, Sartre reminds us how Maurras maintained that the Jews cannot understand the verse of Racine that states “Dans l’Orient désert qui devint mon ennui” because, for them, Racine was a stranger both to their history and to their blood and land. In this way I was told that I, being English, Anglo Celtic, could never have hoped to understand the specificities of the behaviours of the Italians, the Germans of the Russians. It is for this that, whenever I found myself in an uncomfortable situation, like with a teacher, or with friends who didn’t like me, or even with rude people on the bus or on the street – and all of these were frequent occurrences – I pretended to be a foreigner in order to justify my unease, my diversity. Sometimes I just thought about being a foreigner and even the thought of it gave me a moment of security. I looked for protection in my diversity because of my inability to feel at ease with myself.

I refuse to allow others to assign me to a culture, just as I refuse any concept of race that discriminates humanity, especially if my culture doesn’t exist or it is watered down like the pom culture. And being pom means being less and less a part of the new Australian multicultural society, a society that celebrates diversity, provided that it doesn’t concern itself with basic things and accepts, or better highlights, multiethnic folklore. The Anglo Saxon culture, widespread all over the world, is the least characterized, for the precise reason that it is the dominant culture.  Who knows anything about English folklore any more? It disappeared with the industrial revolution and was declared definitively defunct with the advent of globalization, bundled up with the great American standardization to which we are no longer exposed. The fact that we speak the same language means that we can no longer be distinguished one from the other.

A few months after my arrival in Australia I could have spoken with a perfect Australian accent, even if my parents’ accents had never lost their English inflection. In reality I conserved my foreign way of speaking for as long as possible to justify my diversity. My maladjustment was also due to other factors. I wasn’t great at school, I refused to read and I couldn’t write. Not just because I was a pom, though. My problems derived from my family, in the jealousy that I felt for my younger sister, in the insufficient affection of my parents and so on. Normal things, things that don’t have anything to do with multiculturalism. If I hadn’t had personal and family problems, multiculturalism wouldn’t have interested me. But that’s not the point.

I looked enviously upon my Italian, German and Greek friends. Even the aborigines, who were said to be practically extinct, reappeared and their cultures and traditions were studied. One time an old taxi driver, speaking to a chatty Italian friend of mine who had just arrived in Australia, said “The aborigines? Up until a few years ago they used to say there were only a few left and that they lived on their reserves. Now they’ve suddenly been repopulated and there are festivals and celebrations of their culture every five minutes. You see more and more of them around and Brisbane is full of shops selling aboriginal art. I just don’t get it!” And he said this with sincere surprise, without hatred or arrogant superiority. The aborigines had become, like all of us, urban creatures. Like humans and the rats in the sewers, the seagulls and the foxes, all of whom once roamed freely in the skies and the woods.

In order to find and affirm my identity I began to think about passing myself off as belonging to an ethnic minority group. First of all I thought about being Italian, but I was too tall, too blonde and too far from the stereotype. Anyway it wasn’t worth the bother. There were already lots of Italians, they came from an important country and they were doing well for themselves. If I was to find myself an invented identity, I would rather something that was truly a minority, preferably one steeped in tragedy. I thought about becoming a Gaelic-speaking Irish woman, but the Irish were already too integrated. The most obvious solution would have been to reinvent myself as a Jew. To begin with, I could have converted to the Jewish religion and in doing so acquire an objective right to belonging to the community. Different yet identical, with the added bonus of the halo of the population of the holocaust. It was exactly what I was looking for, but I soon began to hate the Jews because they were too similar to me, whereas I wanted to be completely different to the way I was. In truth, when I watched footage of the holocaust, it moved me and I felt a deep anger towards any racial discrimination. I felt that same deep anger towards all forms on unjust persecution, whether it be of homosexuals, members of political parties, black people or otherwise. I suffered for those different to myself with whom I identified. But the holocaust made me uneasy. In the end I hated the Jews because, thanks to the concentration camps, thanks to the deaths of six million of them, the survivors were attributed with a personality with which there was no comparison. Today’s anti-Semitism, all the more sneaky because it is cloaked in admiration and distrust, is useful to the Jews, it further reinforces their identity without them running any real risk. The Jews are the symbol of diversity and at the same time, today, of integration. They are the “richest” population, because in today’s society they possess the most precious good; not money, but identity!

And so it was like this that when the Demaniuk case exploded, I decided to pass myself off as Ukrainian. Demaniuk had been a worker in Detroit for many years when someone accused him of being a Nazi collaborator, responsible for committing atrocities at Treblinka during the war. On the true identity of Demanuik – whose very name sounds demonic in itself – the Israeli tribunal failed to reach a definitive conclusion. The Ukrainian accused of having been the executioner of Treblinka was massacred by public opinion even though we can never be sure of his true identity. I liked, in the book that I wrote, outlining the extenuating circumstances of the executioner of Treblinka, justifying his behavior through the less celebrated oppression suffered by the Ukrainians at the hands of the Russians, and especially the Jewish Communist Russians. Those hands that signed the papers. It’s so satisfying to think and write that Demaniuk vindicated the vexations suffered by the Ukrainians at the hands of the communist Jews. What marvelous superficiality (bearing in mind that I was only twenty at the time) it was to describe multiculturalism in terms of ethnicities that hated each other and massacred each other, each not understanding the other and in any case wanting to remain divided. What sublime nonsense it was to think that the relationships between people were dependant on their race, language and culture. But at the end of the day, that was how I was taught both in school and by the media.

Initially it was enough for me to make random people I met on the bus believe that I was of Ukrainian origin. Then I started telling it to new friends. When I moved to start university I was so convinced I had a Ukrainian father that I told everyone. I had even invented myself – based on lies and fantasies – a fictional multicultural family, with Irish aunts and uncles who spoke Gaelic. In this fictitious multicultural family, they jokingly spoke in Gaelic so as not to be understood by their spouses. Stories included relations and contacts with persons of note; not necessarily noted for positive reasons, but well known nonetheless. The demonic Demaniuk, for example. It made me feel good. I would describe the traditions of my people and if others perceived something different about me that was part of my real personality, then it was natural to attribute it to my being the daughter of a Ukrainian. Or to being a Ukrainian in my own right, even. I felt protected in the world that I had created for myself. On the other hand, how many people actually knew how Ukrainians really were and what they really did? And hadn’t even they disappeared in the great standardization of Soviet industrial and urban modernity?

After having passed myself off as Ukrainian for a while, I have to admit, I was getting tired of it. But it wasn’t easy to break free from the relationships that I had built on the initial harmless fib. When I went on to obtain brilliant results in my studies and I published my first stories, the fictitious personality that I had invented began to weigh on me. I had grown fond of it and most of the time I was at ease with it. But by then I had no further need of it. I had become myself, I had found the missing part of myself that had probably been left behind in England.

I had even lied to my boyfriend. At the beginning, our relationship couldn’t have been better. Every so often however, he would say something to me like “You Ukrainians…” This habit of his, which at first had given me security in the early days with him, after a while had started to embarrass me. We trusted each other to the last. We really loved each other. But I just couldn’t bring myself to admit, even to him, that I had made up everything about my descent and my motherland. And this was essentially because my fictitious identity had been all too important in the development of my character and my security. I myself had highlighted it to the point of fanaticism. I felt – and this sensation impeded me from getting out of the lie – that even to others, it was not I myself that was important, but that which I represented with my fabricated past. And if I had turned my back on my imaginary past, I realized that the judgment of others would have been liable to change. After all, they had judged me solely on the basis of what I had invented. My wish to become that which I wanted to become would not have been treated as a harmless fib, useful only to me, but as a serious deception of others. A betrayal. They would all have come across as idiots for all the prejudices they had shown. Even Richard, my boyfriend, the person who, more than all others, had accepted me for what I was. Richard, who knew all my sensibilities and my certainties, who knew in advance how I was feeling at any given moment and who knew how to understand me and make me feel understood even when I was being unreasonable. Which was often. But even so, even with him I felt shackled to my ethnic identity. I no longer knew, neither with him nor with myself, what was true and what was a lie.

When he found out about the lie he left me. Not only because I had lied to him, but also because I wasn’t really Ukrainian. We had already had other problems and in reality it had been a while since our relationship had mattered to me any more. I had cheated on him repeatedly and I had never stopped complaining to him and changing my mind about the future. He accepted all of this and he also accepted my lies that I eventually told him about lightheartedly. But he just couldn’t accept that I had lied to him about my cultural origins. He could accept and forgive a betrayal on my part because it seemed to him that it was just about one single part of me, one single part of our life. Now I understand it. The fragmentation of my personality in his eyes annihilated me as an individual. He didn’t know who I really was. I had deprived him of the right to have and to judge through prejudices. Without prejudices we can no longer understand anything. We catch those near us off guard and in return they hate us viscerally.  Basically I had unmasked him in the same way that I had unmasked the critics that had awarded me the prizes based on my assumed identity, instead of on the quality of my book. This is not emotionally bearable for anyone. It is useless to be scientific and modern and to say that prejudices can be constructed artificially. They say that the mind is like a parachute: it only works if it’s open. But even a parachute doesn’t work as it should if it is too open.

