by Stratis Bournazos

Compassion cannot be commanded. But we can demand the opposite, for someone not to be insensitive during these times. For, even if it was the right thing to do, it shows a complete lack of awareness to write about how the reconstruction of Evia is a great opportunity of national importance. Insensitive are also the ministerial statements about how everything happened more or less as planned or the meaningless apologies and remarks of the Prime Minister about “any weakness” or “inexpediencies.” Kostas Pantioras wrote on Facebook, somewhat sarcastically but very bitterly:

“The people who govern us think Evia’s inhabitants wake up every day and work from home, or ride the metro to go to their fancy office in a multinational company, or are Instagram influencers. That is why they speak exclusively of destroyed houses that can be rebuilt. The truth is these people lost their jobs: logging, bee-keeping, sap harvesting, shepherding, fishing, tourism.”

Reading these lines, a beautiful colloquial Greek word came to mind: viós, which refers to property, possessions, and riches. As it comes from the word víos [life] it has an additional connotation, that of “livelihood.” When we talk about someone who “lost his whole viós,” it does not just mean they lost their property, but something more: they were destroyed.

From pain and compassion, to solidarity

(Members of the self-organized soup kitchen Mano Aperta [Open Hand] prepare food rations for 750 people in Lake Evia, 10th August 2021. From the Mano Aperta Facebook page.)

The next lemma in this unique glossary we are constructing word by word these days is solidarity: if you feel for them, will you stand with them?

Our screens were flooded with images. In the beginning they were of desolation: photographers Marios Lolos, Nicolas Economou, Tatiana Bolari, Angelos Tzortzinis, Konstantinos Tsakalidis, Kostas Tsironis, and plenty others gave us extraordinary photos, worth a thousand words. I bow before their sensitivity, their art, and their endurance. And then, more images appeared on our screens that held and attracted incredible power: locals and volunteers fighting the fires in any way possible, others collecting food and emergency supplies throughout the entire country, young people going to grief-stricken areas and setting up soup kitchens, fishermen arriving to beaches in their little boats extracting people from the blaze—true saviors and Dei ex Machina—people organizing to save and heal animals. They were there helping, alone or not, locals and outsiders, collectives, unions, local associations, initiatives, self-organized kitchens, political collectives (yes, the same people slandered by the government and big parts of mainstream media on several occasions, such as when the occupied buildings in Athens were emptied).

Solidarity can take many forms. First of all, it’s material. Thousands of people ate food, drank water, received help, and countless animals received care (and we often gain insight in the situation from small details, for example many people wore the same clothes for days after they fled their houses to save themselves). But solidarity is not just a portion of food, it’s also the hand that gives it; it caresses and hugs, gives strength and consolation. In the end, solidarity is also valuable to the people who offer it. It is not just an act of benevolence or of charity (which I do not undervalue), but an educational process. They who stand in solidarity in any way, shape, or form, are members of a community, real or imagined. These acts created bonds that have the potential to change minds. Whoever has been involved in such work knows this well, for this process leaves a mark on you.

The wave of solidarity that spreads across the country shows us that our society, along with apathy, conformism, conservatism, and hate, is also capable of solidarity, compassion, and help (and quite often all of the above can be present in the same person). We saw this back in 2015 when people stood with refugees. This wave—which of course can be neither a state substitute nor an alibi for its absence—has the power to change many things: both in practice (e.g., more volunteer forest protection teams) and in the general mood of the Greek society, especially after a period of disappointment and looking inward.

Let’s talk left-wing politics: the climate crisis

Adding to our glossary, in the section of politics, I would like to say there is nothing more essentially political and left-wing than talking about the climate crisis.[1] I am emphasizing this for two reasons: first of all, the climate crisis is used by governments all over the world as a strawman on which they pin all their responsibilities. “We did whatever we could but the climate crisis is beyond our capabilities,” they declare. During his recent press conference, on Thursday 12th August, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis spoke about an “unprecedented assault by nature” and repeated the terms climate crisis or climate change seventeen times. The second reason I am underling this is because in the Left, even when the issue is discussed, we do not bring the problem front and center in a way that defines the overall plan of action and thought process behind it.

