Tag Archives: environment

A bite of the Apple

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It’s always interesting to step back and try to work out what it is that makes otherwise calm and collected people suddenly lose their sense of proportion and temporarily mislay their faculties. The death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs last week was one such moment. The outpouring of grief and praise that followed his sad demise is usually reserved for statesmen and do-gooders of the highest order. Although a supremely talented individual, Jobs was neither.

There was something unnerving about the fact that thousands of admirers, and bandwagon riders, heaped adulation on Steve Jobs the man because of the objects he helped create. Those who came to praise him will argue that Jobs changed the concept of computing, technology, marketing, business and, ultimately, how we live. It’s difficult to argue against that; Apple had a rare knack of inventing the future before its competitors and staking a claim to the most imaginative plots of thinking in our minds.

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The climate change threat vs the growth conundrum

Photo by Theresa Cua - ASEF

Budapest – It is an indication of how pervasive the threat of climate change has become that the foreign ministers of some of the world’s most powerful and wealthy countries should address it as a “security challenge,” albeit a “non-traditional” one. Climate change, along with nuclear safety, terrorism, piracy and organized crime were among the topics discussed by the diplomats when they met for the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Godollo, near Budapest in Hungary, on June 6 and 7.

However, it was climate change more than any other issue that fed into the various strands of the debate between the Asian and European ministers. Consider, for instance, some of the other topics now regarded as “non-traditional security challenges”: energy security, food and water security, inclusive growth and poverty reduction. These are all issues that are affected in one way or another by the environmental debate.

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Maintaining momentum in the climate change debate

I have been fortunate to take part for the past two days in the 6th Asia-Europe Journalists’ Seminar in Szentendre, Hungary, which has been organised by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) in conjunction with the 10th ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

Our main topic of discussion has been the climate change debate and the role that the media can or should play in it. The meeting has provided a fascinating insight into the often different but sometimes converging views and experiences of climate change in Europe and Asia. It is clear that the need for action on both continents is becoming more urgent by the day. It is equally clear that the media has to play a role in informing the public about the growing challenges and opportunities that are emerging on both sides of the globe.

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The environment, in spirit

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There are many prisms through which to view the environmental issues troubling the world but a religious or spiritual one is not the most obvious. Nevertheless, Patriarch Vartholomaios, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, insists this is the true approach. He had a chance to share this view during a visit to Greece last week when he held talks with Environment Minister Tina Birbili. It has long been clear that Greece needs a miracle to rescue its natural beauty from further destruction – perhaps some divine intervention, or inspiration, is just what’s needed.

Vartholomaios has earned the nickname “The Green Patriarch” for his commitment to the environmental cause since the 1990s. In 1997, he placed environmentalism firmly within a religious framework by saying: “To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin.” In 2008, Time Magazine named him as one of its 100 Most Influential People in the World for “defining environmentalism as a spiritual responsibility.”

Watching the USA’s East Coast battered last weekend by the heaviest blizzards – the so-called Snowmageddon – in almost a century, it was hard not to think of the climate in terms that are broader than just the way it affects the weather. The TV footage was certainly reminiscent of “The Road,” a film currently playing at Greek cinemas, which is based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of the journey of a father and son through a post-apocalyptic American landscape. The book, which tells a bleak and terrifying story of a struggle to survive, contains a line that captures the spiritual element that Vartholomaios espouses: “Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular.”

For all the Patriarch’s efforts though, the debate about climate change and the environment both in Greece and abroad, rather than being based on spirituality continues to revolve around the very practical, such as temperature changes, rainfall measurements and carbon emissions. Some commentators have taken the cold snap that gripped much of Europe in past weeks and is now putting the freeze on parts of the USA as a definitive sign that global warming is a myth cooked up by environmental do-gooders and socialist governments scrambling for an excuse to tax people more and intervene in their lives.

Environmentalists have responded by pointing out that weather has always been varied or inconsistent and that it’s not the weather we’re worried about; it’s the climate, which is a completely different thing. “The ability to distinguish trends from complex random events is one of the traits that separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom,” Leo Hickman and George Monbiot recently wrote in the British daily newspaper The Guardian.