I started to believe people were entitled to hang on to their prejudices because it is only then that they could eke out some kind of reasoning. I felt incapable of judgment, of even realizing how surrounded by it I was. The reality of my country was the fruit of such ethno-cultural prejudices, of these new allegiances to tribes that had their roots in a recent or remote past, in faraway and no longer existing countries, in situations that had been overcome. They were fantasies, like Ms. Laue’s Bavaria. But they carried out their function. Multiculturalism has become a language which cannot be ignored. It is only in this context that you can expect to be understood. You might as well accept it.

But I who had not understood it in time, found myself condemned to pretend to those to whom I had initially lied about my origins. They wouldn’t have understood the spirit that gave me life. Living for several years in this lie of mine, I came to a deep understanding of the many aspects of ethnical and cultural prejudice.

That was how I decided to write my book. That was how I fell out of the frying pan and into the fire. I thought I could justify my lie by saying that its purpose was to help me write my book, to experience people’s reactions to someone who belongs to an ethnic minority, that it had all been in the name of research and so on. I thought that once the book had been published in the name of Helen Demidenko, my real identity would come out, but that I would be able to justify myself by saying that the falsification of my name had been for my research. If this had also happened to help me with my internal search and finding my place in society, that could remain a personal fact. I would be praised for my courage in withstanding difficult positions and I could once and for all step out of the lie that I had foolishly constructed.

Things didn’t exactly go to plan and here I am in this courtroom to answer to these serious charges. It has hurt me deeply to be abandoned by all my friends and by my teachers. Even by Ms. Laue, who had essentially not behaved that much differently from me, except that her lies were more credible and harmless than mine. First of all she had no one who could remind anyone – least of all remind her – of what was really true. No one knows and no one cares. And Laura never became famous for having written a provocative book that goes against the grain as I did.

My chatty Italian friend who wrote this story didn’t fail to point out that my novel is a crazy superficiality, that the whole issue of diversity and freedom seems to be reduced to the possibility of speaking different languages and expressing a superficial diversity. He also says that it is terribly banal in pigeonholing, as I do, each character depending on their geographic origin, skimming over the description of their specific personal human qualities. But he hasn’t understood a thing; that is clear. In fact, all of my descriptions of people based on their language is symbolic, and is interpreted as a message. I understand it, even if he doesn’t understand me. He takes refuge in the denial of a substantial difference between the so-called different cultures. He mocks those who do. Thus he avoids engaging himself in the search for our distinctions and differences and focuses instead on the search for similarities. This makes him feel less different. Even this would be a possible solution. But everything conspires so that such a conviction is set aside and that multiculturalism can become a source or creation and real diversity. The price could be the lack of freedom against which I have rebelled and which has led me to this courtroom.

“The defendant Helen Darville, also known as Demidenko, rise to hear the verdict!” Yes, I stand up, but I don’t abandon my defiant attitude. I don’t like losing and I’m about to suffer a great humiliation; that of misunderstanding, of defeat. There is no greater humiliation for a writer than to have their work interpreted as the opposite of what they were trying to express. And here, apart from the lack of consideration given to my skills as a writer, I am risking severe punishment. I console myself with the fact that even Galileo was forced to retract his theory.

The huge window of the courtroom which overlooks the park is closed. Before hearing the sentence, I open it without anyone noticing. I go out onto the balcony and I see the dog from before, the one with the calm eyes. Our eyes meet again. He seems to say to me “Come on, join me in the park…” I’ll do just that shortly and forget about all this. I’ll start a new life with my name which I could no longer care less about. I won’t need to invent stories, let alone write them like my chatty Italian friend who retells my story with the sole purpose of explaining what is useless for most to understand.[1]













[1] This story is based very loosely on a true story. In 1994, Helen Darville, under the assumed name of Helen Demidenko published the novel That Hand That Signed the Paper, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonard NSW, Australia. The author, then twenty-two, was awarded two prestigious Australian literary awards, the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Australian Vogel Literary Award. When the author’s real name was discovered, it came out that the judgment of the work had been based on the fact that the author belonged to the Ukrainian minority. Helen Darville was, in fact, an Australian of pure English origin. This story has another peculiarity: I initially wrote it in essay form and published in a sociology journal, with the usual set of notes and impersonal language. At a certain point I realized my motivation for writing the essay was much more emotional than scientific, and was inspired by my sensitivity and imagination. I believed I could better express what I thought and felt in a story…

 A version of the story has been published in Italian in a collection of stories titled “La cattedrale dissolta”, Cooperativa Libraria Editrice Univeristaria Padova, Padova, Italy, 2014. 

Cassandra, freedom of seduction 

and freedom of speech



 “Formerly no one was allowed to think freely; 
now it is permitted, but no one is capable of it any more. 
Now people want to think only what they are supposed to want to think, 
and this they consider freedom”
“What we need is not freedom of the press, 
we need freedom from the press” 
Oswald Spengler

 The myth of Cassandra, Priam’s most beautiful daughter, helps understand how information works. The story is well known. It happened that Apollo fell in love with Cassandra, whose name in ancient Greek means “the one who entraps men”. We do not have any precise information about how the facts – if there are any – developed exactly. It is told that Cassandra spent a night at Apollo’s temple though knowing that the god was craving for her. She refused to concede herself to him, reportedly. So as to seduce her, the amorous god presented Cassandra with the gift of prophecy which the girl enthusiastically accepted and tried to use thereafter. Soon enough, Apollo realized that Cassandra had no real intention to sleep with him. As revenge, the vicious God did not revoke the gift, but put a curse on her so that nobody would believe Cassandra’s predictions any longer. A key (though often overlooked) issue of the story is that Priam’s daughter never renounced foretelling, no matter how frustrated she was by not being believed.

Most of the times the beautiful Cassandra is portrayed as a sad and tragic heroine, cruelly punished by a rancorous god. In fact, disclosing what later proves true adds to one’s posthumous reputation no matter how much they have been mocked when alive. On the other hand, we may also suspect that Cassandra had some minor responsibilities of her own since wooing and accepting gifts is never totally innocent. In a version of the myth she even promised to marry the god and then withdrew. If Apollo actually behaved just as any arrogant male chauvinist, Cassandra, nonetheless, was flattered by Apollo’s gifts and longing.

Cassandra’s myth can read as a metaphor for writers and scholars flirting with power. As long as they belong to a divine organization, they profit from the privileged condition of knowing and interpreting the key facts. Moreover, all people speak about what these writers and scholars utter. Writers not only speak the truth, rather they create it.

In this position their egos swell and they might begin thinking that people believe them because they are smart and tell how things truly are and even should be. They might even imagine themselves as principled and incorruptible since they become completely oblivious of their initial flirting. They misperceive that their ability to elaborate important, timely and witty arguments was a deal rather than some generous gift from gods (whoever they are). Writers and scholars who flirt with a demanding god may soon be smitten by power. They find freedom of speech irresistible and enjoy it when everybody listens to them preaching.

In a more sophisticated version of the myth, while Cassandra was sleeping (alone) at the temple, snakes licked her ears clean so that she was able to hear the future. This metaphor is easily interpreted: god’s snakes may allow someone to know what normal people do not, but this does not necessarily imply that they are allowed to spread information. Thus journalists and writers really know what’s going on, they can confidently foretell what will happen because they are the unaware tools of building a future chosen by others. A soon as they foresee a diverse future, they are cursed by gods who claim the right to choose a future which they can keep under control.

As for Cassandra at Apollo’s temple the time came to choose between purity and stepping in with the god, in the same way writers are requested to choose between freedom of speech and the gratification to be listened to. If they choose the former they won’t be believed anymore; should they choose the latter, they will be requested to simply report gods’ voice.

If writers and scholars hadn’t flirted with power, they would have kept pure, but they would have never known the arcane secrets in the citadel of command. Cassandra would have never been awarded prophetical powers if she had not entered the temple and opened to Apollo’s hopes. You can either be pure and silly or corrupted and officially knowledgeable. Tertium non daturm, i.e. the fallacy of the excluded middle. If you are at the same time well informed and pure, you create a serious danger so that gods need to put a curse on you. Cassandra’s tragic story teaches that by just flirting, you might lose both power and innocence, so that the knowledge you have acquired – that you imagine as a formidable weapon to affirm the truth (and your ego) – is transformed instead into a torture you use against yourself lifelong.

Therefore, remember, writer! You are in a trap: flirting with power allows you to know how things really go. If you eventually do not lie with a god, nobody will ever pay attention to you. You can be listened to and believed only as long as you are Apollo’s lover, but you will only be permitted to speak god’s rule.

Corrado Poli

Sustainable Development: from Fallacy to Fraud

 (a reduced version is published in “Human Geography: A New Radical Journal” Vol. 3, #2, 2010, pp. 63-82)

“It is by this that Rubens proves himself great,
and shows to the world that he, with a free spirit,
stands above Nature, and treats her conformably to his high purposes.
 … But if it is contrary to Nature,
I still say it is higher than Nature …”
Wolfgang Goethe (reported by J. Eckermann)
“Faust is dead!”
Guenther Anders
“The atomic bomb has made Goethe unlikely” 
Karl Jaspers
“The old is dying and the new cannot yet be born.
In the interim, a variety of morbid symptoms appear”
Antonio Gramsci


 1.1.Sustain or progress?