However, the climate crisis is not our bad luck, a bout of bad weather, an act of God, Fate, or Nature, or something supernatural. It is not caused by “humans” at large but by a very specific system, which sacrifices everything for profit. This system has a name: capitalism (even though actually existing socialism was equally terrible when it came to environmental issues). When talking about the climate crisis, and the worldwide capitalist model of production and consumption, we do not defer every solution to its demise. Climate crisis requires the same course of action as the one we set for the refugee issue: demanding immediate relief measures and getting organized to provide and help, even while pointing out the deeper causes of the refugee issue (like wars or, wouldn’t you know it, the climate crisis).

When engaging in political discourse about the fires, it is crucial to counter the cop-out “causes,” the conspiracy theories, and the myths, especially the ones who flourish in our spaces. We have to resist searching for “agents,” arsonists, and foreign intervention, a narrative favored in both sides of the Aegean Sea. In Turkey—what a bizarre surprise—fires are started by Kurdish and Greek terrorists. On the other hand, we also have to counter thoughts and opinions primarily popular in left-wing spaces, like how the government did not want to extinguish the fires or that everything happened for the big investors and the new wind turbines.
It is not an issue of political civility or politeness, but one of political substance. It is one thing to oppose investment plans, such as the gold mining one in Halkidiki, by Eldorado Gold, or the real estate one in Elliniko, Athens, by Lamda Development, and to disagree with wind turbine installation, and another to attribute this year’s catastrophe to covetous investors and wind turbines[2] (in Greece, and the whole Mediterranean and California, I wonder). Of course, greedy investors are a reality, we live in a capitalist system. Their interests and investments are promoted legally and easily, without having to burn down everything, especially under the conditions and power relations of the Greek austerity era.[3] The representation of investors as modern Nero’s, even if it is catchy, is extremely harmful as it puts us in a position of fighting ghosts. And even if people claim the government did not want to put the fires out (even coming up with fake statements from the head of the Romanian firefighters who fought in Evia), they are ultimately offering up an alibi. By trying to decipher the government’s dark intentions, the discussion moves away from the scope of reality, shrouding their real responsibilities in a dark mist of secrecy: their environmental policy, the forest-killing laws, the horrid forest protection deficiencies, and so much more.[4]

The nation’s sacred cow: a different viewpoint on security

It is important, in our analysis, to cast doubt over the nation’s sacred ideals, such as “defence spending.” Let’s invert the argument: what kind of patriotism and national responsibility is reflected in the opinion that, under these circumstances, our priority should be purchasing fighter jets and not fire trucks? And what on earth are these cutting-edge fighter jets going to protect if we keep this up, a burned down territory and people who become refugees in their own country?
“Everything has to change,” “the entirety of future development plans [will] take the direction of adapting the Greek economy to the needs and demands of climate change,” we have to “steer our country towards a low carbon emissions economy, aiming at zero,” said the Prime Minister. If this is the case, then talking about “gas mining in the Mediterranean, gigantic defence spending, and pharaonic plans, such as the one in Elliniko,” as the lawyer Thanassis Kampagiannis stated on Facebook, is beyond belief. “It is very hard to subvert these plans,” he continued, “as both parties of Syriza and New Democracy have agreed to them. The rest is just an exercise in futility.”

