It’s Elemental

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. 

An important set of referenda was offered to the consideration of the Italian people on June 12th; the results were fascinating, and potentially instructive. 

The referendum invited the populace to reflect on three seemingly unrelated matters: 1) whether to pursue nuclear power as a new energy source; 2) whether to privatize the water management in the country; and 3) whether to undo the several legislative protections that Silvio Berlasconi had set in place to protect himself from what he deemed punitive and politically motivated legal proceedings directed at an administration that seems now merely to limp helplessly along from scandal to scandal. 

The overwhelming voice of the people was clear, and communicated with an overwhelming majority that bodes ill and ominous for the current regime, but offers some grounds for hope to a democratic citizenry that has all-too-often felt powerless in the face of a Neoliberal juggernaut. And not just in Italy; this is a development with exciting global implications. 

The third of these issues was clearly political, and had a certain predictability about it, after the nearly continuous revelation of corruption and abuse of power so prevalent in the current regime. 

But the other two matters are not so directly political; rather, they are elemental

In fact, the eminently Roman reasoning behind these reflections on Italian energy and Italian water take us back to the pre-Christian religion of the Empire, an empire that considered pure water to be one of the most powerful symbols of good governance.  A virtuous government provides its people with clean and abundant water; this was a political implication of the Roman religious intuition of the interactive relation of the four elements (fire, air, earth and water). 

Still more fascinating than these “elemental” reflections was the reasoning that lay behind the resounding No to the possibility of building nuclear energy facilities on the Italian peninsula (there are none at the present time). Germany’s recent nuclear backtracking had a lot to do with security and spent nuclear fuel.  But here in Italy it was all about the water, maintaining the purity of the water. 

The left-leaning pamphlets urging citizens to vote put the matter pithily: perche l’acqua è di tutti, “because water is everything (and for everyone).” 

The ancient Romans were the great masters of hydraulic engineering.  There are reasons why Rome’s extensive network of aqueducts is one of the most enduring symbols of the Empire. The ancient Romans were experts at moving water around–“keeping the good water inside and the bad water out,” as a plumber friend of mine put it recently.  

“That’s not as easy as it sounds,” he added, with a sad shake of the head. And that’s what this referendum reminded us about, the fundamental relation of the elements. 

The recent disasters in Japan demonstrated all over again how elemental, and how interconnected, these matters really are. The earth shuddering, the elemental force of water moving in massive density and at high speed, the shattering pollutive potential of nuclear waste seeping into water, whether groundwater or seawater, as well as into the ground, or dispersing on the wind. 

Earth.  Water.  Fire.  Air. 

Even Pope Benedict XVI seemed to weigh in on the referendum, albeit in an unexpected forum. On June 9th, he met with six new ambassadors to the Holy See—from Moldova, from Equatorial Guinea, from Belize, from Syria, from Ghana, and from New Zealand—and he took the opportunity to share some reflections on the importance of what he called a human ecology. “The first six months of this year have been marked by innumerable tragedies,” the Pontiff observed, “which have concerned nature, technology and people.” He continued by offering a spiritual reflection on all three. 

Nature, he noted, is indeed created to provide for the life and well-being of human beings. But in fact, he added.  The relationship between the human and the world is more reciprocal and symbiotic than this, as our technology has made abundantly clear to us.  Human intervention can amplify or destroy a biological system.  We may live and we may die at the hands of technology.  Technology’s double-face was the real heart of this expression of Papal concern.  He pled for greater technological innovation renewable energy sources, warned about the vulnerability of water and of land, and insisted that this was a fundamental human right, a sort of ecological law of peoples. 

Benedict XVI had raised similar concerns in an under-reported video conference he held with the crew of the International Space Station on May 21st.  He asked the astronauts what influence their privileged view from space had on the way they looked at international conflicts, and world affairs.  Astronaut Mark Kelly replied that the view from space offered a single world without  national borders, but that he recognized that these borders mattered in a world increasingly consumed with competition for limited energy resources.  He added that the International Space Station was powered by an entirely renewable network of technologies that provided them with considerably more energy than they needed.  If such technologies were more readily available on Planet Earth he added, “we could possibly reduce some of that violence.”    


These are suggestive moments in series. The Pope spoke of the politics of energy with astronauts aboard the Space Station just three weeks before the Italian referendum.  He offered his reflections on “Human Ecology” just three days before the referendum. And now the Italian people have spoken, in overwhelming majorities. 

In its heyday, the Roman Empire was capable of piping several thousands of gallons of water into the imperial city, per citizen, per day.  It seemed as if every emperor felt compelled to build an enormous public bath project as a gift to the Roman populace.  Still today, the Eternal City is awash in public fountains whose crystal clear water flows continuously, and the drinking of which is a supreme delight on hot summer days. 

Water is recognized for what it is, in Rome: as a gift—a gift of nature, yes, but more to the point, a symbol and a gift of good governance. 

Perhaps that is where to find the logic linking the referenda on Sunday.  Nuclear power is a threat to the purity of the water.  Privatization is equally a threat.  And so is corrupt government. The unifying logic here is that simple, that elemental: protect the purity of our water. 

For water—so said the Greek poet, Pindar, well before the architects of this referendum—”is sweetest and best of all.” 


Louis A. Ruprecht, Jr. holds the William M. Suttles Chair in Religious Studies at Georgia State University.  He is an affiliate faculty member with the Hellenic Studies Center, is a research fellow of the Vatican Library Secret Archives, and regular contributor to Religion Dispatches.  Lou earned his MA in Theology and Ethics at Duke University and his PhD, Graduate Division of Religion, from Emory University.  He is the author of six books including Was Greek Thought Religious, God Gardened East, and This Tragic Gospel: How John Corrupted the heart of Christianity.

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