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Lessons from this summer’s calamitous Greek forests inferno – The Guardian

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 31/08/2021 - 8:44pm in

After the second world war, Greece’s countryside experienced two debilitating human surges – an exodus of villagers, then a most peculiar human invasion of its fringes. These two surges, aided by a weak state and abetted by the climate crisis, have turned the low-level drama of naturally redemptive forest fires into this summer’s heart-wrenching catastrophe.

After heatwaves of unprecedented longevity, wildfires across the summer months have so far destroyed more than 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of ancient pine forests. They have blackened swathes of Attica, scorched parts of ancient Olympia and obliterated north Evia’s magnificent forests – whose rural communities lost their homes, not to mention their livelihoods and landscapes.

To grasp why this is happening, we need to understand the trajectory of urban and rural development in Greece. War and poverty caused a mass exodus from the countryside that began in the late 1940s. Villagers who did not migrate to countries such as Germany, Canada and Australia descended upon Athens. Combined with lax urban planning, this surge of humanity quickly turned the Greater Athens area into a concrete jungle. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, the same people dreamed of a partial return to the countryside, of a summer home in the shade of some pine trees, close to Athens and, preferably, in some proximity to the sea.

To these petty-bourgeois dwellings, which by the 1980s were strewn all over Attica, the mid-1990s added middle-class suburbia. Villas and shopping malls gradually invaded inland wooded areas bordering Athens, at a speed that reflected the economic growth fuelled with money borrowed from EU banks or provided via EU structural funding.

It is as if we were looking for trouble. Fire is a natural ally of Mediterranean pine forests. It helps clear the ground of old trees and allows young ones to prosper. By helping themselves to the wood daily and by employing tactical burning every spring, villagers once prevented these fires from running amok. Alas, not only did circumstances force the villagers to abandon the forests but, when they and their descendants returned as atomised urbanites to build their summer homes inside the untended forests, they did so bearing none of the traditional communal knowledge or practices.

Europe’s famous north-south economic divide has a counterpart in Greece’s forests. In countries such as Sweden or Germany, forests were intensely commodified. While this spelled the demise of ancient forests, and their replacement with arid plantations, farmland or grazing pastures, at least the countryside was not abandoned the way Greece’s was. In a sense, the sorry state of Greece’s countryside, the swift and unregulated urbanisation, and our feeble and corrupt state are all reflections of the country’s atrophic capitalism.

Volunteers try to extinguish a wildfire burning in the village of Markati, near Athens, on 16 August.

Two new wildfires in Greece trigger evacuation alerts for villages

Greek governments had been aware of the unsustainability of our model of land use since wildfires began to take revenge on us in the 1970s. Deep down, they knew: we had, collectively, violated nature, and now nature was exacting its long and drawn-out revenge. Convinced, however, that their re-election chances were doomed if they dared tell voters that maybe they should give up on the dream of that cabin in the forest, abandon the plan to suburbanise pine forests, governments chose the easy path: they blamed warm winds, fiendish arsonists, bad luck, even the odd Turkish saboteur.

Collective responsibility was the first casualty of every inferno. On 23 July 2018, at a seaside settlement north of Athens known as Mati, a demonic fireball incinerated 103 people within minutes – including a friend. The cause was obvious to anyone willing to take a disinterested look at the way the dense settlement had been inserted into an ageing pine forest, with narrow lanes offering no realistic chance of escape from the inevitable fire.

Alas, neither the government nor the opposition dared to admit the obvious: that we should never have allowed that settlement to be built. Instead, they yelled at each other endlessly, playing a blame game that disrespected the victims, society, nature.

Even when governments tried their hand at modernising their practices, they made things worse. In 1998, in a bid to professionalise firefighting, the bush firefighting unit (hitherto run by the forestry commission) was disbanded and folded into the urban fire brigade. The resulting economies of scale came at a cost: the termination of the large-scale forest clearing effort that the bush firefighting unit used to undertake every winter and spring.

Following an urban bureaucracy’s natural instinct to favour hi-tech solutions, and to look down upon traditional practices, the unified fire brigade effectively withdrew from the forests and concentrated instead on a strategy of setting up firewalls around built-up areas, while bombarding forest fires from the air – using aircraft that more often than not cannot fly due to adverse conditions.

