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Under A Cloud Of Austerity, Real Smoke Clouds Greece As Well

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In this winter of austerity and Depression-era unemployment, a fog of woodsmoke hangs over the Greek capital on cold nights.

It’s coming from the tens of thousands of fireplaces and wood-burning stoves Athenians are using to heat their homes. Most can no longer afford heating oil, the price of which has risen 40 percent since last year. The government also cut a fuel subsidy for low-income families earlier this month.

Some Greeks buy cheap firewood; others used their discarded Christmas trees as kindling. The most desperate are burning old furniture and raiding protected forests. Someone even hacked away the remains of a 3,000-year-old olive tree where Plato is said to have taught.

In the working-class suburb of Aegaleo, west of Athens, 41-year-old Sotiris Sotiriou and his two young daughters, Magda and Sophia, are bundled up in thick sweaters. They add wood from olive-tree saplings in the flames of their living-room fireplace. The saplings grow on a small family plot outside Athens.

“Last year, the fireplace was just decorative,” says Sotiriou, who also owns a home improvement shop. “This year, it’s how we heat our home.”

Like many Greeks, Sotiriou and his wife, Haroula Lappa, cannot afford to buy heating oil. Sotiriou has no business at his home-improvement store, since the Greek construction industry has all but halted.

Nearly all of Lappa’s salary as a court clerk goes to their $930 monthly home mortgage payment. After groceries and tax bills, there’s nothing left for the heating oil, she says.

She goes outside for a walk and smells the scent of woodsmoke from other fireplaces.

Two weeks ago, she also smelled something else: burning paint.

“Someone must have been burning a door with the windows still set in,” she says. “When the girls and I were walking home, it was hard to breathe. We used our coats as masks.”

Greeks may actually be burning old furniture to stay warm, says Stephanos Sambatakakis of the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Scientists are studying the particles in the noxious fumes, which could soon leave people suffering from inflamed eyes, respiratory problems, headaches and nausea, he says. Long-term effects could include lung inflammation and, “in extreme cases, lung cancer,” he says.

Environmentalist Grigoris Gourdomichalis is worried about another scourge — deforestation. Twice a day, he and his colleagues climb into a jeep and patrol a protected forest on a hill west of Athens. Illegal logging is rampant here.

He says it’s not just the poor cutting down saplings to use as fuel to stay warm. Poachers also sell the wood for profit.

“Before World War II, this forest had so many trees,” Gourdomichalis says. “But the Germans and Italians took the heating oil and coal during the war, and Greeks were forced to chop down all the trees for firewood so they could cook and keep themselves warm. The forest has since recovered, so we can’t let it be destroyed again.”

He says the patrols have stopped some of the deforestation. But then he and a colleague spot another threat to the forest: Someone has destroyed a giant water tank used to fight summer forest fires. Gourdomichalis says the tank’s steel frame was cut to be sold as scrap metal.

“People are destroying everything in a desperate effort to survive, or they’re using the crisis to make a profit,” he says, shaking his head in despair.

He peers out the jeep’s window at the city below. It’s getting dark and cold. He sees the first wisps of the smoky fog that will soon hang over his city.

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18 Comments on "Under A Cloud Of Austerity, Real Smoke Clouds Greece As Well"

  1. dissident on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 5:29 pm 


  2. Plantagenet on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 5:41 pm 

    Greece is switching from fossil fuels to renewable biofuels.

    Isn’t that exactly what our government policymakers want?

  3. DC on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 8:43 pm 

    No, your corporate gov’t wants the status-quo, of drive-shop-consume-sprawl maintained at all costs. Your in-effective gold-plated military is terrorizing the ME just for that express purpose. They are certainly not there for the view, much less to combat ‘terrorism’. Greece is suffering from what Heinberg and others have been warning us about for some time. The result of an un-managed energy and resource descent are on display on Greece, IE a slow collapse. Least its not a rapid collapse, FWIW.

    Once the blinders are removed and you see things for what they are, not for the poli-statement, things become much clearer.

  4. Plantagenet on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 8:47 pm 

    DC, you must live in a cave if you don’t realize that Obama, Al Gore and other liberals are promoting the move from fossil fuels to renewables as a way to stop Greenhouse warming.

    Greece is by necessity leading the way to doing this and it isn’t pretty.

