The Fog of Austerity: This Smoke Cloud Is the Ultimate Symbol of Greece's Depression

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You don't need any statistics to fully grasp the depth of Greece's economic crisis. You only need to know about the smoke.

athens-winter-smog.jpg

Utility bills are now so expensive for Greek families that some have taken to burning wood to stay warm. The result is an eerie fog of smoke looming above the city. (Yannis Larios)

A specter is haunting Greece. It leers over rooftops, invades lungs, and nearly glows in the night. It's smoke. Smoke from fire used to warm the homes of Greek families too poor to afford heat any other way. Cut from the mountains surrounding Athens, charred in the stoves and fireplaces of middle class homes, and blown through their chimneys, the unnatural cloud hovering over the capital city has become a bleak metaphor for one of the worst economic depressions in modern European history.

It is the smog of austerity. Greece is literally breathing in the fumes of its recession.

When the country discovered soon after the global financial crisis that it would not be able to pay back its debts, Greece threw itself at the mercy of Europe. In exchange for bailouts, the country agreed to cut its deficit from both ends. Government spending went down. And taxes went up -- on income, on property, and on utilities. Combined with the higher cost of oil, these tax hikes pushed up heating costs by more than 40 percent at the start of Greece's coldest month.

Greek unemployment is the highest in the developed world. The country's GDP faces the worst peacetime contraction of any non-communist European country since the 19th century. Even workers with jobs often have to deal with delayed payments, furloughs, and lower take-home pay due to higher taxes. So, many families have made an understandable calculus: From now on, we'll make out our own heat with wood, a match, and a fireplace.

A BREATH OF AUSTERITY

615 athens fog1.jpgA cloud of smoke looms over Athens with the Olympic stadium (R) as seen from northern suburbs (Reuters)

Summer smog is common in Athens, when vehicle fumes collect in the hot, still air over the city. But this is the first incidence in recent memory of "winter smog" from families lighting fires to keep warm in January, when the temperature at night can drop into the low 40s.

"It is present everywhere in the wider area of Athens," said Alexia Tsaroucha, an English teacher in Athens, in an email exchange. "The problem became particularly evident this year, since the number of people using stoves has increased dramatically."

The phenomenon is reportedly worst in big cities like Athens, with more than four million inhabitants, and Thessaloniki to the North. But the "smog phenomenon," as they're calling it, has been also recorded in smaller Greek cities, as austerity has enacted its revenge on every corner of the country.

"The atmosphere has never been worse," said Marianna Filipopoulou, a social-anthropologist who has lived in Athens for four years. "It's getting more and more difficult to breathe. Even our eyes hurt because of the smog." She said the blame lies, not with families, but with their deplorable circumstances: "There is no other way given the scarcity of money."

A blogger for the site KeepTalkingGreece.com, who asked to remain anonymous, described to me the sensation of breathing in the smoke this way:

"First time, the penetrating smell hit me right in the face was late November 2012. I had just opened the balcony door in the evening when I felt thousands of unknown and invisible particles entering my nostrils and my lungs. An unpleasant smell of gasoline and something else. A pressure on my chest

...

"Since the start of the phenomenon, there have been times that I could not open the balcony door at night even to bring my own firewood inside. Worst was the smog over the city, during the holiday season, when families and friends got together to celebrate Christmas and New Year, when temperatures were low and fireplaces and stoves were working in full power. I personally had felt like I was having a stone sitting on my chest and gauze was blocking my nose."

BURN EVERYTHING

The Greek environmental ministry has warned families to not use their fireplaces as furnaces, but "families have lost workers and can barely make ends meet," said Tsaroucha, who has lived in Athens since she was born. "The increase in the price of heating oil ... and the increased amount of taxes that each household has to pay" have contributed to families' decision to heat their homes with old-fashioned fire from practically anything that will burn -- not only wood, but also lacquered furniture and old doors.

The second symbol of the economic crisis in Greece, after the smog, might be the denuded forests. Greece's environmental ministry estimates more than 13,000 tons of wood was harvested illegally in 2012. The environment ministry has reportedly seized "more than 13,000 tons of illegally cut trees" as families scramble to find something, anything, that will make a fire and heat a room.

"This new plague appears to be democratic," Greek commenter Nikos Konstandaras wrote, "but the veneer of universality is thin -- again it is the poor who suffer most: They live on lower floors, where the toxins congregate, they are forced to burn whatever they find, huddling around open fires and buckets of embers."

615 chopping wood man athens.jpgA worker chops firewood at a wood storage warehouse in Chalandri suburb north of Athens (Reuters)

Perhaps you've heard of the "Environmental Kuznets Curve." It's the basic theory that, although the initial burst of industrialization often degrades the environment (look at Beijing), the wealthiest societies tend to have the healthiest environments, as they develop sustainable living and cleaner, more expensive technologies (look at San Francisco).

But "Greece is regressing," said Iain Murray, vice president for strategy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "As it becomes poorer, its environment suffers more." Between 1961 and 1998, the concentration of particulates in London fell from an average of 160 micrograms per cubic meter to less than 20. That's what coming down the curve looks like. "The current levels in Greece are reaching 300 micrograms per cubic meter," Murray wrote. That's what going back up the curve looks like.

One Greek blogger compared the scene in Athens to a passage from Charles Dickens' Bleak House, dramatizing the fact that Greece faces a truly pre-industrial crisis in post-industrial country: "Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes -- gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun ... Fog everywhere ..."

Tsaroucha says families feel they have no choice but to harvest trees, tear wood from their walls, and throw furniture into their fires to burn it into the sky. They face the dilemma of "either saving the environment or keeping their households warm," she said.

In January, the Wall Street Journal reported a familiar scene in the woods surrounding the Greek capital. An environmentalist named Grigoris Gourdomichalis had caught an unemployed father of four illegally hacking away at a tree in the mountains. They had a confrontation. The property was government-owned, as Gourdomichalis told reporters Nektaria Stamouli and Stelios Bouras. But finally, the environmentalist relented. After the father began to cry, he let him walk back to his house to burn the wood from the tree.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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