Would you be happy if, being young and in love, filled with enthusiasm and expectations, your beloved partner replied to your proposal to pursue a lifelong relationship by saying: “It’s ok, I think we can have a ‘sustainable’ relationship and our ultimate goal will be to make it last as long as possible, no matter how we feel and what we do. Hence, don’t ask me to change any of my routine and I’m not going to do anything to cope with my possible shortcomings.” You would probably not appreciate such a response, unless you were so dejected and your life was so miserable that you couldn’t even conceive any real improvement in your gloomy existence. Surely you would prefer a response along the lines of: “Yes, I am going to share my life with you and this relationship will help us both to realize a real improvement in our lives. Together we might even be better off, but what really matters is our emotional fulfillment. Our lifelong relationship will make us better human beings and we will fulfill our personalities and satisfy our everyday needs. We will even contribute to the welfare of others, albeit indirectly. We will pass on appropriate values to our offspring and we will look ahead to our relationship continuing and flourishing through generations”. If we would be happier with the second answer, then why should we accept for ourselves and the rest of the world the dull perspective of “just sustainable” development? Why should we not strive for rewarding, marvelous, brilliant development or, even better, just for “development”, without attributes? Admittedly, in real life one should allow that in relationships, after some years, “sustainability” may become the only possible solution for the mere conservation of a family ménage. However, even if the main priority is the dull sustainability of the relationship, any family counselor would suggest to the partners that, in order to muddle through a sustainable relationship, they should find out something new to pursue together,  make new goals and eventually a new covenant between them. In this metaphor, the partners are, on one hand, humankind, society and economy; on the other hand, Nature and environment.

 The Sustainable Development approach has become the sole strategy available do deal with the environmental crisis and it operates as the proxy of a missing ideology. The removal of any alternative to environmental policy is paralleled with the elimination of a century old political dialectic between capitalism and socialism. This temporary lack of conflicting comprehensive political projects has impoverished the current intellectual and political debate. The elaboration of a political alternative – based on new social and political values related to a radically new covenant between humanity and Nature – would help to recreate a new dialectic and the conditions for human progress.

 1.2. The quest for a new environmental ideology

In spring 2007, with the timing and sensitivity of an experienced journalist, Thomas Friedman (2007) addressed a crucial contemporary issue in a New York Times Magazine article. While the 2008 Presidential campaign was entering its primary stages, he claimed that Americans did not need to choose between a libertarian or a liberal President, nor between a woman or a man, a white or a black. Rather, they needed to choose a ‘green’ President. The best chanceAmerica would have to play a positive role in the world would be by bringing a “new environmentalist ideology” into domestic and foreign policy.

 In principle, I could not agree more with Friedman’s view. The problem with his proposal is that we cannot buy ideologies at the corner store. Ideologies develop in culture and require time to be cultivated, diffused and broadly accepted. In relation to the environmental crisis, we are just at the start of this process. In fact, we have already lost valuable time – at least twenty years – due to the unjustified enthusiasm about the sustainable development fallacy. Although Sustainable Development (SD) was nothing more than the outcome of a modest compromise following a negotiation at the U.N. Brundtland Commission in 1987, it was presented as a brilliant solution to environmental problems. Unfortunately, many activists who might have originally opposed it, eventually welcomed the compromise and failed to realize that SD did not question the basics of the present economic growth model. More opportunist activists took advantage of the considerable resources that western governments appropriated to “sustain” mildly green projects. Thus, polluting industries could continue their business as usual. Even worse, the mindless enthusiasm for the sustainability compromise has inhibited any intellectual and political progress toward a sound green ideology. In this sense, SD has represented a conservative approach, though it has been successfully marketed and bought as an environmentalist progressive ideology.

 As early as 1992, higher education institutions and western public opinion were much more advanced in constructing an environmental ethic fitting for an operative green political platform[1]. Time has gone by and now all political parties are, to a certain degree, concerned with environmental problems. Even the most conservative factions list environmental problems in their political agenda. Furthermore, we have become used to seeing and interpreting political facts through the thick lens of century-old ideologies that are hinged on the principles of liberty and justice. There is no doubt that as long as there will be two or three humans on Earth, we will have problems with liberty and justice. However, we have elaborated sound paradigms to guide us in dealing with these crucial issues. The environmental crisis, on the other hand, requires a profoundly new thinking. Environmental ethics and philosophy can help in this venture once environmentalists awake from the hypnotic sleep induced by the SD myth. Eventually, it is also important to recognize the risk that a true environmentalist ideology – though necessary and welcome for the safeguarding of the planet – would imply radical consequences in domestic and international politics.


 2.1. How did environment enter the political arena?

The environmental question entered the political arena in the early seventies[2]. The publication of the Club of Rome’s research (1972), for instance, was one of the earliest influential appeals for more concern regarding environmental issues. The Club of Rome’s recommendations mainly focused on the depletion of resources. At the time, the term “environment” was not as frequently used as it is now in scholarly, political and media debate, and it was certainly not employed in the same sense. Few were engaged in environmental advocacy, which was combined with other issues, e.g. Ralph Nader’s pioneering consumerism in the sixties. Environmental policy was something that was still undefined and marginal. In Western countries, the political struggle was focused on economic development and on progress in industrialization and urbanization. The competition between welfare policies and the market oriented option was at the core of politics[3]. The environmental issue was not commonly considered by academic research and teaching. The Club of Rome itself did not dispute any other fundamental environmental issue except the possibility of running out of ores.

 In the late 70’s and 80’s, a growing number of scholars opened a new research field approaching the environmental question as an ethical, political and human problem. Several essays were published regarding the fundamentals of the environmental question in many disciplines. The new occurrence was that environmentalist theoretical thinking inspired political action and governments were urged to adopt innovative environmental policy. Economists and statisticians proposed new budgeting systems which included environmental values alongside the traditional financial accounting. Others  called for a technological revolution and a new idea of production (e.g., Georgescu-Roegen 1971). Epistemologists questioned some basic paradigms that had accompanied the development of science in the last four centuries. They claimed that we needed new scientific paradigms since the old ones were the real culprits for the environmental crisis. As a matter of fact, the application of scientific knowledge to industrial production and social organization had influenced the organization of society and established powerful professional and academic guilds that hampered change. Before the publication of the Brundtland Report (1987) and the ensuing Rio Conference (1992), the intellectual atmosphere seemed ready to advance toward an alternative thinking and politics. At that time, both radical politics and thinking were inspired by a widespread perception of the environmental crisis. Political groups and environmental activists were connecting with the new cultural milieu and were trying to find new arguments to oppose the triumphant Western model. The fall of Communism was apparently imminent due to its economic, political and military failure. Western Communist parties were losing votes and in some countries they were quickly disappearing, transforming and making deals with their former opponents.

 2.2. How did we get to Sustainable Development?

Up until the early eighties, environmentalists only occasionally questioned the overall economic and political establishment. Both socialists/communists and liberal capitalists agreed on the idea of industrialization and technological advancement as the only possible development path. The option of a re-negotiation of the relation between humans and Nature was marginal, if not completely foreign, to the mainstream political debate. The core of political dispute was the organization of production, namely the “progress” in exploiting the world’s natural resources. Only in this respect were different options possible regarding how to distribute a growing income and reshape class relations, balance inequalities, and guarantee civil and human rights.

 During the eighties, the environmental question was becoming a very sensitive and crucial concern both for radicals and conservatives. The former could have used it as a catalyst for promoting an alternative anti-capitalist movement; the latter immediately realized the danger nested in the development of an environmentalist ideology. The world’s socio-political situation was favorable to creating the conditions for making the environmental discourse a credible and almost immediately available substitute for the socialist/communist ideology. As mentioned above, regarding Thomas Friedman’s call for an environmental ideology, an ideology – meant as a shared political discourse – needs a cultural milieu to flourish. It requires time to be broadly acknowledged. Then we must proceed by subjecting possible ideologies to debate in the public arena by comparing them with contrasting ones. Some thirty years ago, in environmental studies, this virtuous process – no matter how immediately and thoroughly implementable – was on the brink of taking off. The environmental crisis was widely perceived by citizens in industrialized countries, and it was becoming a regular domestic political issue. The debate would have likely driven us to the building of a new environmentalist and revolutionary ideology. As a matter of fact, environmental issues presume the necessity of a comprehensive approach and one can hardly escape being “political” when speaking about environmental policies. Therefore, the formation of new environmentalist (green) parties raised alarm among those who (a) founded their power on an ideology that negated ideology itself, (b) refused the idea of a dominant political discourse and (c) accepted the inexorableness of a society based on a neo-liberal market capitalism. It was not convenient for these conservatives to involve themselves in the discussion regarding essential considerations on ethical values or fundamental principles such as the relation between humans and Nature.

 Simultaneously, while the competition between the developed capitalist countries and the communist bloc was rapidly vanishing, another dualism was arising in the global economic system: China and India, preceded by some smaller South East Asian countries[4] had begun what Walter Rostow in the fifties would have defined as the development “take off stage”, i.e. a period of intense and rapid industrialization[5]. It was immediately apparent that an intense and unbridled industrialization in countries with a population of more than two billion inhabitants would have implied “unsustainable” environmental impacts for the planet. However, it was neither convenient nor easy for the developed countries’ elites to refuse the right to development in accordance with the current technological and economic organization. It didn’t matter that western citizens had begun to be seriously concerned with the health and technological risks brought about by pollution and the application of Faustian technologies, which were perceived as being too sophisticated and seemingly out of control. Western leaders needed to strike a new deal, both with their citizens and with the leaders of the booming Asian countries. Citizens from western democracies could have assumed more radical political positions, enhanced by successful green movements which were organizing themselves at the time and could have used some of the ideological apparatuses and even physical facilities left behind by the defeated communist organizations. New green parties were successfully recruiting most of the radicals who were the veterans of the battles fought and (partly) lost in the late sixties and seventies[6].

