Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Sustainable Prosperity: A Greek Perspective II" by Michalis Theodoropoulos

In Worldwatch Institute Europe’s second article examining the current situation in Greece we explore the particularities behind the current social situation, the ongoing changes taking place within Greek society and the notion of sustainable prosperity as viewed from a Greek standpoint.
Worldwatch researcher Eirini Glyki [ http://www.worldwatch-europe.org/node/52 ] interviews Michalis Theodoropoulos [ http://www.linkedin.com/in/michalistheodoropoulos ], European Parliament assistant for the Greek Green Ecologists and responsible for environmental, food safety and health issues:

What was Greece’s relation to sustainable prosperity in the past? What is this relation in the present?

We need to define sustainable prosperity first. Do we mean in terms of GDP and consumption increase, or in terms of the Human Development Index and social welfare? Or merely the idea that the past was more prosperous than the present?
Greece following the tragic aftermath of World War II and the succeeding civil war went through a restructuring process under the sponsorship of the USA and the funds of the Marshall Plan (officially the European Recovery Program, ERP). These funds were used to build necessary infrastructure and supposedly boost production and consumption of goods.
Political instability until the late 1970’s, lack of planning and large internal migration from rural areas to city centers, rendered production patterns fragmented and unsustainable, while consumption was kept on basic needs. Big industry was never really developed; exports were never that important; agricultural production covered mainly internal needs but sufficiently. Society was still living in conservation status, saving rather than spending, secured by family bonds and trust in social institutions rather than in state welfare and the corrupted political system that followed. People worked hard but lived a rather descent and modest life, rich in spirit rather than material goods, small was still beautiful. The environment was kept in quite pristine condition, although there was a total absence of environmental protection.
Then the 1980’s came, along with EU subsidies and private bank loans, living conditions and the socio-economic fabric changed. Tourism became the main industry and subsidized agricultural production gave rise to monoculture of environmental stressful products. Small industrial units operated uncontrolled without any environmental consideration and there was a considerable shift from production of goods to service provision. A new middle class started to emerge, with an urge to spend more than it earns, to consume more than it needs.
During the 1990’s and till 2005, GDP increased along with stock market and property loan bubbles, people seemed to be happy to be able to consume more with easier loans, while at the same time refrained from their financial obligations to the state, as there was no payback in terms of public welfare. Prosperity seemed to be a benefit for many and living conditions improved, although the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. Bigger, easy and more was the beauty of the time.
Under the current crisis and austerity policies, prosperity really seems a thing of the past, as wages, pensions and social welfare are diminishing. A whole generation that invested in this lifestyle saw its aspirations and jobs getting evaporated. Although according to OECD, the Greek workforce is amongst the hardest working in the EU (although not that productive in GDP terms), austerity is affecting mostly the working and lower classes: unemployment is reaching 20%; the same percentage of the population at present lives in breadline conditions and new-homeless people pack in city centers by thousands.

Has the economic crisis triggered a change of views amongst Greek people?

Although there is widespread criticism against the political establishment and significant social turmoil, the majority of the Greek people are still entrapped in a certain lifestyle and political system, numb and afraid, waiting for help from above (politicians, the state, God, etc), or an easy way out.
Fortunately, there is a worth-noticing critical mass of people and movements striving for change, although in tight oppression and significantly fewer in numbers. Despite that, hundreds of thousands of people protest in massive demonstrations against the austerity policies and the colonial-type loans, while at the same time many thousands of people are creating their own post-crisis environment, smaller self-managed systems within the system, cracks in the existing monetary-based economy.

In the present, what are the attitudes of Greek people concerning their living model?

There is widespread consideration about the deterioration of living conditions in Greece at present, great anxiety and uncertainty about the future. Environmental considerations fall short when there is no guaranteed income and when there will be a privatization of public natural resources and services, in order to repay the usurious loans Greece received as bail-out.
Although the majority of the people are entrapped in city centers and certain lifestyles, a critical mass of the crisis generation has found ways to make cracks in space and time, either in the city, or in view of a reoccupation of the countryside. Sooner or later, people will have to start considering living with less but in better conditions, if not by choice, by need for sure. Bankruptcy is around the corner and people start considering life after money and debt.

