ATHENS: A biblical calamity befell the Attica region last Monday. I saw its first sign in the late morning at Athens airport, where I was seeing off my daughter to Australia. A strong whiff of burning wood caused me to look up to the sky, where a whitish-yellow sun beckoned, surrounded by the tell-tale eclipse-like daytime darkness that only thick, sky-high smoke can cause. By the early evening the news had cascaded in. Many of our friends’ and some of our relatives’ houses were destroyed in northeast Attica. Forest fires had run amok, spreading westward towards the heavily built-up coastline, cutting the settlement of Mati and the town of Rafina off from Athens, forcing residents to flee towards the sea. The first I knew of casualties was when told of the plight of activists belonging to our political movement, DiEM25. Their house in Mati was destroyed by the flames, along with every other house on their street, but at least they had escaped with their lives, just. Next door their neighbours perished, their corpses discovered next morning, crouched together, their three-year-old girl in the middle of a heart-breaking huddle.
Why did it happen? On this, our Black Monday, the weather conspired with Greek society’s, and our state’s, chronic failures to create the murderous inferno. A particularly dry winter had produced large quantities of forest and bush fuel ready and willing to wreak havoc on a Monday that brought to Attica temperatures of 39C and 80mph winds.
In addition to nature’s guilt, there is of, course, stupendous human culpability. Greek society’s postwar economic model, which relied on anarchic, unplanned property development anywhere and everywhere (in ravines, pine forests and so on), in effect invited nature to punish us, like any Third World country, with lethal forest fires in the summer and flash floods in winter. (Indeed, last winter 20 people died in houses built on the bed of an ancient creek.)
Society’s collective failure is aided and abetted by the Greek state’s perpetual lack of preparedness: for example, the failure to clear fields and forests of accumulated kindling during the winter and spring, or to organise escape routes for residents in case of an emergency.
Then there are the usual crimes of the oligarchy: for example, the enclosure of the coast around seaside villas for the purposes of illegally privatising the beach. Many died or were badly injured flailing against the barbed wire the rich had put in their way as they struggled to get to the sea. And last but not least, humanity’s collective guilt due to the manner in which rapid climate change is turbocharging the natural phenomena that punish our human foibles.
As is often the case every time Greece is ravaged by forest fires, the government hinted at arson. While I cannot rule out the possibility of foul play by profiteers, I am not convinced of this. Greek governments have traditionally found it convenient to blame profiteers, arsonists, terrorists, foreign agents even. Why? Because in so doing they avoid having to confess to their lack of preparedness, for having failed to impose laws and safety regulations, for not having organised or funded the emergency services properly.
What role did austerity and Greece’s ongoing Great Depression play in the ineffectiveness of the response? The fire department, the citizens’ protection agencies, the ambulance service and hospitals are terribly understaffed because of austerity, undoubtedly.
While the fires would not have been stopped if we had had three times the fire brigade staff and firefighting aircraft, a country that for a decade now has witnessed the steady diminution of its public services, its communities, its morale, can scarcely be expected to prepare itself well for a calamity boosted mightily by climate change.
Journalists ask me: is the EU helping? The reality is that Europe has made itself irrelevant when it comes to such issues. Truth be told, we had destructive fires before Greece entered the EU, before we swapped the drachma for the euro, and afterwards. Europe played no role in helping us fight the flames, a task that is not in its remit. But while Brussels cannot be held responsible for the fires per se or for 70 years of Greek society’s abuse of our natural environment, it is unquestionable that it has depleted the Greek state of most resources and capabilities.
Might, therefore, this not be the moment (the same journalists ask) for Athens to rebel and demand the end of austerity and of the spending cuts that are detrimental to Greece’s survival? Of course. Every moment is a good moment to confront Brussels, Berlin, Frankfurt and so forth to break free from the straitjacket of inane austerity and misanthropic social policies that are responsible for Greece’s permanent humanitarian crisis.
For a decade we have been losing many more people to the tragedy caused by the EU establishment than to any flood or forest fire. The number of suicides rose sharply immediately after the introduction of new austerity measures in 2011, while more than 1m have emigrated because of the economic depression the EU has imposed on Greece.
While I fully expect crocodile tears to be shed by Brussels over our burnt-out victims, and similarly hypocritical gesturing by the Greek government, I do not expect any reversal of the organised misanthropy afflicting Greece just because so many Greeks died last Monday.
Until and unless progressives get organised across Europe, willing to accept local responsibility while banding together to impose a change of policy at the European level, nothing will change, except perhaps a further strengthening of Greece’s Golden Dawn and other populist political parties in Italy, Germany, Austria and the Polish-Hungarian illiberal nexus.
Greece’s forest fires, in this context, are a tragic reminder of our collective responsibility as Europeans.
© Project Syndicate, 2018
The author is Greece’s former finance minister and co-founder of DiEM25, the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025