Volcanoes, plastic and mafia in the Gulf of Naples: the three heads of Cerberus
From the ashes of volcanic eruptions and the wreckage of organized crime, a new, modern giant has risen: the huge mountain of disposable plastic poured over the astonishing megalopolis that is Naples. Residents seem blind to the environmental disasters, - or has a life-saving type of inertia taken hold of them? After nearly two decades of regular visits to the Gulf of Naples, I share a few thoughts on what may underlie a mindset formed by millennia of history, using the mythical dog Cerberus as a metaphor for the threats of volcanism, waste and crime to a community that has refined the art of surviving.
Text and photos: Kathelijne Bonne. photo at top: dead forests at the Monte Somma crater in Vesuvius National Park.
Cerberus is the hound with three heads from Greek mythology that prevented the dead from leaving Hades and the living from entering it. Each dog head can represent a problem: the volcanoes, the camorra (Neapolitan mafia) and the plastic garbage, all three ignored or discussed only with great reluctance. It is visitors like me who try to mention them, especially the exorbitant usage of single-use throwaway plastic, as described in Plastic eruption in the Gulf of Naples. Why would an outsider care about our problems, some citizens must have thought. In light of the climate crisis, we are all in the same boat, is my usual reply. Plastic pollution in Naples and the Mediterranean, or anywhere on Earth, does concern us all.
Two centuries ago, when artist William Blake (1757-1827) created the above illustration of Cerberus, he was already agonizingly aware of the value of nature, and of the sense of loss when nature is culled: "The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way... ", he wrote in a letter in 1799 and published in the book The Portable Blake edited by Alfred Kazin.
Nature as a backdrop
Not much has changed since Blake was confronted with nature being seen as only a backdrop, or even a nuisance, for the advance of 'civilization'. Nature still stands away for many today, and in Naples, Campania and beyond, it continues to be severely littered, due to indifferent authorities failing to keep the environment clean - probably crippled by the camorra -, and individuals continuing to buy, use, waste and dump baffling amounts of plastic every day. While the matter is complex and multilayered, I've always wanted to find an explanation for the locals' lack of awe to the unique natural and cultural heritage in the Gulf of Naples. Maybe it can be found in the fact that southern Italians have withstood mutiple natural disasters, plagues and mob tyranny for centuries, in addition to "ordinary" societal issues.
As more causal links are being made between natural disasters and upheavals in human history - which Jared Diamond in particular focused on in his book Collapse -, maybe there are also links between the volcanic and criminal threats in Naples, and the overall mentality. Just as the Middle East lies at a crossroads of ancient cultures, diverse landscapes and deadly tectonic fault lines, Pompeii, Baiae, Herculaneum, Kyme and Partenope (now Naples), were once prosperous, despite, or because of, the surrounding violent nature, which gave way to productive soils, and gave rise to a densily populated agglomeration.
The key question is: How did both volcanoes and the mafia contribute to the disproportionate environmental degradation in an otherwise fertile area? Let's look into Cerberus' three pairs of eyes.
First head of Cerberus: the
Absolutely unmentionable is the camorra, the Neapolitan tentacle of the mafia that has crippled Campanian society. To what extent the individual Neapolitan suffers daily from the camorra is not clear; after all, it is never talked about. But the faltering economic condition, and difficulties in individuals' professional and personal progress has certainly stemmed from it. The mafia's potential field is engrained in the collective mentality so that there is an atmosphere in which people have little incentive to try something new.
Only if you become indifferent to the faltering public services can you live well and happily. This same tactic is used to tolerate the other abuses and threats, and pretend they don't exist. The camorra has influenced the overall way of thinking and living, which has extended into the attitude of indifference towards the environment.
Second head of Cerberus: the volcanoes of Naples
Naples is overshadowed by two active volcanoes, Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei. Someday, the whole region may just blow cataclysmically as it did 39 and 15 thousand years ago, and in 79 AD, 1538, and many times later. Eruptions don't happen without at least a few warning signs - earthquakes and gas emanations - but over the centuries the threat must have created an undercurrent feeling of "everything is temporary, live today."
Volcanism and the threat of eruption is hardly talked about in Naples, it is not a hot topic of conversation, except among tourists and visitors. It is not as unmentionable as the mafia, though. Because the volcano will not discriminate when it erupts.
Since the last eruption of Vesuvius nearly 80 years ago, the slopes have become more crowded than ever with chaotic streets and ramshackle-looking houses and palazzos. The Vesuvian Observatory higher up does not give the impression of hosting a team of top experts with the latest cutting-edge technology keeping a close eye on one of the world's most famous, longest studied, most dangerous and most densely populated volcanoes. The road leading up to it is littered with trash. Plastic bottles poke through the metal fence at the entrance to the Osservatorio. The plastic trail leads on to the parking lot at the crater, where the black sand is also littered. Even a volcano won't get us down, the plastic users, whoever they are, seem to be saying.
Yet here lies the 'craddle' of volcanology: As the authors of Volcanoes of Southern Italy (Guest et al., 2003) write, "the area was the center of Western civilization in classical times, therefore there is a longer, more continuous history of observed volcanism than in almost any other part of the world".