 Nevertheless, in this period, the construction of the global market was in rapid progress and western corporations needed to reorganize their strategies and productions in order to resist the competition brought by new developing countries. IfIndia,Chinaand the “Asian Tigers” had not entered into the global market so powerfully, thereby opening a new quantitative growth frontier to the traditional industry, the political-industrial western apparatuses might have been more available to restructure themselves in an environmentally friendly way. Moreover, in this hypothetical scenario, the radical anti-capitalist ideology would have gone on, developing a more radical green ideology, the seeds of which had already been sown.

 From Sustainable Development compromise to Sustainable Development fallacy

According to Dale Jamieson (1998), “the phrase ‘sustainable development’ migrated from an obscure report produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in 1980, through several popular ‘green’ books, to become the central organizing concept of the Brundtland Commission Report”, issued in 1987. “Convened by the general Assembly of the United Nations and known officially as the World Commission on Environment and Development, the Brundtland Commission identified SD as the criterion against which human changes of the environment should be assessed, and defined it as development that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’” (Jamieson, 1998: 183-4; U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987: 43). The Brundtland definition of SD overtly includes the notion of “compromise”. Yet the compromise was not between present and next generations, as solemnly announced. The next generation hasn’t been given a stake in the game. Thus, the real deal took place between industrialized western countries and (mainly) booming Asian economies. Actually, the word “development” has an ethical, value-loaded content, while “growth” is merely quantitative and computational. Hence, when we add an attribute to the word “development”, which is meant to question and weaken the intrinsic goodness of it, we are speaking of something else rather than development. The attribute “sustainable” added to “development” implies that we need to slow down on the path along which humanity is proceeding. This means that, in the best case, we are doubtful that this development model is a promising one, or even more precisely, that this is a real development model.

 The previous considerations prove that the Brundtland Commission applied a linguistic trick: they used the word “development” when they actually meant “growth”, or even more bluntly “quantitative growth”, as measured by customary economic indicators. Although an increasing number of western countries’ citizens, politicians and scholars were once and again raising earnest doubts about the two century-old development model, the Brundtland Commission preferred to avoid a critique of it because such a critique would be refused by the developing countries, eager as they were to emulate the western affluence model. Obviously, this compromise was also “sustained” and welcomed by the conservative industrial western establishments that did not have to worry about probable substantial changes in the economic and industrial structure. If we consider the Brundtland Commission’s compromise as an enlightened conservative solution, SD makes a lot of sense. In fact, the international community introduced some limitations in order to slow down a deterioration process of hypertrophic growth – shrewdly defined development – that was nonetheless considered necessary to match some immediate basic needs in poor countries.

 2.3. From Sustainable Development fallacy to Sustainable Development fraud

The problem is that, in the years following the publication of the U.N. Report, even those who might have been in a position to challenge the Brundtland Commission’s report, enthusiastically endorsed the SD fallacy. Therefore, any ethical and political dialectic was swept away from the political debate. The Commission’s solution was not unethical per se, since one may legitimately claim for both the necessity of a compromise to face immediate problems, and the need to slow down change in order to avoid the collapse of the system. But conservatives smuggled SD into the political debate, allowing even progressive groups to understand it as a radical change of the development model, specifically in the relation between humanity and Nature. The Commission’s conservative goal turned out to be unethical, or more precisely, created an unethical situation, when it became the only environmentalist credo available. World political leaders and opinion-makers succeeded in co-opting most of the possible opponents in the compromise. Why did radical environmentalists immediately surrender to the successful SD conservative strategy?

 The real turning point was the 1992 Rio Conference that transformed the SD fallacy into a SD fraud. In the same year, Al Gore, who was running for Vice President in the U.S.presidential election, published his Earth in the Balance (1992). Scholars, practitioners and politicians did not take his essay seriously; it looked like the customary pre-election book that candidates write for propaganda purposes, and indeed, it was that. But Gore’s 1992 essay also revealed the basic environmental policy framework that was going to be implemented in the following years. Gore simplistically proposed an environmental Marshal Plan in order to help ex-Communist countries to recover from environmental disasters provoked by the overthrown regimes. The crucial idea was that you could make good business with environmental policies and that environmental protection was an opportunity rather than a limitation for development. It took a few years before Gore’s proposal was unanimously acknowledged as the official credo of all governments. Unfortunately it was also endorsed by most of the oppositions and even by the most powerful environmentalist groups that in the meanwhile had flourished in Western countries.

 To say that it was feasible to approach the environmental crisis in a radical way, i.e. to choose the option of a thorough change in development policies, does not necessarily mean that this “revolution” was going to take place overnight, or that it ought to be directly political if not even military. Nor should we assume that it would have implied an immediate overthrow of the capitalist system. To a certain extent, the environmental revolution could have been embraced in the process of a Shumpeterian creative destruction which confirmed, rather than negated, the structure of the capitalist system[7]. In the eighties some authors, mainly economists who participated in development programs with powerful institutions such as the World Bank (see e.g., Herman Daly 1977, 1989), proposed a new kind of economic development concerned with the need for a different relation with Nature. Although few believed that they could be instantly implemented, once a revolutionary goal and a process were identified, there might have been several options regarding the pace of appropriate change. Prospecting an alternative to the business-as-usual development would have created a dialectic and creative competition in the political arena. For more than a century socialism and communism, either in their revolutionary Marxist form or in more reformist and welfarist varieties, had been able to stand as an option to what eventually became a new triumphant ideology[8]. This missing dialectic could have been substituted by a new ideological alternative based on a different relation with Nature. The SD fraud prevented its plausible occurrence.

 2.4. The lost opportunity for a new environmentalist ideology

The possibility of establishing a green alternative to the capitalist system was lost for a number of reasons, including the SD fallacy/fraud followed by the decisions of the Rio Conference. First of all, after years of opposing ideologies, i.e. the capitalism vs. socialism pattern, people had lost faith in ideologies and politics, hence the most successful political language was the one calling for “practical” solutions to everyday problems. Advocacy groups, in order to be successful and win followers had to claim to be non-political, independent from discredited party organizations and had to declare openly that they did not pursue any other long term goal except the solution of the specific problem for which they came together. People were convinced of the ineffectiveness of linking the solutions to current problems – no matter how serious and complex, like waste disposal, energy production, and technological risks – to some general change in the political organization that in addition was considered impossible. Thus the anti-system political leaders needed to be consistent with people’s mood if they wanted to conserve their constituency in the short run. They were confused and drifted because they were forced to give up their ideological scheme and substitute their way of thinking and acting. At the same time, the construction of an environmentalist ideology required time and no substitute for the old schemes was yet available.

There were some factors playing in favor of a possible opposition based on environmentalist politics. Among them, there was (a) the mounting fear of technological risks and man-made natural disasters that had produced a rich literature on risk as a contemporary society’s characteristic; (b) the growing inefficiency of the solutions to urban problems offered by customary technologies; (c) the crisis of science, of the scientific method, and of the trust in the scientists’ credibility; (d) an emotional rejection of the artificialization of the world, brought on by extensive and untamable industrial production. Capitalism – in its new forms – had been successful in guaranteeing affluence to many people, mainly in the Western countries. It was easy for the people living in poverty to believe that the same system could work effectively also in the less developed countries, possibly with some minor adjustments. The income differences between poor and affluent countries were so striking that, in the developing countries, people’s hope for the future more than compensated for the perception of problems connected with unequal distribution and with environmental risks.

On the contrary, citizens of western countries no longer hoped for further improvements in the traditional way of life, and, as a result, the elaboration of a new relation with Nature was becoming a true option. Along with this possible new relation between production and Nature, it would also have been likely to propose a new model of citizenship which was able to create a new association between people and places[9]. It might have included innovative considerations about area and administration, federalism, self-government of communities, welfare states and so on. This would have helped integrating the global migrants by applying more updated paradigms rather than those developed for no-longer existing national states. It was possible to claim that the system was unable to coordinate with Nature and was economically inefficient if non-monetary values were taken into consideration. Unfortunately, the widespread distrust of ideologies and grand discourses, the lack of a political leadership interested and educated in environmentalism, and eventually the success of the SD fallacy/fraud, hampered the creation of an alternative.

To create consensus around the SD industrial policy, governments needed to defuse the oppositional power of radical environmentalist political parties and movements that aggregated in the eighties. Because of people’s strong sensitivity to the environmental crisis and the consequent success of green parties and the likes, these groups had become a significant stakeholder in the political debate and might have opposed this conservative policy. The SD fallacy/fraud was applied also to political groups and leaders. Most of the leaders of the green parties and environmentalist advocacy groups had been educated in a political philosophy almost completely unaware of the environmental issues and ethics. Their political training and experience was based on civil rights, labor relations and equality concerns. Only some of these issues had an environmental content, therefore environmental issues occurred as a tangent to other concerns such as in reducing cancer risks for workers employed in chemical industries. Due to the growing environmental consideration of citizens, major western parties supported parallel environmentalist associations. These associations were meant to operate outside official politics, which were more and more discredited in coping with environmental decision-making and were involved in the well-established environment-harming businesses. At the same time, political leaders of major labor parties were able to keep environmental discontent under control through these associations. Some of them, namely the ones closely connected to the parties, became very powerful and large. Thus they had to hire staff and manage thousands of volunteers whose organization eventually needed to be somehow financially “sustained”.

