Monday, January 9, 2012

Is Greece The Future Redux

Amazing article today: Amid Economic Strife, Greece Looks To Farming Past (New York Times)
CHIOS, Greece — Nikos Gavalas and Alexandra Tricha, both 31 and trained as agriculturalists, were frustrated working on poorly paying, short-term contracts in Athens, where jobs are scarce and the cost of living is high. So last year, they decided to start a new project: growing edible snails for export.

As Greece’s blighted economy plunges further into the abyss, the couple are joining with an exodus of Greeks who are fleeing to the countryside and looking to the nation’s rich rural past as a guide to the future. They acknowledge that it is a peculiar undertaking, with more manual labor than they, as college graduates, ever imagined doing. But in a country starved by austerity even as it teeters on the brink of default, it seemed as good a gamble as any.

Mr. Gavalas and Ms. Tricha chose to move back to his native Chios, an Aegean island closer to Izmir, Turkey, than to Athens. They set up their boutique farm using $50,000 from their families’ life savings. That investment has yet to pay off; they will have their first harvest later this year. But the couple are confident about their decision.

“When I call my friends and relatives in Athens, they tell me there’s no hope, everything is going from bad to worse,” Ms. Tricha said on a recent afternoon, as she walked through her greenhouse, where thousands of snails lumbered along on rows of damp wooden boards. “So I think our choice was good.” 
This reminds me of the stories of people returning to family farms in the great depression. With America’s land now consolidated in the hands of large agribusiness, where will we go? As a side historical note – Greek farming has mostly been small-scale historically, as Greece’s rocky and hilly land prevented the vast plantations that came to dominate Roman, and later European, agriculture. Another historical note concerns the ways farmers fell into debt slavery – so much so that special laws had to be passed to make sure there were enough free men to work the land and the people didn’t starve. Hopefully that element of history won’t repeat itself. Using debt to enslave farmers has been de rigeur since ancient Mesopotamia.

Even highly-educated people are in on the trend. In addition to farming, many Greeks are also turning to Greece’s maritime industry, which has been an important part of the country since ancient times:
Yannis Menis, 27, a Chios native, said he had a promising career ahead of him as a nuclear physicist. But just shy of his Ph.D., he could not afford to continue his studies and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps as a ship engineer, responsible for ship maintenance.

Mr. Menis started maritime school in Chios in September. “My family opposed my wish to enroll; they were asking me, ‘Did you study all those years for nothing?’ ” he said. “I didn’t tell anyone on board about my scientific past,” he added. “Everywhere in Greece it’s a disadvantage to be overqualified now.”
That seems to be very much the case in the United States. I experienced it myself years ago when I was unemployed – there were plenty of jobs for the uneducated, but if you had any sort of degree, you were considered overqualified. Nobody wanted to hire you because they felt you would leave as soon as you could – less educated "lower class" workers took what they could get and didn’t make a fuss – and that is what they wanted.

So we’ve come to this - Education has become a liability! And, considering the enormous debt burden that has to be undertaken and the scarcity of jobs, why would anyone undergo that? That’s why “more education” touted by our leaders is no answer. People are chasing middle-class jobs that aren’t going to be there. And they're starting to wake up to the fact that college for must of us is nothing more than a debt trap.

Austerity is not a blip – it is the new reality.
At a troubled moment when the debt crisis has eroded the country’s recent economic gains — perhaps irrevocably — there is much debate about whether a return to the land or the sea is a step forward or backward.

Ms. Tricha knows where she stands. “My parents were from the countryside. They were farmers when they were young. I studied to avoid becoming a farmer. They were teachers. And then their daughter studied and then went back to being a farmer,” she said. Nevertheless, she added, “for me it’s like going forward, because I think we neglected the land.”

Yiannis Makridakis, 40, a Greek novelist whose work touches on themes of tradition and regionalism, represents a different strain of refugee, with a more political tinge. He said he moved from Athens to Chios in 2010 as an act of defiance against a global financial system he found unsustainable. He bought property with a well and grows his own vegetables.

“I came to the conclusion that I want to live this insignificant life of mine as one human being among others,” Mr. Makridakis said on a sunny afternoon, looking down from his balcony on the rooftops of his village, Volissos, and the blue sea below. “According to the old ways, where people work to secure their basic needs.”
That seems to be a very common attitude here as well - a rejection of our technophilic debt-based finance system based on acquisitiveness and the hedonic treadmill. I think people all over are beginning to reject this. Not everyone agrees, though:
Others find the trend discouraging. In the walled medieval village of Mesta, Georgia Poumpoura, 73, stood under a grape arbor outside her small stone house and chatted with friends. She said she divides her time between Athens, where she raised her family, and Mesta, where she grew up in poverty and where her monthly pension, which has been cut by the government’s austerity plan, stretches further.

“I have three sons,” she said. “One is a civil engineer, one an electrical engineer, another a mechanical engineer. All three are unemployed. They’re having a hard time in Athens. Here we manage to make ends meet, but we spend less,” she said of herself and her husband, who is also retired.

