TOAfter World War II, the countryside of Greece experienced two debilitating human waves: an exodus of villagers and then a very peculiar human invasion of its margins. These two waves, aided by a weak state and instigated by the climate crisis, have turned the low-level drama of the naturally redeeming wildfires into this summer’s heartbreaking catastrophe.
After heat waves of unprecedented longevity, wildfires during the summer months have so far destroyed more than 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of ancient pine forests. They have blackened swaths of Attica, burned parts of ancient Olympia, and razed the magnificent forests of northern Evia, whose rural communities lost their homes, not to mention their livelihoods and landscapes.
To understand why this is happening, we must understand the trajectory of urban and rural development in Greece. War and poverty caused a mass exodus from the countryside that began in the late 1940s. Villagers who did not emigrate to countries like Germany, Canada, and Australia descended on Athens. Combined with lax urban planning, this surge in humanity quickly turned the Greater Athens area into a concrete jungle. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, the same people dreamed of a partial return to the countryside, of a summer house in the shade of some pine trees, near Athens and, preferably, in some proximity to the sea.
To these petty bourgeois dwellings, which in the 1980s were scattered throughout Attica, in the mid-1990s were added the middle-class suburbs. Villages and shopping malls gradually encroached on the forested areas of the interior bordering Athens, at a rate that reflected economic growth driven by money borrowed from EU banks or provided through EU structural financing.
It is as if we are looking for trouble. Fire is a natural ally of the Mediterranean pine forests. It helps clean the soil of old trees and allows the young to thrive. By helping themselves with the wood on a daily basis and employing tactical burning every spring, the villagers once prevented these fires from going haywire. Unfortunately, circumstances not only forced the villagers to leave the forests, but when they and their descendants returned as atomized urbanites to build their summer houses within the neglected forests, they did so without having any traditional communal knowledge or practices.
Europe’s famous north-south economic divide has a counterpart in the forests of Greece. In countries such as Sweden or Germany, forests were intensely commercialized. While this meant the disappearance of ancient forests and their replacement by arid plantations, farmland or pastures, at least the countryside was not abandoned as Greece was. In a sense, the sorry state of Greece’s countryside, rapid and unregulated urbanization, and our weak and corrupt state are all reflections of the country’s atrophic capitalism.
Greek governments had been aware of the unsustainability of our land use model since the wildfires began to take revenge on us in the 1970s. Deep down, they knew it: we had collectively violated nature, and now nature he was exacting his long and prolonged revenge. Convinced, however, that their chances of re-election were doomed if they dared to tell the voters that perhaps they should give up the dream of that cabin in the woods, abandon the plan of suburbanization of the pine forests, the governments chose the easy trail: they blamed hot winds, diabolical arsonists, bad luck, even the odd Turkish saboteur.
Collective responsibility was the first victim of all hells. The 23In July 2018, in a coastal settlement north of Athens known as Mati, a demonic fireball incinerated 103 people in minutes, including a friend. The cause was obvious to anyone willing to take a disinterested look at the way the dense settlement had inserted itself into an aging pine forest, with narrow streets offering no realistic chance of escaping the inevitable fire.
Unfortunately, neither the government nor the opposition dared to admit the obvious: that we should never have allowed that settlement to be built. Instead, they yelled at each other endlessly, playing a blame game that did not respect victims, society, nature.
Even when governments tried to modernize their practices, they made things worse. In 1998, in an attempt to professionalize firefighting, the forest fire suppression unit (hitherto run by the forestry commission) was dissolved and incorporated into the urban fire brigade. The resulting economies of scale came at a cost: terminating the large-scale forest clearing effort that the wildfire suppression unit used to undertake every winter and spring.
Following the natural instinct of the urban bureaucracy to favor high-tech solutions and to disparage traditional practices, the unified fire brigade effectively withdrew from the forests and instead concentrated on a strategy of installing firebreaks around built-up areas. , while shelling the forest fires. from the air – using aircraft that most of the time cannot fly due to adverse conditions.
Then, in early 2010, there was the undeclared bankruptcy of the Greek state. Soon, dozens of officials from the EU and the IMF, the infamous troika, would arrive in Athens to impose the toughest austerity program in the world. All budgets were ruthlessly slashed, including those for the protection of citizens and nature. Thousands of doctors, nurses and, yes, firefighters were laid off. In 2011, the general budget of the fire brigade was cut by 20%.
In the spring of 2015, a high-ranking fire department official told me that at least another 5,000 firefighters were needed to provide basic protection the following summer. As Greece’s finance minister at the time, I made plans to draw savings from other parts of the budget to rehire a modest number of firefighters and doctors (2,000 in total). Hearing this, the troika immediately condemned me for “backtracking” and issued a clear warning that, if I persisted, the negotiations in the Eurogroup would be terminated, a shortened way of announcing the closure of Greek banks.
Since then, the only real change has been steadily rising temperatures, courtesy of accelerating climate collapse. This summer’s firestorm was completely predictable, as was our state’s inability to respond effectively. And the EU? Did he send dozens of employees to micromanage events on the ground, as he had done when imposing austerity? Unlike the assistance Greece received from individual European governments, including Britain’s post-Brexit, the EU institutions were conspicuous by their absence.
The scary question is: what’s next? The specter of a new threat to Greece’s forests looms over the land. It is the desire of the current right-wing government to outsource reforestation to private multinational companies. In search of a quick euro, they sell fast-growing genetically modified trees that have no place in the Mediterranean and are enemies of our traditional flora, fauna and landscape. Unlike the terrible impact of the bankruptcy of the state on our people, which we hope to reverse one day, this assault on our native forests will be irreversible.
Yanis Varoufakis is co-founder of DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement), former Greek Finance Minister and author of And the Weak Suffer What They Should ?, the Crisis in Europe and the Economic Future of the United States.