The political discourse did not entail the specificity of the environmental question and relinquished the crisis as much as possible into the hands of scientists. Notwithstanding the growing mistrust for science and scientific corporations, people expected a solution from rational and possibly trustworthy scientists, rather than from a rational ethical discourse (Shrader-Frechette, McCoy: 1993; Jasanoff 1995). This attitude helps in avoiding a challenge to the power of scientific and professional corporations, no matter how crucial it is.

2.5. A bike route aside the nuclear plant

Rio1992 Conference was the turning point for the definitive defeat of environmentalism as a possible alternative to the capitalist system. The idea that governments should invest in environmentally friendly technologies and behaviors was welcomed by almost everyone. Governments took advantage of the new situation by funding industries in order to allow them reconvert a part of their productions and make them “sustainable.” Governments’ funding did not really modify the staple productions and the overall organization. It allowed new investments in lower impact technologies, whose real effectiveness has been often questioned[10].

The disposal of an environmental cultural-political revolution was eventually accomplished. After the 1992 Rio Conference[11], all developed countries’ governments financed SD programs and projects that “sustained” a growing number of self-defined ‘environmentalist’ associations. Research in SD industrial technology was also copiously sponsored. Gore’s Marshal Plan idea was de facto implemented although it primarily benefitted the ecological reconversion of western economies toward a slightly more friendly relation with the environment rather than being applied to developing countries that have gone on adopting older technologies with higher and higher environmental impacts.

The paradox was that often, in order to produce lower environmentally impacting final products for developed countries, most of the ecological components were manufactured in countries with no environmental regulation applied to the production process. The funds granted to environmentalist advocacy associations for implementing marginal projects in the name of SD were crucial in the manipulation of public opinion that eventually assumed the Brundtland Commission’s approach and the Rio Summit’s policy tools as a conclusive solution. Former advocates of an environmental revolution lost interest in acting politically, as they were: (a) busy applying for funds available for ecological projects, (b) involved in cooperative efforts with industry, (c) focused on implementing minor local projects, and (d) lacking a coherent ecological system of values[12]. They were content with the smaller, more visible successes such as, for example, they showed pride in having realized a bike path in a neighborhood, despite the fact that it was located near a nuclear power plant. Environmentalism as a political ethical philosophy lost a large part of its influence and became unable to produce any real change. Environmental policy remained firmly in the hands of those who had created the problems, i.e. scientists, industrialists and technicians.


3.1. An epochal divide

Since antiquity, philosophers have argued the relation between humanity and Nature. However, around the middle of the XX century the relation changed more than it had ever done since humans appeared on Earth. Hannah Arendt proposed that a symbolic date should be fixed on the day when Yuri Gagarin was the first man to see the earth without being part of it. That epochal date could also be fixed on the day Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed. In that moment, for the first time in human history, it became clear that Nature should fear humanity. Until then humans were scared by Nature, as she was mostly beyond their control. This epochal juncture could also be said to have been reached the moment the human genome was mapped, opening the way to cloning the human being and to the biogenetic revolutions already in progress. All this happened in the mid 1900’s. Arendt, like other philosophers and epistemologists, identifies the remote origin of this epochal change in the diffusion of the Copernican theory and in Galileo’s discoveries, which proved that:

“the worst fear and the most presumptuous hope of human speculation (…) and the Archimedean wish for a point outside the earth, from which to unhinge the world, could only come true together, as though the wish would be granted only provided that we lost reality and the fear was to be consummated only if compensated by the acquisition of supramundane powers. For whatever we do today in physics, (…) we always handle Nature from a point in the universe outside the earth.” (Arendt, 1998:262).

The radical epistemic critique has been a major source of inspiration for many environmentalist scholars. This became widespread in the seventies, led by Berkeley’s Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend whose thinking is also related to Adorno and Marcuse’s critical views of contemporary society. Probably the most elegant description of the new situation was offered by Hans Jonas’ reading of Sophocles’ Antigone choir[13]:

Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man; the power that crosses the white sea, driven by the stormy south-wind, making a path under surges that threaten to engulf him; and Earth, the eldest of the gods, the immortal, the unwearied, doth he wear, turning the soil with the offspring of horses, as the ploughs go to and from year to year.

And the light-hearted race of birds, and the tribes of savage beasts, and the sea-brood of the deep, he snares in the meshes of his woven toils, he leads captive, man excellent in wit. And he masters by his arts the beast whose lair is in the wilds, who roams the hills; he tames the horse of shaggy mane, he puts the yoke upon its neck, he tames the tireless mountain bull.

And speech, and wind-swift thought, and all the moods that mould a state, hath he taught himself; and how to flee the arrows of the frost, when ‘tis hard lodging under the clear sky, and the arrows of the rushing rain; yea, he hath resource for all; without resource he meets nothing that must come: only against Death shall he call for aid in vain; but from baffling maladies he hath devised escapes.

Jonas, in the beginning of his essay (1978), maintains that these lines no longer describe the current relation between humans and Nature. For the purpose of these introductory notes, we need to add and focus also on the following lines of Sophocles’ Antigone Chorus:

Cunning beyond fancy’s dream is the fertile skill which brings him, now to evil, now to good. When he honors the laws of the land, and that justice which he hath sworn by the gods to uphold, proudly stands his city: no city hath he who, for his rashness, dwells with sin. Never may he share my hearth, never think my thoughts, who doth these things!

This last part of the chorus is meant to restore the question of the human/Nature relationship to a political and ethical discussion.

3.2. The structure of an environmental problem as a political one: four stages of consciousness

Before approaching the critique of SD pseudo-ideology, firstly we need to define the environmental problem from the political point of view.

Analyzing the definition of the environmental problem from the political perspective in the contemporary environmental political debate, we may identify four types of environmental consciousness which give way to consequential political actions. We may assume that the four types are also stages, ordered in terms of intensity of concern for the environment. Moreover, although the four types are neither listed nor intended as a chronological succession, we stand for an affirmative evolution from the first to the fourth[14].

At the first stage, we can completely deny the existence of problems defined and catalogued as “environmental”. The “environmental file” comprises so many entries that it has become predictably nonspecific. Air, water, and noise pollution, as well as waste disposal, traffic congestion, endangered animal and vegetal species, and so on, are such diverse phenomena that they are not necessarily supposed to be grouped together. Different disciplines and diverse professionals are in charge to study and deal with the previous list of problems. Obviously, this position is now outdated: since three decades ago we have begun to catalogue a group of issues defined by common sense as ‘environmental’. However, although we have adopted a different taxonomy and have grouped them in the novel entry named “environmental”, when we deal with the problems in practice, we still approach them separately. Until a quarter of a century ago, most scholars still refused the idea that a comprehensive approach to environmental problems was necessary. From an epistemic point of view the prevailing idea was that the progress of each science and the advance of applied technologies used by professionals and practitioners was the obvious solution to problems that were not “environmental” but rather chemical, biological, physical, engineering, genetic and so on. Until 1980, there were very few higher education programs in anything called environmental studies, nor had traditional teaching subjects – such as chemistry, engineering, geography – yet added the adjective “environmental” to indicate either a new content or an innovative approach. Economics was the discipline that would have synthesized, in the market monetary solution, each single problem that was worth separating from the others.

The second stage entails a higher degree of concern regarding the environmental crisis: people admit that the relationship between humans and the environment ought to be somehow revised. Therefore, we select a series of different issues worth to be categorized in the same entry as “environmental”. This is a step forward from the first stage because the new classification is meant to lead to building new links between phenomena and situations, and focusing on these links rather than on the single issues. From the scientific method point of view, we can tentatively assume that the first stage accepts the classical reductionist approach; while this second stage is more concerned with an interdisciplinary approach and/or with system analysis[15]. Nonetheless, the scientific approach is still prevailing over any political and philosophical arguing. Thus, the proposed solutions to the newly grouped-together problems, recently defined as “environmental”, proceed in the traditional fashion, i.e. keeping them rigorously separated when we need to manage them practically. Nowadays, this is the most broadly adopted approach. It implies that all environmental problems can be addressed in a purely technical manner. The approach insists that to solve environmental problems, it is enough for each operative organization to merely contribute to their own part. This consequentially leads to a comprehensive vision. At the most we can speak of interdisciplinary knowledge and coordination. SD belongs to this level of concern. People endorse this second level when they assume that traditional technological progress is not only the sole possibility to solve environmental problems, but that this type of solution  will also favor further economic growth.

At the third stage, we break into the field of real environmentalism[16], which can be more or less extreme. In other words, we can avow a shift from environmental “issues” into an environmental “question”. This is something substantially different from the basic recognition that there exist problems, to do with the environment, which can be conventionally grouped and possibly given priority over other problems. This third level of concern implies the existence of a real “environmental question” whose solution would require a change in lifestyle, ethics, laws, technology and production systems. New techniques are not enough to solve the environmental crisis. Rather, we need a new scientific approach, new paradigms. From this perspective, the environmental crisis is not a technical problem. Instead, it is an ethical, social, organizational, and ultimately, a political issue. For this very reason, environmentalists insist on actions unrelated to traditionally fragmented bureaucratic competence. They move beyond solutions organized around the operative and administrative structures of most governments. Consequently environmentalism is revolutionary, i.e., in order to overcome the typically conformist responses to environmental problems, environmentalists believe that the problem should be approached mainly from a political point of view. They assert that, if we do not intend to change the existing relationship among humans, technology, and Nature, then the current breakdown is just being “patched up” using known technology. In this case, current social, political and scientific structures are preserved, becoming even more powerful and sophisticated.

