Monday, September 03, 2007

Hope for Un-Sexy Solutions After the Ashes

As an 'Under the Olive Tree' first, I am happy to share with you a guest blogger's insights on the recent happenings in Greece. Many thanks to Professor Andrew Livanis for his contribution to this discussion and look forward to this being the first of many contributions from him and you.

This past Wednesday (8/29/07), in Athens, thousands of people gathered outside the parliament buildings in protest of the government's slow and inadequate response to the fires.

Their protest was interesting in that it was silent, and there were no chants, protest songs, or angry mobs.

Participating in a protest is a sexy process. You’re not required to really do much besides follow whatever the crowds say and do. And, you’re given the illusion, as a participant, that you are actually doing something. But these days, protesting affects little in the way of policy. It’s a great photo-op opportunity. Many view it as a cathartic exercise. I think it’s silly.

(Before I continue, I should make a disclaimer to the disclaimer. I am not a member of any political party in Greece, nor do I hope for any particular party to come up as a victor in the next elections).

This protest was interesting for two respects. First, it was silent: while there were no screams of anger; there were no solutions preferred. Secondly, and most importantly, it protested the lack of a response on the government’s part, but failed to attack the government’s lack of a concerted prevention effort.

Some half-hearted prevention measures were put into place last year (2006), when a forest fire came close to burning down the home of the prime minister, Costas Karamanlis. The event prompted Karamanlis to promise strict measures to dissuade developers from building on land cleared by the blaze; satellite photos and spy planes, for example, would be taken at regular intervals to help enforce Greece’s law banning construction in forest areas.

However, there is no centralized plan to protect Greece’s economic/ecological interests. Notice that I used the slash to separate the two terms – that was done to indicate that they are interchangeable. In the United States, we seem to consider the two quite separate, but in Greece they are one and the same.

Many of the agricultural products that come from Greece are highly dependant on the ecological health of the countryside. And, tourism is largely based on the ecological beauty of the mountains, trees, soil, and water. So, in Greece: ecology à economy – it’s really a simple equation.

The crowds should have asked for some real changes. For example, Greece still lacks a land registry covering the whole country. While the EU has developed programs to rectify this situation, the program in Greece is moving quite slowly. This is important since having a comprehensive land registry would make it more difficult to have burned land reclassified as farmland, which can then be sold for development. Increasing this program could offer job opportunities to hundreds of Greeks throughout the country.

The civil defense department lacks a fire prevention strategy, which could lessen the impact of future fires. In other places prone to burning (i.e., Spain and Portugal) people clear undergrowth from their local forests during the winter and bulldoze firebreaks around villages. In summer round-the-clock fire-watches are maintained. This means more jobs for more Greeks, and the potential for fewer forest fires.

Greeks as a nation also are quite averse to purchasing insurance policies on their homes or land. Laws passed by parliament mandating insurance policies could potentially mitigate the economic impact of such forest fires to people in the future.

In times of anger and outrage, it is easy to simply express these emotions without any examination for change. Let’s hope that Greece as a country will not take the sexy route.

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