Greece's Big Smog: Neoliberal Austerity, Public Health, and the Environment
Neoliberal austerity in crisis-torn Greece has a significant implication for public health and the environment. The disturbing reality is that the unbearable cost of heating oil for a large portion of the country's population has led to an increased use of solid fuel heating. The smog that has appeared in Athens and other Greek cities has alarmed health and environmental authorities, the latter of whom are concerned about not only pollution but also deforestation.
The air pollution disaster that took place in London around the end of 1952 resulted not only in the "Big Smoke" nickname for the British metropolis but also in the deaths and illnesses of thousands of people. If you happen to visit Greece these chilly days of winter, you will notice the hazy smoggy air reminiscent of the Great Smog.
Solid fuel heating is back in Greece. Why have Greeks turned off their heating oil boilers and returned to stoves? Certainly it is not because Greeks have suddenly become more romantic, desiring to relax by the crackling, flickering flames of fireplaces.
In October 2012, the consumption taxes for diesel and heating oil became equalized. This has had a huge impact on the latter's prices: diesel prices have only slightly decreased, but heating oil prices have soared.
The cost of heating oil has become unaffordable for the overtaxed and underpaid Greeks -- hence their resort to the cheaper alternative of solid fuels. Indoor air pollution from the use of solid fuel heating, however, directly puts at risk the members of households exposed to it. When solid fuel heating is used on a massive scale, its emissions of pollutants pose a potential threat to the health of all.
Given the systematically constructed and communicated image of lazy, corrupt, and well-paid Greeks, it is unsurprising that many of the otherwise well-informed people outside Greece are unaware of the scale of the impoverishment of the middle and lower classes of the Greek society. It is estimated that after the three infamous memorandums that resulted in cruel cuts and higher taxes, an average Greek family has seen its annual income cut in half in less than three years. However, even after the radical income decrease, consumer prices remain still high, making many Greeks, especially the lower classes, struggle for a decent standard of living.1
An increasingly large portion of the population is at risk of sinking below the poverty line. Especially, the high cost of living2 in cities has even caused a wave of migration to rural areas.
The unemployment rate in late 2012 officially rose to 26.8%, leaving 1,345,715 unemployed.3 The most frightening is the record 56.6% unemployment rate for young people aged between 15 and 24. A brain drain has already started, the country's well-educated youth seeking a better future abroad.
Neoliberal austerity measures meanwhile are brutally destroying the already inefficient state even as the social fabric is being torn apart. The result is frightening.
Given all this, it comes as no surprise to see that the cold winter in Greece has forced many households to use solid fuels for heating purposes. Petrol stations are selling more wood and coals than diesel and petrol. Recently, we have even witnessed many trees being cut down to harvest fuel wood from the very few parks in Athens.
Solid fuel use for heating used to be a prominent feature only in poor rural areas of developing countries. Now it has also arrived in Europe and it has evidently come to stay. The neoliberal doctrine is jeopardizing the most significant success of post-war Europe: the welfare state.
Public health is put in great danger as a result. The World Health Organization warns that when solid fuels are burned in inefficient simple stoves under poorly ventilated conditions, then their use "generates substantial emissions of many health-damaging pollutants, including respirable particulates and carbon monoxide, and results in indoor air pollution exposures often far exceeding national standards and international guidelines."4 In order to prevent life from becoming nasty, brutish, and short, we need to bring back the welfare state.
Neoliberal austerity prescribed as the sole remedy for the crisis all across Europe has only worsened the socioeconomic decline brought about by the crisis and is now beginning to have grave repercussions for public health and the environment. The European Union must eventually make a coordinated response based upon solidarity among the member states. Today is Greece, tomorrow will be Italy, Spain, Ireland . . . and the list goes on. At present we have only divided national policies; we need a common vision of what we have to do together.
I am cautiously optimistic, at least about this particular burning problem caused by the substitution of solid fuels for heating oil. All social classes, not just the poorest, are exposed to the harmful polluted air. Hazardous air pollutants do not discriminate between rich and poor. So there is hope that the policymakers will be obliged to deal with at least this one.
1 Hellenic Statistical Authority, "Consumer Price Index: November 2012" (10 December 2012). Retrieved 7 January 2013 from <www.statistics.gr/portal/page/portal/ESYE/BUCKET/A0515/
2 Hellenic Statistical Authority, "Living Conditions in Greece" (4 January 2013). Retrieved 7 January 2013, from <www.statistics.gr/portal/page/portal/ESYE/PAGE-livingcond/content/
3 Hellenic Statistical Authority, "Labour Force Survey: October 2012" (10 January 2013). Retrieved 10 January 2013 from <www.statistics.gr/portal/page/portal/ESYE/BUCKET/A0101/PressReleases/
4 Manish A. Desai, Sumi Mehta, and Kirk R. Smith, "Indoor Smoke from Solid Fuels: Assessing the Environmental Burden of Disease at National and Local Levels," Geneva, World Health Organization, 2004 (WHO Environmental Burden of Disease Series, No.4). Retrieved 7 January 2013 from <www.who.int/quantifying_ehimpacts/publications/en/Indoorsmoke.pdf>.