The approach outlined as second stage is not “environmentalist.” It demonstrates a generic sensitivity to environmental problems that can be somehow shared by virtually anybody, independent of their political beliefs. Instead, environmentalism is meant to pick up the environmental issue as a political one and associate it with other crucial political issues such as labor relations, civil rights, citizenship, political participation, citizens’ privacy, tax systems, etc. Moreover, the environmental question has its own specificity and is different from other more traditional political questions.

The fourth stage of concern is the most intense. Radical environmentalists claim that the environmental question today is the pivotal political issue around which all other political and social problems orbit. Environmentalism is viewed as the approach to start with, in order to solve all other political and social issues. In the last three centuries of human history, the political debate has been hinged on social justice and individual freedom. Most of the political theory elaborated in this period was conceived in relation to different and contrasting ideas on how to combine and pursue social justice and individual freedom. This was happening in an era in which a growing wealth needed to be redistributed among peoples and social classes. All other considerations were often deemed a consequence of this priority.

Radical environmentalists would claim that we need to start our political militancy and our theoretical elaboration with considerations about a new deal between humans and Nature. The starting point of the political debate should give priority to environmental preservation, non-human entities rights, the relation between people and territory, bio-citizenship, etc.

The two intermediate positions (stage two and three) are the most likely to be immediately adopted. Yet, the political success of the U.N.’s SD approach has overshadowed the third level. These two positions – both seemingly reasonable and moderate – are indeed separated by a clear philosophical divide which involves opposing environmental and political ethics, and a non-reconcilable epistemology. The dramatic break between these two positions has been underestimated and overlooked. As a result, we do not want to try a negotiation between these two philosophically distinct and seemingly incompatible positions. Rather, we need to make the conflict discernible and hence make both these positions “political”, instead of leaving them to rot in a sterile academic controversy. A new dialectic – which substitutes the vanished dualism between Western democracies capitalism and Soviet communism – can be created if the crucial difference is recognized and given political status.

An authentic and radical environmentalist way of thinking, requires citizens to intervene differently in the political controversy. We must end the idle focus on piecemeal solutions. My position is that the only chance for change is through a cultural revolution which locates the environment at the center of the political debate and makes all other issues subsidiary. Some increasingly unbearable situations, regarding the deterioration of both physical and social conditions of life, may be the fuse to prime the process, i.e. a favorable starting point for creating a political alternative to neo-liberal capitalism[17].

3.3. Definitions of Nature and Environment: Impossible ‘sustainability’ and the postpolitical condition

Nature and environment are very different concepts and there is remarkable philosophical arguing about their meaning. Dale Jamieson has claimed that in some cases they can be used indifferently. Although I agree with Jamieson in relation to the theme of the book in which he advanced this utterance (Jamieson 2008: 2), I argue that this distinction between the two concepts proves useful when we introduce the problem of SD’s pseudo ideology. The word “environment” comes from French and means “all that is (turning) around you”. It concerns both human built artifacts and that which interacts with humans. The use of this word has recently become popular also in scientific and economic language, e.g. in ecology. From an epistemic point of view, using the word ‘environment’ suggests a shift from a science focused on the particular, to the analysis of the relations occurring among diverse and multiple phenomena. Instead, the word and the concept of “Nature” are as ancient as philosophy itself and probably older. In an inspirational essay, Erik Swyngedow (2007) elaborates on Žižek’s argument that there are “several Natures” and that the construction of Nature is a political action (Žižek 2002). Although this statement may be accepted in principle, nonetheless, if we neglect to distinguish between Nature and environment, we lose a critical tool to readdress environmental policies. In fact, by moving from the second to the third stage of environmental concern, as previously described, we may find it helpful to distinguish between environment and Nature.

On one hand we accept to apply the term “environment” to the product of different cultural-political constructions, according to Swyngedow and Žižek. On the other hand, we also use the concept of “Nature” to describe an entity or subject that holds its own standings although it is not part of humanity[18]. In other words, we introduce another “subject” different from humanity rather than assuming that we deal with Nature as with an “object” or even a human artifact[19]. Hence, we assume that a singular Nature – which, as a subject, is intended as an end per se – should be considered in the environmentalist[20] political debate. At the same time, we can maintain that it is possible to conceive and design multiple environments. In the first two stages, we do not need to distinguish between environment and Nature, the latter  being an object owned by humans and possibly within their control. Nature is completely reified. That is why environmental scientists and activists “invariably invoke the global physical processes” and “insist on the need to re-engineer Nature so that it can return to a ‘sustainable’ path” (Swyngedow 2007, p. 20). The questions are: (a) do we hold the right to treat Nature as an object and, hence, are we allowed to engineer it without any moral limit?; (b) do we consider humanity as part of Nature thus humanity should be morally committed to her conservation as much as to its own? If we respond affirmatively to the first question, we do not need to distinguish between Nature and environment. If we respond affirmatively to the second question, then we need to consider human development intrinsically connected to and dependent on the respect for Nature. The choice here is between exploitation of Nature and attunement with Nature. Both positions may imply moral limits to growth and both may presume a transformation of Nature. However, the relation between humans and Nature, the consequent policies, and the conditions for the construction of an environmental discourse are very different in the two cases.

The idea that environment is not distinguished from Nature and that both environment and Nature can be engineered and handled with economic and technological tools, is the keystone of SD policy. The human and political dimension of the environmental question has been circumscribed into the borders of well established economic and technological paradigms elaborated in order to embrace, manage and understand the functioning of society. What has been ignored is the existence of Nature as a separate entity. As long as we consider Nature (and hence “Natures”, as Swyngedow/Žižek claim) as a projected image of humanity and fail to give it a subjective status, we ignore the necessity to renegotiate human/Nature relations on an ethical and thus political ground. As a consequence, we also miss the opportunity to radically criticize the production system and the political-geographical content of citizenship – i.e. relations between the sustainment[21] of peoples, settlement, and political organizations – from this point of view.

Swyngedow and Žižek do not discuss the definition or the status of Nature. In the SD approach, it is not Nature that we consider harmonious: what is harmonious and unquestionable is the production system, the market and political economy which is assumed as (or very close to) a natural science along with classical economics. In this respect Swyngedow and Žižek’s position is much closer to the SD approach than it may appear at first glance. Their critique explores the same battleground where SD maneuvers. SD supporters include Nature in economics, depriving it of any political and ethical status. Therefore, as Jamieson puts it (2008: 22), “disagreement is allowed, but only with respect to the choice of technologies, the mix of organizational fixes, the details of the managerial adjustments, and the urgency of the timing and implementation”. If this is correct, it applies exactly in the same way as the Marxist approach, which implies that social change is fundamentally driven by economic facts and that “environmental problems are caused by the distribution of property rights and incentives”. SD economists and Marxists may disagree about “exactly what is the correct explanation, but they agree about the terms” (Jamieson 2008:22). For both of them, the correct explanation of environmental degradation is one that is fundamentally economic in character. This position is justified if we assume a materialistic idea of Nature and believe that humans are driven by natural forces that determine our behaviors. In a situation like this there is little place for deliberate rational human political action. Although it is acceptable to define this situation as “postpolitical” (Žižek, 1999a:35, 2006; Mouffe, 2005), as reported by Swyngedow (2007: 23), we need to go beyond this dead ended approach and look for what can become “political”, what we can transform into “political” in the coming years.

Swyngedow is convincing when he describes the post political condition built around the inevitability of “neoliberal capitalism as an economic system, parliamentary democracy as the political ideal, and humanitarianism and inclusive cosmopolitanism as a moral foundation”. However the next step should be to make an effort to move from the postpolitical condition to a pre-ideological or neo-political condition. True that this is not an easy task, but, as Žižek (quoted by Swyngedow) proclaims, “authentic politics … is the art of the impossible” (Žižek, 1991b: 199, emphasis in the original) or as a famous ’68 motto goes: “be realistic, go for the impossible”[22].

3.4. SD and the science authority

The weak point of contemporary populism, of which SD is one of the most prominent tools, is the necessity to rely on legitimized science and technocracy. But science and technology are rapidly losing their reputation as the only possible saviors of humanity from natural danger and poverty. On one hand, science has become the slave of a technology dominated by economic and professional corporations. Hence, it has become difficult to rely on the independence of scientists and their institutions from economic power. On the other hand, the complexity of the effects of scientific and technological innovation has made it necessary to introduce value and ethical considerations, regarding technology and research, in any assessment. In current environmental grassroots advocacy, citizens desperately quest for an independent scientific opinion which should come from a legitimate scientist in order to permanently solve problems. However, the truth they long for is not going to emerge and instead, the decision comes from a process of negotiation. Negotiation would be the ultimate political approach, except that the participants involved deny the political content of the decision. The consequence of this refusal to consider the intrinsic ethical-political content of the decision is that nobody focuses on devising political institutions suitable for dealing with environmental decision-making which may include ethical and political arguments as well as scientific and technological matters (Shrader-Frechette 1991).

