Greece: the political ecology of disaster

Chronis Polychroniou
28 August 2007

Greece is experiencing an environmental catastrophe. Forest fires are raging through the centre and south of the country, from the Peloponnese to the island of Evoia, near Athens. Sixty-three people have been killed and scores more injured as of 26 August 2007 (a figure that seems certain to rise); many thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes, amid the destruction of entire villages and cultivated landscapes.

Chronis Polychroniou is head of academic affairs at Mediterranean College in Athens, Greece

The crisis has been escalating since late June, when the most intense heatwave in Greece in over a century saw temperatures climb above 40 degrees Celsius for six consecutive days. One forest fire spilled over Mount Parnitha, twenty-five kilometers north of Athens, and turned into ashes the last oasis of lush greenery and semi-wildlife to be found in the Attica region. The scene was an apocalyptic one of utter desolation and destruction, with blazing fires and billowing smoke rising high into the sky. To the fury of many of Attica's 4.5 million people, the authorities had miscalculated the direction of the winds.

In a single day, some 130 different kinds of birds, forty-five different types of mammals including a very rare type of a deer, and thirty different types of amphibians and reptiles vanished in the monster fires that devoured Mount Parnitha.

The Peloponnese fires that raged on the weekend of 25-26 August - as many as 190 separate blazes in total, which provoked the declaration of a state of national emergency by the government - have again exposed the incapacity of the state. A lack of government coordination meant that the armed forces were not deployed, even as ancient Olympia was threatened by the wildfires. The public statements of prime minister Kostas Karamanlis and (especially) his hapless public-order minister Byron Polydoras have become ever more unconvincing. It may be true that, as a frenzied government campaign announces, arsonists are to blame for many of the fires (and some alleged perpetrators have been arrested); but Polydoras's talk of "asymmetrical threats" is an ill-judged endorsement of the language of geopolitics.

Furies of destruction

This crisis demands a longer perspective and a larger mindset than Greek politicians are currently offering. Since the mid-1980s, Greece's forests have been shrinking at an alarming rate, and few of them - even before the current tragedy - retained their historic beauty and diversity. With summers becoming hotter every year and the craving for land development and construction ever more insatiable, wildfires have been growing more severe and destructive. The result is to face the nation with the prospect of an ecological nightmare that will condemn Greece's current and future generations - Athens is already the most polluted of all European capitals - to inhuman conditions.

The ecological and environmental crisis engulfing Greece also highlights the deep flaws of the contemporary Greek political and social landscape. The inefficient and dilatory official response to the burgeoning crisis has revealed a public-administration system staffed by poorly trained personnel (who in key areas collude with bribery-fuelled illegal building in forested areas); a political elite which caters largely to the needs of its financial patrons, and bickers over which of the leading parties (the ruling New Democracy and the opposition Pasok) steals more from the national treasury when in power; and a disillusioned, cynical citizenry.

Would London or New York tolerate large-scale illegal construction in area designated as forest parks? In Greece, as near to the centres of power and legitimacy as the outer suburbs of Athens, even the public-utility companies become part of the corrupt "exchange system" as in many cases they end up providing the owners of the new structures with access to electricity and water.

This, then, is a civic and political disaster as well as an environmental one. The Greek state is visibly ill-equipped to cope; it is dependent on technical assistance from its European Union partners in the short-term effort of firefighting and fire-prevention, and has no developed long-term plan that meets the needs of forest restoration and ecological management. Greek governments' lack of political will and governing capacity in dealing with the problem of forest fires (including those started deliberately) represents the national disgrace of the entire political and judicial system.

Winds of change

All nations at important moments in their history face pivotal moments when they must urgently address pressing matters of great collective concern if they are to avoid regression. For Greece, such a moment has arrived. Unfortunately, neither of the two major political parties that have taken turns to govern the nation since the end of military rule in 1974 have displayed the administrative competence or the intellectual understanding now required to address the ecological threat confronting the country. If the general election scheduled for 16 September 2007 goes ahead in the wake of this crisis, it may become an opportunity to deliver a verdict on the incompetence of the New Democracy government; but the problems exposed by the wildfires evidently go far deeper than a mere change of administration would correct.

The nation is in dire need of new, bold, courageous leadership. It urgently requires a long-term strategy that pioneers will a sea-change in the country's approach towards the environment. Shortcuts will be very dangerous. Complacency may be fatal. Moral consciousness must be awakened and a grand vision needs to be developed to avert the nation's ecological collapse.

It is a genuine shame that a country that gave form and shape to democracy and civil virtue and once prided itself on the cultivation of aesthetics as the true meaning of life today displays astounding mental perversity in sacrificing the environment and its ecological system on the altar of greed and political clientilism. This is a true Greek tragedy.

May the wind-breathing gods of change come to life and spare my country from the political ecology of disaster. If they do not, even worse is to come.

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