Then, in early 2010, came the Greek state’s undeclared bankruptcy. Soon, dozens of EU and IMF officials – the infamous troika – would arrive in Athens to impose the world’s harshest austerity programme. Every budget was ruthlessly slashed, including those aimed at citizen and nature protection. Thousands of doctors, nurses and, yes, firefighters were fired. In 2011, the fire brigade’s overall budget was cut by 20%.

In the spring of 2015, a senior fire brigade officer told me that at least another 5,000 firefighters were needed to offer basic protection in the following summer. As Greece’s finance minister at the time, I drew up plans to exact savings from other parts of the budget to rehire a modest number of firefighters and doctors (2,000 altogether). Upon hearing this, the troika immediately condemned me for “backtracking” and issued a clear warning that, if I insisted, the negotiations at the Eurogroup would be terminated – shorthand for announcing the closure of Greece’s banks.

Since then the only real change has been the steady rise of temperatures, courtesy of accelerating climate breakdown. This summer’s firestorm was utterly foreseeable – as was the inability of our state to respond effectively. And the EU? Did it send dozens of staff to micromanage events on the ground, like it had done when imposing austerity? Unlike the assistance Greece received from individual European governments, including post-Brexit Britain’s, the EU institutions were conspicuous by their absence.

The terrifying question is: what next? The spectre of a new threat to Greece’s forests is hanging over the land. It is the current rightwing government’s eagerness to subcontract reforestation to private multinational businesses. In search of a quick euro, they peddle fast-growing, genetically modified trees that have no place in the Mediterranean and are inimical to our flora, fauna and traditional landscape. Unlike the awful impact of the state’s bankruptcy on our people, which one day we hope to reverse, this assault on our native forests will be irreversible.

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The post Lessons from this summer’s calamitous Greek forests inferno – The Guardian appeared first on Yanis Varoufakis.

Book Review: Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian edited by Des Freedman

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 17/07/2021 - 7:00pm in

In Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian, editor Des Freedman brings together contributors on the newspaper’s bicentenary to offer a critical look at its recent and remote past, focusing particularly on its liberal values, institutional continuity and its political position. In exploring the paper’s ambivalent relationship with capitalism and the political Left, the book offers a forceful … Continued

Book Review: Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian edited by Des Freedman

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 09/07/2021 - 8:55pm in

In Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian, editor Des Freedman brings together contributors on the newspaper’s bicentenary to offer a critical look at its recent and remote past, focusing particularly on its liberal values, institutional continuity and its political position. In exploring the paper’s ambivalent relationship with capitalism and the political Left, the book offers a forceful intervention in current debates within British progressive politics, writes Vaios Papanagnou

Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian. Des Freedman (ed.). Pluto Press. 2021.

With its publication coinciding with the Guardian’s bicentenary, Capitalism’s Conscience offers a critical look at the newspaper’s recent and remote past. The book is an edited collection of fifteen essays: it opens with two chapters that look into the political, cultural and financial foundations of the Guardian. It continues with a series of chapters on the newspaper’s ambivalence when it comes to fostering relations of solidarity; and it ends with several chapters on the past decade, particularly scrutinising the Guardian’s largely hostile stance towards Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership. Together, the various authors launch a critique against the Guardian, attacking three of its key characteristics: its liberal values, its institutional continuity and its centrist politics.

The thrust of the book’s argument is that the Guardian is a newspaper with liberal values that has always been an unreliable ally for the Left, if not outright hostile to it. As editor Des Freedman straightforwardly argues in the book’s introduction, the ‘guardianista’ as a progressive public sector worker who votes for Labour and identifies with the Left’s political struggles is nothing but a media stereotype.

The Guardian’s opposition to the Left, as Freedman goes on to show in his account of the newspaper’s foundations, is not due to any recent changes in its editorial direction. It is the liberal values of its founders that form the Guardian’s DNA. Founded by John Edward Taylor in 1821 and supported by a group of Mancunian businessmen, the Manchester Guardian advocated for parliamentary reform, religious freedom and free trade. In pursuing this reformist agenda, the Guardian stood against the militant labour movement of the time that demanded universal suffrage and working-class rights.

Representing the interests of the liberal bourgeoisie of the early nineteenth century, the Guardian effectively contained these more radical demands. A few years after the Guardian’s first centenary, as Aaron Ackerley shows in his chapter on the organisation’s political economy, the commitment to liberal values, together with the belief in objective and rational journalistic procedures, formed the foundational principles of the Scott Trust, the company that funds the Guardian.