Even more, can we allow the government to arrogantly insist on allocating funds to police guarding units, patrol cars, and university police instead of firefighters and fire trucks, along with doctors and nurses? I do not say this in order to oppose police state and repression, we already do this. We need to take a very specific stand by considering a completely different concept of security. Dimitris Christopoulos, professor in Panteion University, has talked about this extensively. One of recent Facebook posts reads as such (7th August 2021):

“Security is not just the police cap and the military uniform. Security is a well-constructed road network, primary medical care, a fire department capable of withstanding and facing the climate crisis, daycare centers, public schools and hospitals that operate successfully […]
Security is a concept connected to society, all-encompassing and multi-faceted, not just a synonym for persecution. This type of security, one that all humans want for themselves and their children, requires a solid state, redistribution of wealth, social services; in a few words we are in need of a political expression of solidarity, not one of disdain towards anything public […] This is the type of security we are in favor of. And when we are asked “security or freedom?” we do not choose the latter. Because security, when connected to the social, is the condition that allows a society to be free.”

***

I shall stop here, even though it is imperative to move into specifics, for example talking about organizing forest protection and the fire department, about the legislation that kills our forests, about how the burned down lands will be “rebuilt.[5]” I shall not continue, however, not because it would take too long, but because this is a discussion not to be made in passing.

I would like to finish by making a full circle. A few days ago, I was writing about the strength born out of pain and I remembered the Cretan song lyrics “joy lies within the pain.” A friend, Katerina Dimitraki, gave me a nice mantinada, a rhyming couplet from Crete. This is my parting gift to you:

“O’er their ruined nests still they sing on high,
I envy birds for this, and not that they fly.”

PS: A specter is haunting whoever criticises the government about the fires: the 2018 disaster in Mati, Attica. It is not just brought up by government supporters, it rises on its own. We should not and cannot forget about Mati. It is one of the biggest tragedies in our modern history, with 103 people found dead—let alone the burnt down houses, the animals, the burn victims. And we also cannot forget about the disastrous Syriza response to that fire: the press conference of ministers and people in charge during which they said everything was going well (while the death toll had risen to 80 people) or the Minister of Defence going around the affected areas chastising the locals. It seems somewhat inevitable, but it is shameful for this tragedy to be cheapened by political infighting, comparisons, and evasions from every side. Mati is a stain that will be cleared. We should remember it with sorrow, devastation, and respect to those who lost their lives.

[1] My starting point for the following is some thoughts by economist Charis Golemis, on Facebook, which I am also using here (10th August 2021)

[2] When it comes to wind turbines, an issue at the forefront of recent discussions, I defer to Despoina Spanoudi, chemical engineer and local development expert, and her Facebook post (12th August 2021) as well as her article on Geografies, (issue 21 Spring-Summer 2021, http://despoinaspanoudi.blogspot.com/2021/08/blog-post.html), as an example of a multi-faceted approach. Spanoudi explains why the fires-for-wind turbines argument has no merit, even though she herself opposes their installation (while not disagreeing with harnessing wind power). She also points out that the possible wind turbine installation in the affected areas will worsen soil erosion, favor flooding, and prevent the revival of the ecosystem.

[3] For the crucial changes that started in 2004 with the Olympics and reached their peak during the austerity years, it is crucial to read Harokopio University professor Kostis Hatzimichalis’s study Krisi Chreous kai Ifarpagi Gis [Debt Crisis and Looting of the Land], from ΚΨΜ editions, Athens 2017. In chapter 3, especially, he analyses how the Hellenic Republic Asset Development fund, privatizations, resource mining, assault on public beaches and forests, the real estate shenanigans, and exploitation in the name of “green energy” have all culminated in a looting of public resources and funds.

[4] On the subject of myths, you can refer to an enlightening Facebook post by forestry expert Natasha Petrou Varouchaki (4th August 2021), and others by the same person, about governmental responsibility.

[5] “We have to support Evia’s tourism industry, not just in the short term, but by essentially redesigning the tourism development model in the long term,” stated the Prime Minister. It is in this statement that lies the crucial issue of different opinion on the environment and development at large (it would be interesting to study how the redevelopment of New Orleans, after Katrina, became a playground for privatizations and amplified social differences).