The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.
As you no doubt learned in school, Greece is essentially the birthplace of what we consider Western Culture. Ancient Greece was the foundation of a culture distinct from civilization's origins in the Middle East. Our ideas of government and man's place in the world originate here. Thus I find it supremely ironic that Greece seems to be going first into the darkness that will soon envelop the whole world as our absurdist economic "system" collapses under its own contradictions. It seems we are historically in a period very similar to the transition from the Roman Empire to the Dark Ages (or Late Antiquity, as it is now more accurately termed by historians).
The Gibson quote above is one of my all-time favorites, and it indicates one of the simplest and most accurate ways of forecasting the future. If you want to know the future, all you have to do is find outliers that have all the characteristics of where the trend is going. For example, you could find plenty of areas around the edges of the Roman Empire that had, for all intents and purposes, slipped into the Dark Ages even at a time when the Empire was still a viable political entity. I examined this at length in my post, Is Japan The Future? So let's have a look at Greece, shall we?
Social workers and municipal officials in Athens report that there has been a 25 percent increase in homelessness. At the main food kitchen in Athens, 3,500 people a day come seeking food and clothing, up from about 100 people a day when it first opened 10 years ago.
The average age of those who show up is now 47, down from 60 two years ago, adding to evidence that those who are suffering now are former professionals. The unemployment rate for men 30 to 60 years old has spiked to 10 percent from 4 percent since the crisis began in 2008.
Aris Violatzis, Anargyros D.’s counselor, says that calls to the Klimaka charity’s suicide help line have risen to 30 a day, twice the number two years ago.
“We cannot imagine this,” Mr. Violatzis said. “We were once the 29th-richest country in the world. This is a nation in deep emotional shock.”
Evidence of the emotional and social shock was abundant in Athens last week. Even as I.M.F. and European banking officials worked with Greek officials to hash out the contours of a second bailout package, a nicely dressed middle-aged woman with silver buckles on her shoes sifted through the garbage cans outside the five-star hotels where many of these officials were staying.
At dusk, riot police fired tear gas at rock-throwing protesters as tourists and workers on their way home took cover.
Laid off construction workers have holed up in abandoned villas. A security guard fired by one of the many downsizing Greek companies said he had spent the last year sleeping in the back seat of his battered hatchback. And a chef trained in the premier cooking school in Athens spent 18 months sleeping on park benches after the restaurant where he worked eliminated his job. A homeless charity recently gave him shelter.
While aid workers refer to these people as a new generation of homeless, the Greek government does not officially recognize the homeless as a social category in need of assistance, says Anta Alamanu, who runs a privately financed shelter for Klimaka, the social services group.
As a result there are no government-supported homeless shelters as they exist in other parts of Europe or in the United States.
When Kostas DeLazaris, 47, lost his tourism job on the island of Corfu in 2007, he joined a construction firm in Athens, only to lose that job 10 months ago as the once-buoyant building industry ground to a halt. Now he sleeps on the floor in an abandoned house, sharing the space with two Greek women and a family of Bangladeshi immigrants.
He was a dedicated union man when he worked in tourism, serving as vice president of his local branch. But on the same day last week that his former peers marched on Parliament in protest, he said he would not be joining them.
“I feel betrayed,” he said, his voice rising in anger. “I paid my dues. I was part of the masses, and now I am on the streets.”
He snorts at the possibility of a new deal with Europe.
“That is a dead end,” he said. “There will be an earthquake instead and blood will be spilt.”
Indeed, there are analysts who argue that a social flare-up is in the making, fueled by the divide between the hard-hit private sector and a public work force of about one million strong that so far has not experienced significant job losses.
“This is an explosive situation, and there could well be violence,” said Stefanos Manos, a former economy minister who has advocated more aggressive spending cuts. “Especially as those who lost their jobs were earning 50 percent less than those who kept them.”
Greece may well get the assistance, with strings attached, of course. But whether that will help lift Anargyros D. out of his despondency remains unclear. At age 41, he lives off his father’s monthly pension of 962 euros, which is down from 1,500 euros a year ago, and he must borrow money for the bus from his home in the Peloponnese region to his counseling sessions in Athens.
“Everything was coming up roses,” he said, mashing a cigarette into the ashtray before him. “And then the banks took it all away from us.”
