Fires aren’t unusual in the summer months in Greece. But this year the area devastated was ten times the average affected over the last 50 years. More than 60 people died in the fires at the end of August that caught the media’s appetite for sensational images. There were the accounts of people trapped in mountain villages surrounded by fire, the tragedy of the 9 people who died when a car crashed into a fire engine causing a fatal blazing traffic jam, the pictures of burnt-out villages, and the bodies lying in fields, houses, cars and among smouldering trees.
This was the third serious outbreak of fires across Greece this summer. Many other countries in Europe also suffered during a heat wave that touched 40, 45 degrees at times. The focus of media coverage was on two things: how had the fires started and what was the Greek government doing about it?
In hot weather fires do start easily in the right conditions. Lightning, for example, is not uncommon in SE Europe, and the Greeks are among the heaviest smokers in the world. But the media blamed arsonists. The finger was pointed at people acting in the pay of property developers who stood to gain from the availability of newly deforested land. In addition to the profit motive, an FBI profiler cited revenge, excitement, vandalism, extremism, or cover for another crime as the main motives for arson. All this is possible, but it hardly explains the general conditions which might have made it possible for a few greedy firms or damaged individuals to cause so much devastation.
As for the Greek government, it deployed thousands of fire fighters, fire engines and soldiers. They appealed for fire fighters and planes from other countries. They did as much as any government, whether of the right or the left, was likely to. Inevitably there were criticisms of the government having done ‘too little, too late’. In the pages of Socialist Worker you could read how they thought “the government’s policies … contributed to the spread of the fire”. No doubt they did in some respects, but the same would be true of PASOK, the left alternative currently in opposition in Greece. Yet the left always says that there is no problem the capitalist state can’t solve.
The reality is quite different. Fundamentally, the fires in Greece started and spread as a result of two phenomena that capitalism cannot control. Firstly, the bourgeoisie has no control over the climate change that lies behind the increasing temperatures in the Mediterranean (and elsewhere) that turn forests into potential kindling. In the face of global warming there is a need for a global response. However, the capitalist class can’t act at an international level because it is divided into ruthlessly competing imperialist states.
Secondly, whether we’re looking at the psychology of those employed by property developers, or those who seek excitement through seeing massive destruction by fire, the ruling class has no answers for such alienated behaviour, as it has no means for nurturing basic human solidarity
At the level of the individual, capitalism won’t stop being a society that breeds greed, heartlessness, desperation and despair, any more than, at the level of the environment, it can reverse the process of ecological destruction. Car 6/9/7