The Greening of Greece - the ecologic opportunity for Europe to embrace

| 7th July 2015
Another Greece: from the river Kastor near the village Kastori (or Kastania as it is also known) in the Peloponnese, near Sparta. Photo: Stephen Pougas via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Another Greece: from the river Kastor near the village Kastori (or Kastania as it is also known) in the Peloponnese, near Sparta. Photo: Stephen Pougas via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Greece's economic woes will never be solved by merely moving money around the banking system, writes Oliver Tickell. The lasting solution is to restore native forests to her barren hills and mountains, invest in large-scale solar power to energise Europe, and create an examplar of sustainable development for our global future.
This is the sustainable alternative to 'whipping the sick cow' of the Greek economy: nurturing her to prosperity, creating a European powerhouse of renewable energy, a land of milk, honey, trees, rivers and deep soils, an examplar of green development.

The former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis  famously described the austerity program imposed on the country as "trying to suck more milk out of a sick cow by whipping it."

"You will kill it", he explained.  "You will not get more milk out of it." He was of course completely right.

But more than that his metaphor of his country as a living animal revealed a deeper understanding of the economy as an essentially living process - subject to laws beyond those of mathematics and economics, but life sciences such as biology, medicine and, in particular, ecology.

As Earth Day founder Gaylord Anton Nelson famously pointed out, "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around."

So while its important for Greece to get the money side of things sorted out, what really matters in the long term is getting its ecology right too. To paraphrase Bill Clinton's campaign strategist James Carville: "It's the ecology, stupid!"

And rather than using 'bailout' funds to move money around the banking system to no obvious benefit to anyone save the bankers, they should be used to restore Greece's natural wealth on which the country and her people depend.

Rebuilding the forests

Any visitor to Greece will surely have been struck by the starkly deforested landscapes that characterise so much of country. Sadly this applies especially to the most visited areas: the Aegean islands beloved by holidaymakers, and the mountains surrounding Athens and Delphi.

The image that comes to mind is of great massifs of bare rock, baking under the fierce sun, scurried over by herds of goats ready to pluck off any tiny blade of grass that dares emerge from a small pocket of soil among the stones.

This is nothing new: As Plato wrote in his Critias in 360BC of the Attica region around Athens: "In comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, as in the case of small islands, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left.

"But in the primitive state of the country, its mountains were high hills covered with soil, and the plains, as they are termed by us, of Phelleus were full of rich earth, and there was abundance of wood in the mountains.

"Of this last the traces still remain, for although some of the mountains now only afford sustenance to bees, not so very long ago there were still to be seen roofs of timber cut from trees growing there, which were of a size sufficient to cover the largest houses; and there were many other high trees, cultivated by man and bearing abundance of food for cattle.

"Moreover, the land reaped the benefit of the annual rainfall, not as now losing the water which flows off the bare earth into the sea, but, having an abundant supply in all places, and receiving it into herself and treasuring it up in the close clay soil, it let off into the hollows the streams which it absorbed from the heights, providing everywhere abundant fountains and rivers, of which there may still be observed sacred memorials in places where fountains once existed; and this proves the truth of what I am saying.

"Such was the natural state of the country, which was cultivated, as we may well believe, by true husbandmen, who made husbandry their business, and were lovers of honour, and of a noble nature, and had a soil the best in the world, and abundance of water, and in the heaven above an excellently attempered climate."

Bringing back trees, soils, water

As Paul Erhrlich writes, the ancient Greeks "inherited a land covered by rich stands of oaks, pines, and other trees with thick, drought-resistant leaves ... called a 'sclerophyllous forest', in the jargon of plant ecologists.

"But, as the Greek population expanded, it progressively destroyed the forests for firewood, charcoal (needed in firing pottery and other industrial processes), and lumber. The great trees were often burned by accident, too ... or as part of a military operation, or simply to create more open pastureland.

"Soil erosion on the slopes of the rugged Greek hills helped prevent reforestation ... as did grazing and browsing animals, which killed the seedlings before they could establish themselves. Especially prominent in the latter role were goats ... the 'horned locusts' that have destroyed so much of the vegetation of the Mediterranean region and other areas where they've been introduced. (In fact it's not unfair, today, to describe much of that territory as a' goatscape'.)"

Today about half of the country qualifies as 'forest ecosystem', mostly in the high mountains of central Greece that run north of Patras to Albania, and south of Patras across the Peloponnese to the sea. But these forests are mostly far from where people live, farm and visit, so there are few people there to enjoy the benefits they offer in climate, water and landscape.

A major reforestation program is desperately needed to bring life back to the ravaged landscapes - something that must begin with re-employing goat herders and shepherds as planters and guardians of native trees.

This will have hugely positive effects not only for Greece but for all of Europe and the Mediterranean, sequestering carbon, bringing green beauty to lifeless landscapes, invigorating both ecosystems and tourism, restoring water flows to long lost springs and streams, rebuilding soils, nurturing agriculture and creating the basis of a future forest economy.

Ravaged by tourism

Much of Greece's coastline has also been destroyed by unbelievably ugly, apparently unplanned development for tourism, as can be seen in, for example, north-west Crete and southwest Corfu, characterised by the worst kind of ribbon development of grey concrete hotels and shops along busy, dirty, noisy, dangerous coastal roads that lack even sidewalks for pedestrians.

There is only one fate worthy of these atrocious developments - total destruction, and rebuilding with new 'green' holiday villages inspired by the design of the old hillside villages of white-painted cottages and beguiling stairways that we all love so well.

This will make Greece a beautiful tourist destination once again, not to mention employing a huge workforce in making it happen - to the mutual benefit of Greece's people and economy, and all who come and visit.

At the same time, let's rid Greece's cities of their foul fume-belching vehicles that generate smogs worthy of Los Angeles, and transition to the clean green sun-powered vehicles of the future.

Repowering a green Europe

Of course that will require a wholesale re-engineering of Greece's energy infrastructure - currently dominated by open-cast lignite and some of Europe's filthiest power stations. As reported on The Ecologist, until a few years ago Greece had one of Europe's showcase solar industries, until it was suddently ditched in favour of more coal.

Plans for a 'Desertec' network of huge solar farms in the Sahara desert are now certain not to materialise in the foreseeable future owing to the perilous security situation across North Africa, so these schemes should instead relocate to southern Europe, including Greece and its southernmost islands, providing clean renewable power by way of high voltage DC power links all the way to Germany and beyond.

By using 'concentrated solar power' plants, daytime solar heat can be stored in hot rocks to drive turbines when the sun's not shining, making it a dependable source of power day and night. There's also scope to expand Greece's hydroelectic sector, especially with small scale hydro to serve local communities.

Amazingly, Germany is currently planning to finance half the cost of the brand new 660MW €1.4 billion Ptolemaida 5 lignite power station. Forget that - they should be putting all that investment, and much more besides, into Greece's renewable revolution.

But where's the money going to come from? From the EU and its member states, especially Germany, from the European Central Bank, from the IMF, the European Investment Bank ... Because in financing the Greening of Greece, they will be making good all their bad loans as the Greek economy is brought back to life, money pours into its banks, jobs are created and taxes are paid.

They will be investing in a sustainable future for Greece and all of Europe, developing the renewable energy to take us into the post-carbon age, and rebuilding essential ecosystems.

This is the sustainable alternative to 'whipping the sick cow' of the Greek economy: nurturing her back to health and prosperity, creating a European powerhouse of renewable energy, a land of milk, honey, trees, rivers and deep soils, and an examplar of low-carbon, climate friendly development for all to follow.



Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.

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