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Ecocidal Austerity

Source: NYTX

Protest-Against-Gold-Mining-in-AthensLeft: A demonstration in Athens against gold mining in Greece.
(Photo by Chris Spannos for NYT eXaminer)

By Costas Panayotakis:

A recent article by Suzanne Daley scratches the surface of the catastrophic environmental implications that Greece’s brutal austerity program has had. (i) The article focuses on the controversy surrounding the gold mining plans, approved by the Greek government, by Canada’s Eldorado Gold Corporation. Although the article draws from both sides in the debate, there is more to be said, especially about the aspects of the article that are most problematic.

First of all, the title: ‘Greece Sees Gold Boom, But at a Price: Environment Suffers in Deals, Critics Say.’ The reference to a ‘gold boom’ is a bit grandiose, given the fact that, according to Daley’s own article, Eldorado’s operations “promises 1,500 jobs by 2015.” Given the fact that these jobs would be temporary and that Greece has a population of over 10 million people, millions of whom are unemployed or underemployed, a more accurate title would have been ‘Greece Sees a Drop in the Bucket, And at a Price.’

In addition to having a title that exaggerates the benefits from the mine, the article also understates the magnitude of the opposition to the project across Greece. Anyone who reads the article’s reference to “hundreds … who have mounted repeated protests” would understandably come out with the impression that this controversy is a limited local affair, when, in fact, there have been a number of very large protests, not just in the part of Northern Greece where the gold mine is being constructed but in a number of large cities, including Athens, which is located hundreds of miles away.

Also problematic is the article’s failure to mention the role in this affair of a major pillar of the Greek economic oligarchy, the Bobolas family, which has made hundreds of millions of euros as a result of the project’s approval and has used its extensive media holdings in Greece to push for the project and for the removal of any Greek environment ministers not appreciative enough to the ‘benefits’ that the gold mine is going to produce. (ii) This omission is all the more surprising, since, in the New York Times video that accompanies the article, one of the workers participating in the construction of the project’s facilities can be seen wearing an overshirt that identifies him as an employee of the Bobolas’ construction company.

In this respect, the current Greek government is true to form when it shows its willingness to defend the interests of the Greek economic oligarchy and transnational capital even by trampling on its citizens’ right to protest and by using brutal repressive tactics, such as rubber bullets. Not surprisingly, the Greek government’s dutiful service of Eldorado’s interests has given the company a sense that it is above the law, as illustrated by a recent incident, reported in the Greek press, where agents of the company tried to prevent hikers from walking along a public forest road in the vicinity of the company’s operation.

It should be added here that, although Greece’s currently astronomical unemployment levels makes the prospect of any job attractive to some of the local residents, mining operations, with devastating ecological effects, had been undertaken in the area even before the crisis. This kind of pollution and ecological degradation is not an exceptional circumstance but a normal part of capitalist companies’ pursuit of profit through the externalization of the ecological costs of their activity onto others.

Thus, it is also worth mentioning here another serious environmental problem, which is developing in Greece right now and which is even more directly connected to the current crisis and Greece’s brutal austerity program. This is the rapidly growing problem of air pollution in many cities around the country, which has resulted from new steep taxes on heating oil. These taxes, which are part of the austerity package Greece had to adopt to appease its creditors and to assure them that it would continue reducing its deficit and paying down its mountain of debt, have made heating oil unaffordable for millions of Greeks. As a result, they have turned to wood, which is much more polluting than oil. In many Greek cities it is now common to have levels of pollution many times higher than the ones recommended by the World Health Organization.

At the same time, the booming demand for wood has meant that it is an open season on Greek forests. Last summer, there was much discussion in the Greek media about the fact that austerity measures had limited the material means that firefighters had to combat the forest fires that have decimated Greek forests summer after summer. Now we are finding out that capitalist austerity is as ecocidal in the winter as it is in the summer.

Notes:

(i) See Suzanne Daley, ‘Greece Sees Gold Boom, But at a Price,’ http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/14/world/europe/seeking-revenue-greece-approves-new-mines-but-environmentalists-balk.html?_r=0.

(ii) For more on this, see a special report by Reuters on ‘Greece’s Triangle of Power,’ http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/12/17/greece-media-elections-crisis-idINDEE8BG0B920121217.

Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at The New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy (Pluto Press).

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