Is, in your opinion, Greek society ready to move away from consumerism?

Consumerism in Greek society does not go back more than two generations. People will have to re-evaluate their financial and social institutions when the crisis really hits the bottom. Sustainable practices from the past, such as barter economy, solidarity networks, mutual assistance, community orchards, cooperatives, collective housing, reoccupation of public spaces and many more, have already shown signs of hope.
The younger generations, although entrapped in widespread commercialized consumerism, are ready and willing to revitalize traditional practices and consumption patterns followed by their grandparents. Following the inspiring example of Catalonia [ http://www.homenatgeacatalunyaii.org/en ], several self organized initiatives have sprung lately also in Greece, setting aside intermediaries, creating subsystems of their own, reclaiming public life and space.

Currently, what - if any - are the movements within Greek society shaping up to be?

Beyond the crisis there is a growing number of people that have decided to take their future in their hands and reinvent the collective We. You may move faster when you are alone, but you can go further if you collaborate. Local exchange trading systems without money, eco-communities, cooperatives of producers and consumers, worker cooperatives, urban community orchards, traditional seed banks and seed exchanges, collective management of public goods, public assemblies and self-organised social centers, are just few of hundreds of grassroots initiates that have sprung during the last two years in Greece. An indicative list can be found here. [ http://www.iliosporoi.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=514:2012-01-12-14-51-13&catid=84:2011-11-24-20-29-10&Itemid=374 ]

What are, in your opinion, the changes needed to be made in order for
Greek society to be viable?

Greek society needs a shift in its collective consciousness. As we exit the century of Self, we need to reinvent the new collective We, as much as, we need to redefine basic humanistic values and fundamental rights. We need a change of paradigm, a change of narrative, a change in our collective imaginary institution of society, in order to live our utopias, in order for the younger generation to see some light at the end of the tunnel.
We live in a period of historical developments, the end of an era and the beginning of another one. We need to find sustainable ways for the ecological transformation of society and the economy. We need to aspire confidence and optimism for the future. It is our duty not only to create the conditions for this transition but also to toll the whole society along this way, by promoting best practice examples and realistic but at the same time radical solutions.
Now many say that a new Marshall Plan is needed, a Green New Deal, focused on green investments and the ecological transformation of the industry. This is much needed, as much as we also need a shift towards degrowth targets, especially for certain industry sectors, such as energy, transport, automobile, chemicals, agriculture, while at the same time re-localize production and consumption. It is certain we need to start thinking of prosperity being decoupled from growth as determined by the current form of capitalism.
Greece specifically, could find solutions in dramatically cutting down military expenditure, taxing the Church’s wealth, as well as taxing the wealth of the richest 1-2% of the population and the financial stock exchange transactions. Moreover, at a larger scale, the “free -corporate- market” and banking system (including rating agencies) need to be regulated, in order to serve public interest instead of just being profit driven.

In your view, what does this crisis point out considering the existing living model and economic system? What are the connections of this crisis to sustainable prosperity?

It is my view that this current crisis, is a systemic restructuring of the current monetary-based economic system, purely profit driven, resulting to the economic elite accumulating further wealth and power. This clearly shows the default of the existing “neoliberal” policies, as well as of the current development patterns. The current economic system seems to have lost its morality by ignoring the human factor.
Unsustainable recipes of the past, as practiced in Greece, focusing on economic growth, GDP increase, over-consumption of natural resources, even at the expense of human lives, should be an example to avoid in the future as we strive to make a transition into societies with prosperity for all. In order to achieve sustainable prosperity, the current production model based on productivism and monetary-based economy should be replaced by a resource-based economy, a combination of green investment aiming at the ecological transformation of the economy and society, coupled by degrowth elements (live a better life with less material goods and fewer working hours) and a conscious lifestyle by everyone.

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