On climate change though, many humans seem unable to adopt an approach that rises above their base instinct to have lots of numbers and charts thrust into their face. In other words, we appear incapable of developing a mindset that takes in the wider context; one that touches on the spiritual.

An example of this was the debate generated by an article on The Guardian’s environment blog, in which Ed Gillespie, a director at communications agency Futerra which helps companies develop greener policies, suggested that “The Road” is the latest major film (after the “Simpsons Movie,” “Wall-E” and “Avatar”) to tackle environmental issues.

“Back off sonny,” wrote one blogger, called Princeruprecht. “One of the most powerful aspects to McCarthy’s book is that he never makes it clear what event or events have led to the f***d up world it depicts. It’s left for us to wonder. Don’t try and hijack the man and his son’s story by hitching it your crusade.”

“The ‘ambiguous environmental catastrophe’ is most likely a super-volcano eruption or series of eruptions hence the obscured sun, covered skies, grey dust and the fires,” said Manzikert, another blogger.

“It is impossible that any man-made cause, barring nuclear war, would cause devastation on the scale described in the book,” writes Pikaia, before adding: “I think it’s ironic that the central plank of environmentalism — that humans are destroying the planet — is based on an inflated sense of human importance. We are not capable of destroying the planet — only of rendering it unfit for human habitation for a few thousand years.”

Well, that’s reassuring.

McCarthy has left the cause of the world’s destruction in “The Road” deliberately vague because that’s not the crux of his story. Ironically, the fact this side issue should be the subject of debate is reminiscent of the discussion about climate change itself. When skeptics challenge the minutiae of the evidence that reveals the damage we’re wreaking to the planet, they’re not seeing the burned forest for the missing trees.

Those who seriously doubt climate change have seized on every mistake made by environmental scientists as evidence of a big hoax. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had to issue a statement last week regretting an error in a 2007 report that indicated the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035. It was the latest embarrassing slip-up by IPCC scientists, which included leaked e-mails that suggested some information that did not fit the climate change argument should be withheld.

The panel’s chair, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, insisted this should not sway people’s opinion. “Look at the larger picture, don’t get blinded by this one mistake,” he said. “The larger picture is solid, it’s convincing and it’s extremely important. How can we lose sight of what climate change is going to do to this planet? What it’s already doing to this planet?”

Therein lies the real issue in the climate change debate – the argument is not about statistics, it’s about common sense. It’s not just to do with how we treat the planet, it’s about how we treat each other and in that sense, it is a very spiritual matter.
You don’t need to believe that McCarthy’s vision is going to become reality to use less electricity. You don’t have to expect the Himalayan glaciers to turn into waterfalls to save water. You needn’t be convinced that Greece will soon turn into a desert to recycle your trash. You do these things because you realize it makes sense, because the world’s resources are finite, because man has to live within some limits, because you want clear air to breathe, because others will also suffer the consequences if you fail to act.

If we can’t understand or don’t want to accept any of this, then, as the patriarch might say, heaven help us.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on February 12, 2010.

All hail the chief

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

George Papandreou took a leaf out of Barack Obama’s book by setting targets for his first 100 days in office – but even the US president would have been impressed by the dynamic start that the PASOK leader has made to his premiership, naming a youthful cabinet, displaying an unprecedented level of openness and holding talks with Turkish officials.

Following on from the inertia of the final days of the New Democracy government, it wouldn’t have been hard for the new administration to seem like a team of over-achievers. But there have been some genuinely positive signs in PASOK’s first week in government; signs which suggest that Papandreou and his team have identified weaknesses and are intent on fixing them as quickly as possible. Of course, whether they manage to is a completely different story.

Papandreou’s first chance to impress was with the announcement of his cabinet. To a large extent, he made the positive impact he wanted. The fact that roughly two thirds of the members of the new government have not served before, and therefore are not tainted by previous failings or misdeeds, is a sign that the new prime minister wants to stick to his promise of renewal.

