Thursday, October 12, 2017

Italians good at following rules when they are discreto, valido . . . and attainable

I just read that Italians are the best in Europe when it comes to recycling waste, which was a surprise to me. I still see a lot of litter along country roads and the occasional discarded mattress. But that just might mean that there aren’t people who patrol to pick up litter. Italy is also home to the infamous ‘triangle of death,’ an area around Naples where the Mafia has reportedly dumped 10 million tons of toxic and household waste over the past two decades.

Lucy with blue bags for multi-
materiale and the white box ready
to take our carta down to the street.
But the numbers come from a valid source: Eurostat. It is the official statistical office of the European Union, located in Luxembourg, and its purpose is ‟to provide high quality statistics for Europe . . . to enable comparisons between countries and regions.” And Eurostat says Italy is far and away the best, recycling 76.9% of its industrial, urban and other waste. This compares to a European Union average of 37%. By comparison, France is 54%, the UK 44% and Germany 43%.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised, though. It took us months to figure out the complicated system of disposing of waste here in Montecarlo (see I feel weirdly happy . . .). I’m glad to know that the time I take to separate my garbage into multiple categories is helping Italy and its international reputation.

It reminds me of an important lesson I learned about Italians from Tim Parks, the author of several books about living in Italy. Parks, British born, lives in Verona, and his early experiences in Italy are instructive when it comes to adapting to the Italian mentality.

In Italian Neighbors, Parks tells about a friend named Giampaolo, who enjoyed discussing politics and ultimately used the words discreto, valido and relativo to describe almost every Italian law and regulation. Discreto is similar but not exactly the same as discreet in English. Discreto means ‟to comport oneself in a mode appropriate to the situation, not lacking in regard.” Giampaolo tells Parks the new law on drunk driving ‟has been drawn up discretamente (i.e. with intelligence, if not flair) and is in fact for the most part valido (sound, functional), but all of this is relativo (of only secondary importance), since the instruments for enforcing the law are not available, or if they are nobody has any intention of using them.”

Giampaolo could apply those words to almost any area of life. Parks writes: ‟The Italian system of autostrade . . . is definitely discreto, road surfaces and markings are always valido, but all of this tend to be relativo, since with the exorbitant price of gasoline and the very high tolls, one would need to be rich indeed before one could use the roads with regularity.”

Parks continues: ‟And so, if you encourage him, he will go on all evening: the constitution, the electoral system, the TV networks: discreto, valido, relativo. It is a curious and, I believe, curiously Italian stalemate, in which ineradicable Italian pride (and why not?) exists side by side with a sense of cynicism (equally justifiable) and, at the end of the day, resignation. The judicial system has been ‘conceived discretamente bene,’ and the constitution in this regard is undoubtedly valido, in that it establishes the total independence of the judiciary. But whatever the institutional makeup, it is inevitably only relativo given the endemic corruption that always allows the mafiosi to get of scott-free.”

This explains why Italians often double park or even stop in the middle of the street and run into a store to conduct their business. If there is no other way, even the police will understand and won’t write a ticket, and the people who are blocked in by the double-parker realize that on another day, they may need to be the ones blocking someone else for a few minutes.

However, in the case of recycling, the system is discreto and valido without being relativo—because the little trucks come by daily to pick up the designated waste. It turns out that in fact, Italians are actually very good at following rules, if there is a valid system of regulation in place. They’ve spent centuries living in close quarters with their families and neighbors, and they’ve learned to be patient with each other and their country’s slow bureaucratic system.

For some examples, Italian cars have more strict pollution control regulations that do vehicles in the United States. Some large cities are banning motor vehicles on certain days of the week to improve air quality. Limited traffic zones (streets open only to those with ZTL permits) are common all over Italy. All of these rules seem to be followed with little complaining on the part of citizens—because they are discreto, valido and, more or less, enforced evenly.

Automatic cameras catch speeders or people driving without ZTL permits. Tickets are sent by mail, and there is no policeman to argue with or try to bribe (this may not be the best argument about Italians following rules, though, since the locals all know where the speed cameras are and still drive like maniacs between them).

Of course, there still is much waste in Italy, not of the type put in bins but in governmental excesses. That may be why Italy still retains a general reputation for corruption and dishonesty. However, as one can see by the success of Italian recycling programs, a majority of Italians prefer to be discreto when following laws that are valido—as long as it is easily attainable and everyone else is doing it too.


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