Swyngedow points out the populist tactics of “not identifying a privileged subject of change (like the proletariat for Marx, women for feminists, or the “creative class” for competitive capitalism)” (2007: 33). The proletariat revolution seems to have failed, although the dialectic juxtaposition between capitalism and communism and the labor movement have helped to enhance workers’ rights considerably. The traditional proletariat is no longer a possible subject of change. Feminists and women are a more viable subject of change vis à vis the environmental problem since feminist theory has already argued that the women/Nature relation is radically diverse from the dominant men/Nature exploitative and “male-rational” relation (Plumwood 1991). We believe that this approach is helpful, but it can only really work as a side argument. In fact, it is divisive and it is not likely to become a shared discourse. The so-called creative class, proposed by Richard Florida (2002), also mentioned by Swyngedouw, operates inside the current system, follows business as usual, and adopts a predictable technology. Thus we assume that creative class, now so popular, is nothing more than a conservative approach and it cooperates to the SD fraud.

This gloomy scenario can be made brighter if we try harder to identify new possible subjects of change. Global warming has been fetishized and used as a bogey to justify an international policy to allegedly protect the entire environment. But people perceive the effects of the environmental crisis in everyday life in different and diverse areas: the amassing of waste, the loss of green land, noise, disproportionate use of energy, traffic, growing distance between place of production and place of consumption, etc. These everyday problems have massive psychological effects since they create an overall sense of up-rootedness. This crisis is also to do with the ‘built’ environment[23], such as urban design, grey shopping centers and their never-ending parking lots, city slums and mass housing in metropolitan peripheries. All this produces a lifestyle that is very dependent on driving, living in isolated houses and apartments, shopping in anonymous global grocery stores, packaging and preserving food, commuting to work and to any other daily activities including leisure. Some claim that this lifestyle is the outcome of people’s market choices. It is true that we choose this lifestyle, but only because there is no alternative available for most of us.

These feelings of refusal of a noisy, dirty, isolated and high environmentally impacting lifestyle – i.e. a rejection of the most common organization of contemporary life – have spread among several individuals and have become a conscious attitude for many. The sociologist Paul H. Ray and the psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson (2000) claim to have identified 50 million adult Americans and another 80–90 million Europeans who they define as “cultural creatives”. These people would be willing to change their standard lifestyle, albeit with different intensities, if they were given the chance. Even if one may dispute the details of Ray and Anderson’s research, the very fact that they have tried to identify a subject of change means that there is a quest and a need for it. The problem is if and how it is possible to transform the “cultural creatives” from a sociological classification into a political subject of change.

3.5. A new dualism needed

We should not overlook the fact that the cosmopolitan order may be fragile and short term. We can already envisage an emerging political and ethical dualism between the West and Islam. Hence the so-called cosmopolitan order really works in Western countries, but it is harshly questioned and fought on a global scale. In the last decade Islam has become a political adversarial theory which embraces some modern beliefs and rejects others. Islam fights against capitalism and secularity opposing religious and political principles. On one hand, this is still an old fashioned approach to world politics since it takes into consideration religious, ethnic and territorial conflicts. On the other hand, Islam has spread all over Europeand North America, and it proliferates in the still hegemonic cosmopolitan order. In Europe and North America Islamic organizations are flourishing and they often catalyze the poor’s discontent giving them hope and identity. Because of the global order, the most likely scenario is a dialectical conflict that will take place inside the global society. If it is advanced by violent ideologies, it may explode into civil wars and into a series of riots and never-ending turmoil. In Europeand North America, the anti-Islam parties and ideologies – generally conservative – that are becoming popular and politically meaningful, reinforce the anti-western, anti-modern Islamic movements rather than curb them[24].

The success of Islamic revolutionary movement is fostered by the lack of an another dialectic alternative within the postdemocratic, postpolitical, cosmopolitan order. I envisage the possible alternative in an effort to construct an intellectual and hence political new ideology based on a different relation with Nature. This is nothing new as it would mean reconnecting with environmentalist movements whose origins go back to the pre-SD green movements. These movements – in which we may include the popular New Age culture – and the theoretical thinking that supported them, have never disappeared although they have temporarily lost their appeal because of the SD fraud. Modernization and capitalism have been extensively studied from a social and political perspective. Several scholars have also addressed the dramatic changes that industrialization has provoked on the relations between Nature and society. However, the latter has never gained the limelight in political discourse[25]. As Mouffe (quoted by Swyngedouw) rightly claims, bio-engineering, extremely advanced de-humanized medicine and bioethics have boisterously entered the political arena creating new divisions among traditional political and religious parties and opinion groups. Thus, why shouldn’t a more extended concept of bioethics, applied to the overall relation between humanity and Nature become a crucial political battleground? In the eighties many scholars and research projects considered environmental ethics and bioethics as part of the same discipline or study area (Tallacchini 2009, Stevens 2000).

We would come to a dead-end if we ground our search for a new policy to contrast the current situation from the usual class exploitation and social justice categories. Historically, one of the main characteristics of capitalism and industrialization[26] has been high energy consumption and resources transformation. This metabolic aspect of capitalism, although it has been treated by scholars since the beginning of the industrial era, has always been kept aside in the political debate. Even the issue of body politics has been passionately linked to exploitation of people by other people rather than employed to investigate the relation between humans and the natural realm. For a long time communist and socialist parties have considered the industrial revolution as a “chicken of the golden eggs”[27] since industry was seen as a tool for the liberation of humanity[28] from mass poverty, and, somehow, from a stingy Nature. Hence, we agree with Swyngedow’s opinion that environmental populism – evoked by the threat of an impending environmental catastrophe – “silences ideological and other constructive social differences, and papers over conflicts of interests by distilling a common threat or challenge to both Nature and humanity” (2007: 32). But, in order to move the debate further, we should conduct research to answer the following questions: why do people rely on populism and disregard other solutions? Can we simply utter that people have been effectively manipulated by the SD fraud? Can we just blame capitalism because a shift occurred from political to postpolitical condition? If the current situation proves that a new postpolitical ideology has taken over the old communism vs. capitalism dualism, and “all people”, at least in the western affluent countries, “are affected by environmental problems”, why should we apply the same analytical and ideological concepts that have been used in the past when the main social problem at the time was income distribution? It is not effective to propose the same approach to a new situation; there is the need to find a new one. Finally, we should consider that the present postpolitical condition is not the outcome of a unilateral decision of a presumed ruling class, but it is itself the result of a conflict. The environmental issue has been put forward by the opponents of the capitalist system, who chose a new battleground instead of the traditional class conflict for the redistribution of growing production.

3.6. Conclusion

I consent with Swyngedouw´s analysis and Slavoj Žižek’s belief who, in Looking Awry, suggests that the current ecological crisis is indeed a radical condition that not only constitutes a real and present danger, but, equally importantly, “questions our most unquestionable presuppositions, the very horizon of our meaning, our everyday understanding of Nature as a regular, rhythmic process”. The clean break occurred in the 20th century has overthrown the idea of a Nature unaffected by human action. This crucial utterance clearly paves the way for a broader arguing about the centrality of the environmental question in the political debate. Žižek and Swyngedow claim that it is easier and customary to foresee the final ecological Armageddon rather than a transformation of the neoliberal capitalist order. But why is this happening and how can we change this condition through political action and intellectual elaboration? Prima facie, we can argue that a millenarian attitude can either work for conservation or for change. Thus, we need to answer another question: why do contemporary people – mainly western affluent countries’ citizens – fear a possible Armageddon to the extent that it has secured such a noteworthy position in contemporary political discourse? Why is this genuine widespread fear, founded among people, causing such a strong reaction, to the extent that the environmental crisis, much more extensively than any other political emergency, has been chosen by the conservation forces, i.e. the neoliberal capitalists, as the main battleground, and the cornerstone of their customary and cyclical “revolutions”, and is skillfully managed in order to preserve the system? Do we really need the threat of an Armageddon in disguise of global warming to promote social change? Is that so impossible to simply long and fight for an improvement in our lives, i.e. in a real development rather than a depressing “sustainable” one?

We should accept that the environmental crisis is different from all the previous ones. As a consequence, the environmental crisis should not be analyzed as one of the recurrent revolts against an unjust political system. The originality of the current situation lies in the fact that the political debate’s focus has shifted from social to natural issues, i.e. from class relations to human/Nature interactions. The traditional interpretative paradigms adopted to understand the society’s dynamics are not suitable if the arguing focuses on the human/Nature changed relation. Thus, old social-conflict-based paradigms fail in creating the grounds for a meaningful political action and in creating a link between scholarly thinking and the beliefs of the people. Before approaching the socio-political specific organization problem, we need to accept that modernization and industrialization have a lot to do with a particular relation between humans and Nature. The evolution of the current science-based technology, introduced in the 16th century, is the outcome of a philosophical negotiation with Nature. Suggestively, Fritjof Capra maintains that, if Leonardo’s systemic and holistic post-medieval scientific approach had prevailed on the more successful Descartes and Galileo’s method, we might have experienced a different evolution of science and of the relationship between humans and Nature. Capra’s idea is evocative, no matter how arguable his thesis is. We have mentioned it because, in relation to the environmental question, we need to call for a paradigmatic shift not only in science and political analysis, but also in political action.

