The Riace model, climate change and the social imagination

I was a small child when the Riace bronzes were found. An amateur diver spotted them at a depth of less than ten metres, not far from the shores of the small Calabrian town that still gives them their name: two magnificent and perfectly preserved Greek statues, some twenty-five-centuries old, likely jettisoned by a boat in trouble as they were being transported to Italy along that well-travelled route, around the time when the Roman republic became an empire.

It was a sensational discovery, as few unbroken works from the high period of Greek sculpture have survived. The restoration took the best part of a decade and was followed by immensely popular exhibitions in Florence and Rome. The bronzes were then returned not to Riace but rather to the regional capital of Reggio Calabria. Passing through with my family during a trip to Sicily, we were unable to admire them as the queue ran all the way around the local archaeological museum.

In 1998, nearly thirty years after the discovery of these ancient shipwrecks, another boat left Greece for Italy and ran aground near Riace. This time its cargo was human beings: nearly two hundred Kurdish asylum seekers whose journey had begun in northern Iraq. They walked into the town along the highway, in single file, and the people of Riace did their best to welcome them. A long economic decline and an ageing resident population meant that the small town had no shortage of shelter to offer. But housing those weary travellers inside actual homes was only the first step. In the coming months and years, Riace reinvented itself as the città dell’accoglienza: a capital and model for the integration of asylum seekers.

Over the next two decades, just as the political climate in Italy and the rest of Europe became steadily more hostile towards migrants and refugees, Riace pushed in the opposite direction, expanding and radicalising its model. It did so with very few resources: the state disburses a mere 35 euros (AUD 55) per asylum seeker per day, which have to provide for their entire welfare. Wishing to give its new residents autonomy in how to spend their share, but also faced with frequent delays in the provision of these funds, Riace started printing vouchers to spend at local shops. (The shopkeepers could afford to wait for the money to come in without going hungry.) At the same time, under the banner of an association called Città futura, or future city – a likely nod to one of Antonio Gramsci’s early works – a number of projects were developed to provide asylum seekers with employment opportunities, not only in the areas of maintenance and sanitation, but also through a number of artisanal workshops in which to acquire new skills or share one’s knowledge.

As a result of these efforts, Riace has both revitalised itself and provided invaluable, life-changing assistance to thousands of asylum seekers – not only those who decided to stay (and who account for roughly a quarter of the town’s current population) but also to the many more who moved on to other parts of Italy and Europe. Yet instead of looking for ways to replicate the success of this model, the Italian government has attempted to destroy it: firstly, under the last centre-left government, by declaring its voucher system illegal and withholding the resettlement funds; then, under the current government and its openly xenophobic minister of the interior, Matteo Salvini, by making towns of Riace’s size ineligible for the resettlement program. In a further twist, last October mayor Domenico Lucano was arrested for aiding and abetting illegal immigration, while his Ethiopian-born partner was banished from the town.

These latter, dramatic events unfolded at the same time as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was releasing its landmark report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C. Coverage of the report dominated the news worldwide, painting a dramatic new picture not just of where the world is heading but of where it already is.

As the IPCC made conclusively clear, we live under a new timeline. Radical and urgent political change is required not so humanity can thrive but so it can survive. Furthermore, these changes cannot be limited to some nations or regions: the pursuit of climate justice across borders is now a necessary condition for keeping emissions below the threshold. Omitted from the policymakers summary of the report was a section warning of the mass displacement of people from the tropics. Nevertheless, the most cursory reading of the document ought to make it clear that the ongoing war on migrants and refugees will become even more inhumane and untenable in the years to come.

Under this new timeline, all of the world’s problems are due to come to a head at once, like in a medieval prophecy of doom. For this reason, it can be difficult to grasp the overwhelmingly positive benefits that solving them would bring. Consider global health. Drastically reducing emissions in our cities could save the 7,000,000 lives that are lost to air pollution every year. Research by the International Monetary Fund has identified the omission of health damages as the largest of the subsidies provided to global fossil fuel industry. As Margaret Chan has noted in The Lancet, the value of these subsidies is larger than the total health spending by all of the world’s governments.

As it happens, the Australian response to both climate change and the refugees crisis is firmly grounded in the old timeline. The indefinite offshore detention of asylum seekers and the refusal to set aggressive emission targets follow the same rationale and logic: they are pathways both to present suffering and to future disaster. It is not possible to ‘stop the boats’ any more than a small coastal town in Calabria or the entire continent of Australia can hope to turn away the sea.

Like climate justice, the successful resettlement of displaced people is one of the conditions for thinking of a future society. Riace isn’t alone in trying to meet it: the are many other communities in the rest of Italy and around the world – from Lessebo in Sweden to Nhill in South Australia – that are doing similar work. Even beyond the countless lives that have been changed in the process, the paramount value of this model is that it exemplifies the social imagination that our moment demands. As the IPCC has stated, keeping global warming under 1.5°C will require transformations for which there is no historical precedent. Quite simply, being able to imagine a different world has become a matter of survival.

It is hard to cultivate this hope when faced with the reality of the hardening of borders and the global rise of racist populism. However, there is simply no alternative. Mayor Lucano has described life in Riace as the ‘utopia of normality’. It’s only by realising such utopias that we can have any future at all.


 Image: when the Riace bronzes were discovered in 1972.

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Great read. Thanks. I’m definitely calling in at Riace on my next trip through those regions, just to feel inspired by a generosity paid back times over. Made me recall too the post WW2 migrant boom in Australia, where, as a kid, I would play with immigrant kids and eat out at a different country kitchen and learn of different cultures and different languages on a weekly basis, aware too of the xenophobia of once respected adults who were meant to be role models for good rather than unwarranted racial suspicion. Pity those negatives seem always to be the norm when displaced persons show up on these and similar other shores.

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