But she said she would be disappointed if her sons returned to Chios. “I worked so hard to make my children and grandchildren go to college,” she said. “I don’t want them to come back. It would be a waste of all that effort.”
This is a common feeling. I’ve struggled with it myself – I’ve come to the conclusion that I prefer physical work and don’t like working in an office. Yet such jobs are considered “high staus”. Do I want to throw that away? Do I want to struggle with money and status issues? Yet we see that even engineers are having a hard time finding work in Greece, and that will happen here too as fields become saturated due to constant new entrants. It's interesting this attitude is found among the older generation. for them progress was still possible.
Beyond the numbers, the impulse to return to Greece’s rural roots itself represents a telling new tendency since the onset of the crisis — a turning inward, a quiet kind of national pride in response to the overall gloom. Dimitris Kaloupis, who left his job as a construction worker 20 years ago during the boom years and now is a full-time farmer in Volissos, raises his own animals and vegetables and runs a local tavern. He said he thought Greece could handle this crisis, as it had many others.

“We invented civilization, and we’ll take it back,” Mr. Kaloupis said over a lunch of stewed lamb that he raised himself. If the Greek economy really plummets beyond repair, “I will take the rock in my hand and squeeze it, and from the water that comes out of it, I’ll make pilaf to feed my daughter. We’ll manage.”
That's a good attitude to have. The comments are enlightening too. Here's one:
The writing is on the walls... in Greek!

I think this article is a better hint at what is to come for all of us than the iGadget, unsustainable, oil-soaked technology fantasies promulgated by politicians and corporations. Fantasy sells. Reality doesn't.

For a just, peaceful world, we all need to take better care of the land and, by so doing, each other. Our challenge becomes taking the wealth of our nations and put it towards the betterment of all people in the form of childcare, education, healthcare, and a guarantee of dignity for the elderly. When those things are in place, we can live with less... and become truly wealthy.
And here's another intriguing one, which is a variant of an argument I've heard several times in various places. I don't agree, but it's worth consideration. Responding to it would take a blog post in itself (I'll save that for later):
The fantasy is peace and justice found by regressing back to agrarianism. Social liberalism is found in the modernity of technology (yes, supported by energy production). The reality of agrarian societies, past and present, is social conservatism, violent land and water disputes, poverty, lack of education and healthcare. It's easy to romanticize the past when confronted with a complicated present and future but if the past was so wonderful, it would not be past and people around the world would not be so desperate to leave it behind.

...Very romantic but you're conveniently ignoring the difficulties and illiberalism of farm life and agrarian communities. Contemporary civil rights and human rights are based on technological advances; getting people en masse away from having to spend all their time and energy growing food to survive. Women today have choices and freedom specifically because they do not have to give birth to as many future farm workers as they can bear and work the land. And that's to say nothing of gay rights. Think about the social reality of highly agrarian societies. It's extremely conservative because survival depends largely on 'traditional' values and traditional gender roles. Not to mention the toll all that child bearing to sustain the farm has on the environment. 'Going back to the land' is extremely bad news for what we know as modern liberalism.
Can we sustain modern values in post-industrial societies? For now, here's one response:
What about the socialist (or used to be) rural communities in France? What about modern organic farmers? What about Vermont? Are these places and people illiberal? Globally, are cities really that much more "liberal"? I know that even here in Kansas, rural areas used to be very liberal until the advent of modern evangelical social conservatism. Yes, people in cities must live side by side with a more diverse group of people, but I have seen this turn many people more prejudice and culturally isolated, and not less. Technology will not go away, and there will always be a sector for those involved in it. Mass communication will continue. You can surf the internet out in western Kansas (I know, I have done it) and watch TV in rural West Africa (I know, I have done it). I don't think that people are calling for a massive, everyone-back-to-the-land movement, but if young people are finding that life more satisfying, lucrative, and hopeful, why disparage them? A strong sense of community and tradition is not necessarily a bad thing.
It's worth noting that rural communities in Europe are more socially liberal that the average American suburb.

From last year:
Battered by Economic Crisis, Greeks Turn to Barter Networks (The New York Times)
Greek crisis forces thousands of Athenians into rural migration (The Guardian)
Greek economic crisis: Timeless values help villagers (BBC)

BONUS 2: This is so sad.

Greece's financial crisis has made some families so desperate they are giving up the most precious thing of all - their children. One morning a few weeks before Christmas a kindergarten teacher in Athens found a note about one of her four-year-old pupils.

"I will not be coming to pick up Anna today because I cannot afford to look after her," it read. "Please take good care of her. Sorry. Her mother."

In the last two months Father Antonios, a young Orthodox priest who runs a youth centre for the city's poor, has found four children on his door step - including a baby just days old. Another charity was approached by a couple whose twin babies were in hospital being treated for malnutrition, because the mother herself was malnourished and unable to breastfeed. 

Cases like this are shocking a country where family ties are strong, and failure to look after children is socially unacceptable - they feel to Greeks like stories from the Third World, rather than their own capital city.

One of the children cared for by Father Antonios is Natasha, a bright two-year-old brought to his centre by her mother a few weeks ago. The woman said she was unemployed and homeless and needed help - but before staff could offer her support she had vanished, leaving her daughter behind. "Over the last year we have hundreds of cases of parents who want to leave their children with us - they know us and trust us," Father Antonios says.

"They say they do not have any money or shelter or food for their kids, so they hope we might be able to provide them with what they need." Requests of this kind were not unknown before the crisis - but Father Antonios has never until now come across children being simply abandoned.

The Greek parents 'too poor' to care for their children (BBC)

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