Also, the presence of nine women (a record for Greece) in the slightly streamlined cabinet adds to the impression that a new page in the history of Greek politics is being written. Although Costas Karamanlis had seven women in his previous government, most were in deputy minister positions, whereas Papandreou has put many of his female colleagues – Anna Diamantopoulou (Education), Mariliza Xenogiannakopoulo (Health), Louka Katseli (Economy ), Tina Birbili (Environment) and Katerina Batzeli (Agriculture) – in charge of their departments.

Many of the members of the new government are close associates of Papandreou, which one might expect, but he has also seasoned his administration with a sprinkling of old hands such as Haris Kastanidis (Justice), Dimitris Reppas (Infrastructure) and Michalis Chrysochoidis (Citizens’ Protection). If the cabinet were a football team, you would say that it seems to have a good blend of youth and experience.

The tough choice for Papandreou was what to do with Evangelos Venizelos – the precocious star of the team. Rather than sideline him, the prime minister gave him a meaty portfolio (Defence) but appointed another political bruiser, Theodoros Pangalos, above him by reviving the long-forgotten post of deputy prime minister.

It seems a shrewd move as Venizelos – who so aggressively challenged Papandreou for the PASOK leadership after the disastrous election result in 2007 – can’t be disappointed by the post but equally will find it difficult to use it as a pulpit for promoting himself should the prime minister’s popularity or grip on the government begin to wane.

The unveiling of the cabinet, however, did not come without some negative aspects. The first was the confusion over who would fill the posts at the newly created Environment Ministry. Papandreou has made much of his green credentials and the intention of his government, unlike the previous ones, to prevent Greece from turning into a barren wasteland.

Therefore, it was surprising that just a couple of hours before the cabinet was named it should emerged that the Ecologist Greens, who narrowly failed to make it into Parliament, were approached with regard to one of their members either taking over at the Environment Ministry or at least becoming deputy minister.

The exact details of the offer remain sketchy, which is doubly worrying as it seems the whole affair was handled in an amateur fashion. One would have thought that since this ministry was one of his priorities, Papandreou would have a Plan A, B and C for how we would make appointments to it and would not have to rely on last-ditch leaps.

The overtures to the Ecologist Greens were in one sense a welcome piece of “hands across the aisle” politics, in a country where the only thing usually crossing the aisles in Parliament are verbal volleys. But the slapdash way in which it was handled undid any of the positives to come out of it. The Ecologist Greens were probably right to turn down the offer as in the end it looked more like a political stunt than a genuine approach.

The other aspect of the cabinet that deserves some scrutiny is Papandreou’s decision to appoint himself as foreign minister. Although he has experience in the position and is at his best when he is rubbing shoulders with the world’s leaders and thinkers, it is also an indictment of the team that he has assembled that he does not feel there is anyone there – at least for the time being – that can do as good a job as him.

Saying that, if Papandreou intends this to be a short-term appointment, giving him enough time to sort out some pressing problems, it could turn out to be a masterstroke. He wasted no time in making his first contact with the Turkish leadership, speaking to both Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the sidelines of a Balkan leaders’ meeting in Istanbul on Friday, four days after being sworn in.

It seems that Papandreou’s intention is to get relations with Turkey back on an even keel, so that this can then have a positive knock-on effect on negotiations in Cyprus. If these two areas stop to weigh Greek diplomacy down, then the prime minister/foreign minister can focus on sorting out the name dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

None of the three will be easy tasks but Papandreou clearly has faith in his diplomatic ability. He has shown that he plans not to waste time either. If this new dynamic leads to solutions, then, who knows, maybe like Obama, Papandreou will also be picking up a Nobel Peace Prize as well. For now though, he will settle for getting through the first 100 days of his government with as many plaudits and as much positive energy as the first week.

Nick Malkoutzis

On the road

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There’s a line of graffiti on a bridge on the Thessaloniki ring road that reads: “New Democracy, Kazantzidis, Christ.” Are they the words of a slightly unhinged conservative supporter or an inspired triptych to lead Greece into better days?

Maybe they’re meant to galvanize Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis ahead of his crucial speech at the Thessloniki International Fair on Saturday. If he remembers what New Democracy was meant to stand for when it came to power in 2004, combines it with the stoicism of Greek singer Stelios Kazantzidis, who sang of pain and hardship, and then seeks some divine intervention, Karamanlis may have a chance of halting his government’s seemingly inevitable slide into obscurity.

