How to be part of the solution
When you are used to being the good guy and the one who has to accept the consequences of other people’s catastrophic actions – in this case, those of governments and companies – you get annoyed when someone sees you as being on the other side, among those who should change their habits for the common good. This is what happened to Costas Vassilakis, the author of a recently published book which offers a series of guidelines on what we should all do in order to protect the environment. Published by Livanis Publishers, «Elafropatita» is about taking necessary action on issues that concern all of us, while also suggesting simple ways to save energy and reduce pollution. A man with a rich history of involvement in ecological associations – he served as the Hellenic Ornithological Society’s president for 10 years – Vassilakis knows what could bring about a real change: «If the State does not take a leading role, then it is up to the public,» he says. If we pay attention to what we, ordinary citizens, do, aren’t we diverting attention from those who are actually responsible for the environment’s destruction? Responsibility for environmental destruction lies with all of us. It has to do with governments – their plans for expansion and their decision-making – as well as with companies which pollute the environment during production. But it comes down to us, too. Besides all the things that we can change in our daily routine, we are also responsible for putting pressure on our government, so that it makes the right decisions, as well as on companies, so that they don’t pollute while producing environmentally friendly goods. It is up to us to purchase organic products and support those companies making recyclable products, for instance. As potential shareholders, we must demand to be kept informed of action taken for the protection of the environment. It is our responsibility to support those who show their concern for the environment when they run for office, or those parties that have adopted environmental politics. If they haven’t done so, we should put enough pressure on for them to do so. If they don’t comply, we should run for office ourselves. Yet the State must inspire the people. In the book, you refer to Margot Wallstrom, the EU commissioner for the environment, who, after losing a bet with EU students had to cycle five kilometers a day for a month. The State ought to offer people guidelines and educate them in such matters. But if the goverment does not act as a leader, then it is up to the public. Besides and beyond all the things we expect from the government and environmental groups, it is important that we ourselves act when it comes to issues that concern us. At this point, we seem so anxious to get through the day, while having so many ready-made solutions, that we just take no action. Isn’t living according to environmental prescriptions a little bit of a luxury these days? Turning the tap off while brushing our teeth, having our children take their bath together or turning the light off when leaving the room does not change our daily life that much – but it helps to save energy. Building an ecological house or installing a solar-powered system might be expensive, but will quickly pay off. In any case, the book’s aim is not to make us feel guilty about things that we can’t actually do. If we all did our duty, would the environment be given a real chance? Absolutely. The more we do, the better. One example – which is not mentioned in the book – is the great water supply crisis in Athens in 1992-1993. At the time, a decision was made to divert the Evinos River to the capital. A campaign for reducing water consumption had begun that summer, while the price for water went up. In the end, we didn’t go thirsty, nor did the river come to Athens. Athenians were persuaded to reduce their consumption, and, as a result, water reserves increased. No one went thirsty as a result of curbing consumption. Since then, many people have changed their habits. A number of people rinse the fruit and vegetables and then use the same water to water their plants, for instance. What is the greatest environmental problem in this country? The destruction of the natural habitat. According to a recent political campaign, there are «thousands of public works being carried out in Greece» right now. No one thinks about the way in which the works cause an equal number of wounds to the natural habitat. There are works being carried out in important biotopes; forests are destroyed; entire areas are dried out, while illegal construction abounds. This is, I believe, the greatest problem right now – and it is our responsibility to deal with it. Do you believe that local environmental organizations are doing a good job? A very good job indeed. Thanks to them, state awareness has grown considerably. Besides carrying out works that are damaging to the environment, the goverment is often under pressure to adopt environmentally friendly politics. This has also led to changes in corporate behavior. One thing that local associations haven’t succeeded in doing is to embrace more social groups. This is because environmental groups take little action toward pointing out the beauty of the Greek natural landscape and its importance for our survival – they spend most of their time shouting about its destruction. I also think that associations should concentrate on making people more active. Instead of simply asking them to join up or volunteer, they should encourage them to change their everyday behavior.