  5. Beery on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 8:57 pm 

    Planty, we lost the chance for the changeover to be pretty a decade ago. Now it has to be messy. That’s not Obama’s fault – it’s the fault of people like you who think that we can innovate our way out of this mess.

  6. GregT on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 9:23 pm 

    Millions of trees surround the city where I live.

    I wonder how long it will take 2 million people to cut them all down?

  7. Arthur on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 9:29 pm 

    Iran was one of the most important suppliers of oil to Greece (one third). Unfortunately for the Greeks they are the victim of European solidarity with the US.

    This surely has not helped either. I am amazed they could find wood. Last time I checked, and I ‘checked’ Greece often in my life, there are hardly any forests in Greece. Ah well, it looks as if there will be an early end to winter in Europe soon. Here in Holland the thaw will set in next week. Hopefully in Greece as well.

  8. Rick on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 9:41 pm 

    Too bad they are still using oil to heat with. More bad planning, there and everywhere.

  9. Plantagenet on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 9:53 pm 

    Beerie…you must live in a cave if you are unaware that Obama just yesterday in his inauguration speech said god doesn’t want climate change, so Obama is now against it too. Its not Obama’s fault he is late to the party—its the fault of people like you who didn’t hold him to his campaign promises.

    Nonetheless, I’m glad you agree with me that the changeover from fossil fuels to renewables is going to be messy, as demonstrated by what is happening in Athens.

  10. Arthur on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 9:56 pm 

    Rick, they are not using oil to heat, but currently wood. Oil is too expensive, probably due to scarcity since the imposition of EU sanctions against Iran. But what else should they use to heat there homes in normal times? Olive oil?

  11. Arthur on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 10:03 pm 

    Meanwhile the Japanese finance minister Taro Aso (72!) has told elder japanese citizens to ‘hurry up and die’!

    I am not kidding:

    128 million Japanese with now 25% over 60. That will rise to 40% later this century.

    Times are changing fast.

  12. Lore on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 11:25 pm 

    Planty… time to start blaming yourself.

  13. Rick on Wed, 23rd Jan 2013 12:27 am 

    @ Arthur

    Apparently you didn’t read the article:

    “Most can no longer afford heating oil, the price of which has risen 40 percent since last year. The government also cut a fuel subsidy for low-income families earlier this month.”

    And you missed my point.

  14. Arthur on Wed, 23rd Jan 2013 12:35 am 

    I did read the article. They used to use oil for heating, but that has bevome unaffordable (my explanation: oil scarcity due to EU sanctions, driving up prices). So now they are using wood for heating.

    Maybe I am missing your point. You attribute the Greeks using oil for heating to ‘bad planning’. I counter: so what should have the Greeks been planning?

  15. Fishman on Wed, 23rd Jan 2013 12:58 am 

    OOOhh, great comeback Lore, not much sense to it but great comeback. I think this is the “degrowth” the libs hoped for, but not the outcome they expected. Reality, keeps slapping them in the face.

  16. BillT on Wed, 23rd Jan 2013 1:29 am 

    ALL of this is coming to the US soon. Look around you. Do you have a wood stove/fireplace to burn wood in? How long will the forests of the US last?

    My sister moved to the mountains of PA 15 years ago and I designed her home with a fireplace. It is an import from Europe and is very efficient. It has kept them warm through many snowstorms and power outages. They are surrounded by a state forest and will never be cold. My bro-in-law thanks me for suggesting it, every time they need it.

  17. DC on Wed, 23rd Jan 2013 1:50 am 

    I hardly care what the figurehead Obama ‘wants; or Al who? They are not my people, and all your Obama wants is an endless war, or at least the people pulling his strings want that, and hes all too happy to take his pay cheque and keep smiling for the cameras. He is both powerless to promote clean(er) energy in the US in any meaningful way, even if he wanted to, which is anything but clear, and nearly powerless to prevent the oil cartel from doing whatever it wants to whoever it wants, amerikan or not.

    Look at Greece, destabilized by ‘your’ Goldman Sachs in order to weaken and divide the EU. Obama was around for some of that, but it wasnt really ‘his’ doing. Puppets dont have power. The powerless US presidents can only rubber-stamp or rationalize the evil those supposedly under them, commit.

    No plant, for all your Obombers supposed ‘wanting’ renewables, North America is fully committed to ever more destructive fossil-fuel extraction. How do you circle that square?

  18. Arthur on Wed, 23rd Jan 2013 4:56 am 

    Obama: ‘I had a drone’

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