For the premier to see this slogan, he would have to drive to Thessaloniki. Instead, he will fly here. It’s a shame, as a drive from Athens to Thessaloniki would have given the prime minister a chance to reflect on where his government has gone wrong in the 5.5 years it has been in power. If he’s to have any chance of staging a remarkable comeback at the next general election, then acknowledging his failings, and those of the people around him, is the minimum necessary.

A drive through Attica, for instance, would be an ideal opportunity to think about how issues such as immigration and waste management have been ignored and are now blighting Greece’s capital. Equally, the inability to protect the city’s dwindling greenery, allowing on its watch thousands of hectares of forest to be destroyed more than once is a blot on the conservatives’ record.

The apparent determination of Public Works Minister Giorgos Siouflias to concrete over much of Attica has strengthened people’s suspicions that the conservatives see the environment something to overcome rather than to protect. Souflias’s announcement this week of a project to build some 80 kilometers of new roads in Attica, just a week after 20,000 hectares of land in the Athens basin were burned to a cinder was crass and gave the impression of a government that’s unresponsive to events.

Heading north out of Attica and into Viotia, Karamanlis will able to ponder further evidence of Greece’s shocking environmental record. Despite countless court decisions, official investigations and prods from the European Union, the Asopos River remains contaminated with poisonous chemicals that seem to be leading to more cases of cancer in the area. Like previous governments, New Democracy has only paid lip service to the idea of cleaning up the river and punishing those that have polluted it.

AthensPlus_Karamanlis_ThessalonikiInstead, it has focused its efforts on a grand and costly scheme to divert the Acheloos River from western Greece to the farming plains of Thessaly, which Karamanlis would pass next on his journey north. It’s a project that only has the support of the farmers in central Greece, a part of the world that Souflias, the minister driving this scheme, hails from.

This government’s inability to reform in any way the country’s agricultural sector and instead, like PASOK did for so many years, to give in to one demand after another simply to buy time and votes is another heavy burden New Democracy must carry into the next elections. It’s something that Karamanlis would be able to think about while passing through the Vale of Tempe, where just this Monday livestock farmers closed the national road to make their demands known and, with alarming speed, have them met by an administration has shied away from necessary confrontation.

This stretch of road is also where in April 2003, 21 schoolchildren were killed in a coach crash. As he passes the small monument erected by the side of the road in their memory, the prime minister could reflect on the fact that were they alive, these children would now be headed for university. But the passing of watered-down education reforms and the lack of conviction to stand by any of the changes the conservatives had envisaged for secondary and tertiary education means that universities are still places of frustration and wasted talent as much as they are of teaching and learning.

And so, Karamanlis would arrive in Thessaloniki, where locals, like in many parts of Greece, will complain that the government has overlooked them when it comes to developing infrastructure and creating jobs. A glimpse of the construction of the northern city’s metro system after years of delays and false starts might raise Karamanlis’s spirits but his constituency is here, he will be aware that this alone will not transform Thessaloniki.

As he passes the picturesque headquarters of the local prefecture, the prime minister might reflect on the fact that his party’s most prominent representative in the northern city, the quick witted, media hungry but devoid of substance Prefect Panayiotis Psomiadis, is the type of politician that New Democracy and Greece could do without. Karamanlis’s inability to attract more capable people into his government may be something that he will soon regret.

To reach Thessaloniki, Karamanlis would have traveled on an ever expanding network of national roads. He could perhaps reflect with some pride on the grand public works projects taking place the length of the country. Maybe this is evidence of the progressive Greece, the country that is resistant to economic downturns, impervious to naysayers and blessed with professionals that can get the job done. But then maybe he will reflect again and wonder whether, with the clock ticking on his government’s time in office, a series of construction projects overseen by Souflias is the legacy that New Democracy wants to leave behind.

Unless, the prime minister can come up with some new and convincing ideas very quickly, he will only have kilometer after kilometer of smooth asphalt to look upon as one of his government’s few achievements in more than half a decade of running this country.

Maybe he would be better off flying to Thessaloniki after all.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on September 4, 2009.