Flegrei, Europe's supervolcano similar to Yellowstone, is located to the northwest of Naples. It is a large restless complex of many volcanoes, almost
completely urbanized except on the steepest slopes where lush nature overgrows
the crater slopes. Large
eruptions like 39 and 15 thousand years ago can have a huge regional, even
global, impact. And the world, let alone Italy or Naples on their own, is
utterly unprepared for that. Even an eruption like Tonga in early 2022 would have
caused unimaginable damage in an overpopulated region - and Campi Flegrei is
potentially capable of greater eruptions. But colossally large eruptions are
fortunately extremely rare. Smaller eruptions - such as Monte Nuovo in Pozzuoli
in 1538 - occur more regularly, with significant but localized damage. The latest research use the ominous term 'volcano rupturing' in Campi Flegrei. The islands of Ischia and Procida are also volcanic and lie at the edges of the Campi Flegrei. Landslides are a real threat especially on the steep slopes of Ischia, read more about last year's natural disaster in Grand Tour of the volcanoes of Europe.
What if there really is an eruption? It is not clear whether the urban planning took into account efficient Japanese style evacuation strategies since everything seems to have grown organically. Rapid evacuation is not possible, it can only be phased. The quarter of Agnano, a cluttered busy agglomeration that has thermal baths, a racetrack, industries and wineries, is actually a large low-lying crater, bounded on all sides by steep flanks and accessible mainly through tunnels under the volcanic tuff rocks. Both Agnano and Pozzuoli are most likely to be buried under pyroclastic clouds and ashes, according to the risk maps of Professor Lirer from the University Federico II of Naples and for which Mount St Helens is also hugely notorious.
There is, unfortunately, a worldwide lack of investment and cooperation in volcanic disaster planning, while disproportionate money does go into tracking asteroids, which are much less likely to hit Earth. Since Tonga erupted, attention did renew somewhat, mainly because Tonga was expected to cool the climate.
As a result, people in Naples are at first glance unconcerned about what to do in the event of an eruption, which is probably the best way to live well and stress-free. Indeed, people in southern Italy live from day to day, enjoying the best the area has to offer: the food, products from the fertile volcanic soils and mild Mediterranean climate.
Third head of Cerberus: Pollution and degradation
The decline of Italian nature is the third head of Cerberus. The vast majority of locals do not lose sleep over it because they seem to have the habit of simply leaving single-use plastic where they use it, e.g., on streets, bars and beaches. Excessive pollution is not new, but in recent years drought too, often followed by torrential rains, has been increasingly common, increasing the risk of landslides. On Mount Vesuvius, much of the forests are dead, and the battered skeletons of the trees and the lingering garbage problem make the journey to the crater not nearly as inviting as it was on my first visit twenty years ago.
Left: pollution at the crater, Parco Nazionale del Vesuvio. Middle: oak forests at the archaeological site of Cuma. Right: Advancing tree of heaven shoots at Campi Flegrei.
North of Naples, soils are degraded and the agricultural land look dead. The soil of the plain around Mondragone - a mafia hub - is brown, black and gray, nothing grows, after years of industrial pollution from farming, extreme drought, deforestation and forest fires on the neighboring mountain slopes. Driving on the highway from Naples to Mondragone is not a lovely sight.
On the other hand, Naples itself is still lush and green. This is not due to good city management but to the resilience of nature itself, the rich volcanic subsoil, and due to the "poor" maintenance of public spaces: invasive species such as trees of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) are left to sprawl.
Thanks to the resilience of nature, there are glimmers of hope. In a residential neighborhood outside Mondragone, you can see how quickly nature can recover when it gets help from knowledgeable garden lovers. Fruit trees and ornamental flowers grow very well, attract pollinators, and one garden can provide enough fruit harvest for a household, or more.
Despite the problems in which the country and its sustainable transition are entangled, there is an immense untapped potential to turn the tide on the dire natural and social situation. Should we be able to encourage or help Neapolitans to make the Gulf of Naples a biodiversity hotspot both on land and in the sea, all would benefit, and Naples would become a more attractive place for ecotourism and residents alike.
If not, Cerberus is going to have to get really riled up to avoid Hades breaking loose, or us tumbling in there ourselves.
I wrote about the Plastic eruption in the Gulf of Naples because after the introduction of the ban in 2021, the plastic addiction continued without fail, despite several campaigns. You can read about other Italian volcanoes in the Grand Tour of the Volcanoes of Europe, where you will discover which crater the popes prefer on their holidays, or read about the announced eruption of Cumbre Vieja, or about other geological hazards of La Palma. Mount Saint Helens caused a huge disaster more than 40 years ago, what preceded still causes goosebumps. Also read about the Mediterranean Sea that once almost completely dried up, and its effects on Miocene wildlife, or stay in Italy and read about Carrara marble, which originated on the Jurassic seabed until it ended up in Michelangelo's studio. In my first article on Italy and the Campi Flegrei, Europe's supervolcano, you'll read why old buildings in Naples are yellow, what Pliny the Younger saw from Capo Miseno, how Neanderthals may have died out locally, and what ashes preserved in ice cores of Greenland tell us about a few super eruptions.
Kathelijne: As a nature lover and earth scientist I am intrigued by how life, air, rocks, soil, ocean and societies interact on geological and human timescales.
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