The Scott Trust secured the Guardian’s financial independence and was instrumental in safeguarding the organisation’s continuity. As Gary Younge puts it, ‘There is something of the Kremlin in the Guardian: it’s governed by a Trust which inherits a set of values, and its editors last for a very long time’ (46). The Kremlin metaphor hints at the continuity of the Guardian’s traditional values, which every appointed editor is instructed to uphold.

Image Credit: Crop of ‘The Guardian’ by Esther Vargas licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

The Guardian’s continuity, a characteristic that speaks to the institutional properties of the organisation, underpins the paper’s homogeneous relations. Younge claims that the Trust’s board members, as well as most of the paper’s editors and journalists, are individuals with shared values and backgrounds. As he mentions, it was traditionally people from within these circles that were given work experience internships. Homophily characterises also the Guardian columnists’ relations who, according to Tom Mills’s social network analysis, prefer to speak among themselves on Twitter and with other elite political actors.

The Guardian’s traditional attachment to liberal values, as three of the middle chapters of the book show, has prevented the paper from fully extending its solidarity to the international struggles that are important to the Left. Looking back at her time as a joint editor of the Third World Report, Victoria Brittain recalls how this section that hosted voices from the Global South existed in the periphery of the Guardian’s newsroom. Nonetheless, ‘obscurity allowed us the gift of extraordinary independence’, she writes (57).

In a more polemical chapter, Alan MacLeod denounces the newspaper’s coverage of the leftist Latin American governments of the last two decades. As he shows, on many occasions the Guardian has failed to uphold its own standards of objective reportage and solidarity with the underprivileged citizens of these nations. Ghada Karmi finds the Guardian’s stance on the Palestinian struggle fairer than most British newspapers, but still firmly within a mainstream position of taking equal distance between the two warring sides.

In the final chapters of the book, the Guardian’s centrist politics come under attack. This critique becomes particularly prominent in the essays that scrutinise the Guardian’s stance against Corbyn. Whilst it is acknowledged (in Mike Berry’s chapter) that the Guardian was largely in favour of Corbynite economics, the main idea here seems to be captured by Mike Wayne when he writes that the newspaper effectively ‘helped to isolate Corbyn, demolish his personal legitimacy, separate him from his base’ (270).

Mareile Pfannebecker and Jilly Boyce Kay demonstrate how a neoliberal feminist discourse was mobilised by the Guardian’s columnists to discredit’s Corbyn’s leadership ‘as a form of ‘‘brocialism’’ that was intrinsically misogynist’ (130). Justin Schlosberg’s analysis reveals the inaccuracies of the Guardian’s framing of a Labour party rife with antisemitism under Corbyn. Finally, Wayne argues that on the issue of Brexit, ‘Corbyn was assailed by liberalism as a representative of an illegitimate left well outside the traditions of parliamentary democracy’ (268).

If the Guardian functions as ‘capitalism’s conscience’, the book argues, it is because it simultaneously justifies and restrains capitalism. As a newspaper within the liberal establishment, it seeks to restrain the anti-social elements of capitalism by foregrounding the democratic demands of various social groups, including minorities of race, gender and ethnicity. In so doing, it justifies capitalism as an order in which individual emancipation is possible through struggles for recognition. Nonetheless, the authors contend, the Guardian’s journalism stops short of fully enacting in practice the civic ideals that it stands for. If it claims a cosmopolitan outlook, it excludes the international movements of the disadvantaged. If it champions diversity, it remains parochially homogeneous. If it challenges the patriarchy, it adopts a sex-based feminist discourse. If it addresses the centre-Left, it sabotages the Left-led Labour Party’s electoral chances.

Capitalism’s Conscience can be appreciated as a forceful intervention in the current debates within the British progressive political field. Traditionally represented by Labour, this is a political space currently in the throes of the rift between the two tendencies that historically vie for hegemony over the party’s values, ideas and policies. As the book effectively argues, the socialist Left’s primary antagonist is to be found in the liberal wing of Labour that dominates the parliamentary party. It is to the former group, the democratic socialists who rallied behind Corbyn, that the book seeks to offer a critical explanation of what went wrong. It does so by highlighting the ideological role that media institutions such as the Guardian can still play. The force of this explanation lies with its emphasis on the systemic character of the attacks against Corbyn. Moving against counter-arguments that insist on Labour’s own tactical errors and political communication failures, the book elucidates the historically structured character of the Left’s recent and ongoing battles.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Banner Image Credit: High contrast version of ‘The Guardian’s Redesign – Titlepiece’ by gigijin licensed under CC BY SA 2.0.