High in the hills of Arcadia, in a big stone house on the edge of this village overlooking verdant pastures and a valley beyond, a group of young Athenians are busy rebuilding their lives.
Until recently Andritsaina was not much of a prospect for urban Greeks. "But that," said Yiannis Dikiakos, "was before Athens turned into the explosive cauldron that it has become. We woke up one day and thought we've had enough. We want to live the real Greece and we want to live it somewhere else."
Piling his possessions into a Land Rover and trailer, the businessman made the 170-mile journey to Andritsaina last month. As he drove past villages full of derelict buildings and empty homes, along roads that wound their way around rivers and ravines, he did not look back.
"Athens has failed its young people. It has nothing to offer them any more. Our politicians are idiots … they have disappointed us greatly," said Dikiakos, who will soon be joined by 10 friends who have also decided to escape the capital.
They are part of an internal migration, thousands of Greeks seeking solace in rural areas as the debt-stricken country grapples with its gravest economic crisis since the second world war.
"It's a big decision but people are making it," said Giorgos Galos, a teacher in Proti Serron on the great plains of Macedonia, in northern Greece. "We've had two couples come here and I know lots in Thessaloniki [Greece's second biggest city] who want to go back to their villages. The crisis is eating away at them and they're finding it hard to cope. If they had just a little bit of support, a little bit of official encouragement, the stream would turn into a wave because everything is just so much cheaper here."
Ironically, it is the medicine doled out under last year's draconian EU-IMF €110bn (£96bn) rescue programme, implemented to modernise a sclerotic economy, that has made their lot worse. Twelve months of sweeping public sector pay and pension cuts, massive job losses, tax increases and galloping inflation have begun to have a brutal effect. GDP is predicted to contract by 3% this year – making Greece's the deepest recession in Europe.
In Athens, home to almost half of Greece's 11 million-strong population, the signs of austerity – and poverty – are everywhere: in the homeless and hungry who forage through municipal rubbish bins late at night; in the cash-strapped pensioners who pick up rejects at the street markets that sell fruit and vegetables; in the shops now boarded and closed and in the thousands of ordinary Greeks who can no longer afford to take family outings or regularly eat meat.
"We've had to give up tavernas, give up buying new clothes and give up eating meat more than once a week," said Vasso Vitalis, a mother-of-two who struggles with her civil servant husband to make ends meet on a joint monthly income of €2,000.
"With all the cuts we estimate we've lost around €450 a month. We're down to the last cent and, still, we're lucky. We've both got jobs. I know people who are unemployed and are going hungry. They ask family and friends for food," she sighed. "What makes us mad is that everybody knew the state was a mess but none of our politicians had the guts to mend it. It was like a ship heading for the rocks and now the rocks are very near."
Greeks also know that with their economy needing another financial lifeline, and few willing to lend to a country in such a parlous state, it will also get much worse before it gets better.
"In the past, the future always implied hope for Greeks but now it implies fear," said Nikos Filis, editor of the leftwing Avgi newspaper. "Until this week people thought that with all the measures the crisis would be over in a year or two. Now with the prospect of yet more austerity for more aid, they can't see an end in sight."
With unemployment officially nudging 790,000 – although believed to be far bigger with the closure of some 150,000 small and medium-sized businesses over the past year – there are fears that Greece, the country at the centre of Europe's worst financial debacle in decades, is slipping inexorably into political and social crisis, too. Rising racist tensions and lawlessness on the streets this week spurred the softly spoken mayor of Athens, Giorgos Kaminis, to describe the city as "beginning to resemble Beirut".
A mass exodus of the nation's brightest and best has added to fears that in addition to failing one or perhaps two generations, near-bankrupt Greece stands as never before to lose its intellectual class. "Nobody is speaking openly about this but the prospects for the Greek economy are going to get much worse as the brain drain accelerates and the country loses its best minds," said Professor Lois Lambrianidis, who teaches regional economics at the University of Macedonia.
"Around 135,000, or 9% of tertiary educated Greeks, were living abroad and that was before the crisis began. They simply cannot find jobs in a service-oriented economy that depends on low-paid cheap labour."
Just as in Arcadia where the young are choosing to start anew, Greece, he says, needs to rebuild itself if it is to survive its worst crisis in modern times.
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