It’s a cautionary tale: Across southern Europe and beyond, countries — Turkey, Italy and Algeria among them — have struggled to respond to wildfires, as decades of underinvestment have withered the state’s ability to protect its citizens. In Greece as elsewhere, to have any chance of mitigating climate catastrophe, the state must reverse much of what it has done for the last 30 years — and commit to the patient, long-term task of investing in environmental resilience. Otherwise Athens, streaked by smoke, could become Europe’s first uninhabitable capital city.
The roots of this summer’s fires in Greece go back to the postwar period, when breakneck urbanization — spurred by flimsy, often illegal building sprees — lured tens of thousands from the countryside to Athens. Entire coastlines were despoiled with concrete for the sake of touristic development, while colossal tracts of countryside, long overseen by shepherds and olive farmers with stakes in the well-being of the land, were emptied of many of their handlers. Even more devastating, on a global scale, was the environmental damage committed by Greece’s ship-owning magnates, whose ceaseless transport of hydrocarbons, combined with a stranglehold over the country’s political system, made them some of the world’s most stupendous agents of planetary desecration.
Even so, at least until the late 1980s, the state played a large role in securing public welfare. But over the next decade, that started to change. In search of immediate profits, the government sold off chunks of the country’s public sectors, among them telecommunications, water and gas. Responsibilities once held by the state fell to private interests, whose priority was to turn a profit off them, or to private citizens, who were left to pick up the pieces.
Take Greece’s firefighting sector. Though nominally under the state’s care, it suffered from under-resourcing: In the ’90s, the government annually deployed a small force of just 4,500 permanent firefighters — aided by thousands of seasonal hires — to stamp out summer blazes. Little attempt was made to harness resources for the long-term care of forestland that might prevent the onset of fires in the first place. Exacerbating the problem, in 1998 the liberal administration, as part of its bid to decentralize government further, uncoupled the task of firefighting from that of forest management altogether. Efforts to stymie fires became tangled in bureaucracy.
It got worse. The financial crash of 2008 and the ruthless austerity that followed — insisted on by the European Union countries now dispatching troops of firefighters to Athens — forced the Greek government to operate within strict budgetary requirements. With only minimal control over its own finances, it stripped back the firefighting budget by more than €100 million, or $118 million. The result was considerable abandonment. In recent weeks, as their homes burned in Evia, residents threw up their arms in despair. “The state is absent,” said one villager. “We were fighting alone,” said another.