Thus, instead of reiterating the paradigm of Nature as a political construct, it would be more useful from a heuristic point of view to distinguish between Nature and environment and give Nature a political subjective role. Moreover, the centrality of work and labor as a transformation process, as advanced in Marxist theory, has created the grounds for treating Nature as an object exploited by the system in the same way as workers are[29]. The relation between human beings and Nature implies an issue of justice. There is already a rich literature about environmental justice, but most of it focuses on how environmental risks and harm are unequally distributed socially and geographically. Nonetheless, environmental justice may apply to a Nature which includes humanity as a whole.


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[1] In 1992,  Al Gore, campaigning for Vice-Presidency proposed a Marshall-like environmental plan to help the former Communist countries to develop a more efficient and cleaner economy. This plan was never fully implemented, butClinton won a number of votes, thanks to his running mate’s environmental commitment. Gore’s proposal was anything but a new radical green ideology; rather it was a reasonable step forward in the direction Friedman suggested.

[2] It is important to mention some groundbreaking authors such as Rachel Carson (1962) with her celebrated Silent Spring, or Aldo Leopold (1949), among others. Nevertheless, at the time they were isolated writers, no matter how influential in environmentalist thought they have later become. However in this essay I center my analysis on government and institutional statements and policies.

[3] In countries likeItaly andFrance, and later (after the fall of dictators) inSpain andPortugal, Communist parties, closely tied to theSoviet Union, were playing a major role in those countries’ domestic policies.

[4] We refer to the so called ‘Asian Tigers’, namely Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia which can only be considered “small” when compared to China and India, having a population comparable to the one of European Union, United States and the Russian Federation.

[5] We have mentioned Walt Rostow with good reason. In the fifties Rostow, a prominent economist and advisor to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, proposed a development theory that would supposedly explain the “stages” of economic growth and was to be transformed into a development policy. His most famous essay (1960) bears as a sub title “A non-Communist manifesto”.  His ideas have been applied to South Asian development policies and have been harshly criticized, from a methodological and theoretical point of view by Gunnar Myrdal. Myrdal’s main criticism was that Rostow’s development stages implied a non-political and deterministic vision. As well as in SD, Rostow did not question the idea of development and proposed only one possible solution to the development process. Despite being both an influential scholar and a powerful politician in the sixties, his simplistic ideas were soon dissolved and forgotten.

[6] The case of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the ’68Paris student revolt, is probably the most representative inEurope, but similar examples are common all overEurope. In the eighties Cohn-Bendit became a major figure in the German Green party and still sits in the European Parliament. The same has happened to several European radical leaders who moved from former Marx-inspired communists parties (though often critical of the Soviet model) into newly founded green movements.


[7] In Shumpeter’s view, capitalism needs a repeated “creative destruction” to be able to survive and progress. These recurring destructions are anything but revolutionary as they wipe out everything except the structure of the system that remains unaffected by change. My point is that the required change might have been more environment-oriented than the SD solution.

[8] The new idelology, following Swyngedouw (2007:24) is based on three unquestioned icons: (a) a neo-liberal capitalism, as an economic system; (b) parliamentary representative democracy, as the political ideal; (c) humanitarianism and inclusive cosmopolitanism as a moral foundation.

[9] The bio-region movement tried to say something à propos, but the literature on “bio-regionalism” has never taken the political question seriously, thus remaining completely confined to geographical and biological studies.

[10] A good example of this is the car industry that in the SD era has not made significant progress in reducing emissions although it has regularly obtained relevant incentives. Moreover, although the emission problem has been taken somehow into consideration, very little has been said about all the other environmental impacts generated by traffic, car construction and recycling, parking, road construction, social life, etc. The SD fallacy/fraud also introduced the sanctification of public transportation which justified the construction of transportation infrastructures that added to total mobility, and (consequently) impacts, rather than operating as a substitute of private cars or, even better, for reducing the overall mobility. The SD allowed the building of new waste incinerators, supposedly clean, instead of questioning the disproportionate production of waste. And so on.

[11] Another landmark of the SD implementation policy was the European Conference of Sustainable Cities and Towns, held inAalborg (Denmark) in 1994.

[12] Except for point (d) all these outcomes of SD strategy have had some positive effects: e.g. they have created an environmental consciousness among the people who are now more informed and educated in environmental issues.

[13] (http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/antigone.html, translation by R. C. Jebb). Jonas is mainly quoted for his “imperative of responsibility”, i.e. the responsibility that contemporaries should have toward future generations (Jonas 1978). In this respect, Jonas is usually included among the so called “anthropocentric” environmental philosophers (who are opposed to “eco-centric” ones, i.e. the ones who claim for a parity between humans’ and Nature’s rights) because he builds his ethics on human needs. However, there is another crucial theme of Jonas’ argument that is sometimes overlooked, i.e. the consequent responsibility for Nature on which human future generations depends. Thus, what really matters for Jonas and for the “imperative of responsibility” is neither humanity nor Nature, but the relation between the two as implicitly reported in Jonas’ opening quotation of Antigone’s choir. Jonas, moving from the crisis of Western rationality, prospects a radical change in the subject/object relation with respect to Nature and humanity, to the extent that he can be legitimately included among the so called “deep ecologists” (Tallacchini 1996: 4).

[14]  I first proposed this classification in Poli (1994: 125-141).

[15] For this reason there has been intense debate among epistemologists if “ecology” should be considered a “subversive science” (Shephard, McKinley eds., 1969). The ethical and epistemic debate about science and environment, still quite alive in the ’90s, focused also on how to use ecological methods to understand and/or handle environmental problems (Shrader Frechette, McCoy 1993).

[16] The suffixes “ism” and “ist”, added to the word “environmental”, indicate the idea of development of a political movement which goes beyond the single issue and entails a social critique.

[17] In a certain sense, you do not have to be necessarily “anti-capitalist” or thoroughly revolutionary to support the creation of a sound alternative to neo liberal capitalism. Facing an opponent may even help to reinforce the current system.

[18] There is an abundant bibliography about the dualism between antropo-centric and eco-centric environmental ethics and about the distinction between “Deep” and “Shallow” ecology , to quote Arno Naess’ original words.  A pioneering essay on the theme bearing an effective title is Stone’s (1974) “Should Trees Have Standings? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects”.

[19] Otherwise, we can claim that humanity is itself part of Nature so that natural entities have not a lower rank than human beings in terms of moral rights. On this belief a rich literature on animal rights has flourished and a perception of human/nature relation, different from the dominant Judeo-Christian one, has been connected to oriental religions, such as Tibetan Buddhism. This is very interesting and helps elaborating new ideas, but goes beyond the theme of this essay.

[20] We distinguish between “environment” activists and scientists, from “environmentalists ”  according to the previous classification.

[21] Another ambiguity of SD concerns another meaning of the word “sustainable” that recalls the necessity – crucial for poor countries – to provide an adequate “sustainment” to very poor, mainly African, countries’ people whose economy has been devastated by globalization and urbanization. Sustainable development may be intended also from the perspective of “sustaining” (feeding) starving peoples. In this perspective, long term environmental sustainability becomes secondary to the priority to provide food to people. Thus, another possible limit to growth is canceled on the ground of a moral principle that helps in avoiding any discussion on the capability of the capitalist system to both create and solve regional poverty.

[22] “Brilliant politicians are not the ones who keep promises made to their constituency. If politicians maintain all that they have promised, it means that they have not promised enough”. This is what I proclaimed while running for office a few years ago, and probably was the reason why I failed … in this mediocre world. Yet, I still believe it, although I am not going to utter it anymore during a campaign, in the unlikely case I will run again for office. Innovative politicians must propose a vision and show the way.

[23] Warwick Fox (2000) in his introduction to “Ethics and the Built Environment” (a collection of essays) claims that we should pay more attention to urban environment since nowadays most people live in cities, the organization of which is responsible for human health, quality of life and risks.

[24] It has been questioned by many contemporary authors if Islamic integralism is indeed a post modern feature rather than an attempt to restore a traditional order.

[25] The opportunity to readdress political and psychological discourse in order to make it more suitable to deal with the new relation between humanity and Nature was developed in the early nineties by the political philosopher Eckersley (1992) and by the ethicist and psychologist Fox (1990). They identified the eco-philosophical attitude as identification with others and as an extension of the self. This approach introduces eco-feminism that tends to associate women and Nature as they are both the object of men’s exploitation (Tallacchini 1996: 58-59). Eckersley and Fox are just two of the several scholarly attempts to create a new political and ethical basis for a revolutionary environmentalism advanced in the early nineties.

[26] Paul Samuelson provocatively claimed that theSoviet Union production system was not less “capitalistic” than western countries’. In fact, the Soviet industrial system used as much physical capital as the so-called capitalist economies to produce, except that it was state owned capital.

[27] This is the definition given by Filippo Turati the founder of the Italian (reformist) Socialist Party at the turn of 19th and 20th century when in Northern Italy industrial revolution was taking place.

[28] Italics because: (a)  “liberation” is intended not only from social class exploitation and injustice as the extremist socialists were calling for, but also from contingent poverty; (b) only “humanity” matters and no consideration is given to any kind of interspecies or natural justice which, at the time, was an issue completely ignored by the political debate.

[29] We do not deny that recent and less recent Marxist and Marx-inspired literature has treated this issue at large producing an extensive bibliography. However, the humanity/Nature relationship has occupied neither the core of scholars’ concern nor has won the limelight in the political debate.