Tag Archives: Tina Birbili

Creating a climate for change

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Over the last few months, Greeks have become accustomed to the idea that they need to adjust the way they live in order to survive. In the years to come this may stand them in good stead among their European peers when it comes to environmental, not just economic issues, because the European Commission’s latest targets for emissions cuts are going to require serious changes to daily lives across the continent.

After extensive economic modeling, the Commission earlier this month adopted a “roadmap” for transforming Europe into a competitive low-carbon economy. The proposal, which is now being put to member states, MEPs and EU leaders, calls for an 80 percent reduction in bloc emissions — compared to 1990 levels — by 2050. Unsurprisingly, there is intense debate over whether this target is ambitious enough.

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The power of four

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

If scientists could find a way to measure people’s units of thought, they would discover that the British think in pints, the French in grams, the Germans in euros, the Italians in kilometers per hour and the Greeks in “stremmata.”

One “strema” is equivalent to 1,000 square meters, or 0.1 of a hectare, and it’s the yardstick that many Greeks use to measure their social status, their wealth and their happiness. If you have plenty of stremmata in your name, the thinking goes, you and your children are set for life. It’s like real estate kryptonite to ward off any unwelcome financial surprises life may throw at you.

It’s the fact that the concept of owning land and homes is rooted so deeply in the modern Greek psyche that led to the MPs on Parliament’s environmental affairs committee rising up in unison last week against Environment Minister Tina Birbili’s attempt to rein in construction in conservation areas. They unleashed a hell-like fury when Birbili dared to bring before them a bill that would ban landowners who possess less than 1 hectare (10 stremmata) of land from building in areas protected by the European Union’s Natura 2000 program – a network designed to protect threatened habitats and species.

Environmental groups backed the idea but Birbili was left standing alone like a wetland reed being blown one way and then another by the furious MPs who felt her 1-hectare limit was much too harsh. They demanded that this restriction be reduced to 4 stremmata, or 0.4 hectares. This lower figure was not just plucked out of the air: In Greece, four is the magic number. The law allows anybody who owns 4 stremmata of land to build on it, regardless of whether the area is within the town plan or not. The apparent logic behind this is that it’s better to have a few people building huge monstrosities rather than having lots of them building small ones.

Four stremmata is landowning nirvana because it allows each Greek to build his oversized, distasteful cement block of a castle without regard for the state, the community or his neighbors. It’s perhaps the most selfish and shortsighted piece of legislation in this country’s vast but dilapidated legal framework.

The lawmakers who proposed this amendment to Birbili’s law came up with a novel way of defending their reluctance to part company with the 4-stremmata rule – even in areas that need environmental protection. They claimed that tougher building regulations would choke any potential for growth. How will people in rural areas or on islands, where, by definition, most Natura 2000 areas are located, be able to build hotels, tavernas, shops, factories and whatever else they need to make a living if the law doesn’t allow them to do so? Some MPs gave the example of Alonissos: The small island in the Sporades is one of six in the EU that is completely protected by the Natura directive.

It’s a cunning argument because no government wants to be seen as deterring entrepreneurship or the potential for growth, especially one navigating its way through an economic crisis. However, the ferocity with which both PASOK and New Democracy MPs met Birbili’s proposal suggests that narrow, not broader, interests were uppermost in their minds. It suggests these deputies didn’t want to be the ones who would have to return to their constituencies and explain why locals could no longer build the three-story lopsided villa they had promised their children or why the taverna owner cannot locate his business so close to the sea that fish jump straight into the frying pan.

The feebleness of the MPs’ argument underlines how egotistical and myopic their position is. After all, not every Greek island is like Alonissos, where building would be severely limited under Birbili’s initial proposal. It’s hardly the yardstick to judge the rest of Greece by. Also, the fixation with linking construction to growth is a remnant of the thinking that led Greece to the economic dead-end it finds itself in today – where every rule was bent and every policy molded to favor the construction sector in the hope it would drive the economy. It is incumbent upon Greece to adopt a smarter approach to creating jobs and revenue; for instance, to ditch the monolithic hotel complex in favor of the versatile ecotourism destination.

The lawmakers’ inability to countenance anyone infringing on Greeks’ sacred right to build where, when and how they want was enough to send political newcomer Birbili back to her drawing board. With the pressure of all the political parties, including her own, bearing down on her, the environment minister caved in and reduced the limit for building in Natura areas to 4 stremmata – in other words, the exact same criteria that exist in any other part of the country.

The European Commission says that the aim of the Natura network of nature protection areas “is to assure the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats.” Legal experts have pointed out that the Council of State, Greece’s highest administrative court, is likely to block the second version of Birbili’s legislation for the very simple reason that if an area is designated “protected,” then the laws that apply there cannot be the same as in other parts of the country. It seems straightforward logic that the rules in such an area should be tougher than elsewhere. But then again, it’s difficult to think straight when you only have stremmata on your mind.

This commentary by Nick Malkoutzis appeared in Kathimerini English Edition and on http://www.ekathimerini.com on January 28, 2011.

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.