Lessons learned abroad

Those of us who have lived abroad have reaped the benefits of good planning, meritocracy, the transparent allocation of state funding, an instinctive environmental consciousness and providing simple solutions to day-to-day challenges. We have an obligation – first of all to ourselves – to share our experience with our fellow citizens at home. These thoughts were prompted by a public survey published in Kathimerini last Sunday which found – or should I say confirmed – that the vast majority of the people living in Athens are fed up with the city. Worse, the poll was followed by reports that Greece has been suspended from a United Nations carbon emissions program aimed at fulfilling the guidelines of the Kyoto Protocol. It’s of no significance whether the UN decision, which dealt a heavy blow to Greece’s international image, was the result of some bureaucratic snag, individual incompetence or a more general lack of environmental sensitivity. The only sure thing is that we need a change in mentality. Having lived for many years in Boston, New York and Washington, DC, and having spent time in Paris and London, I have personal experience of Western cities, which, while being huge commercial hubs with far larger populations than Athens, are more humane than the Greek capital. In both the United States and Britain, where the emphasis is on the individual, as well as the state-centered France, cities have developed in such a way that they have allowed parks to flourish and disabled people to get around more easily. Despite their congestion, pollution levels are lower than in Greece. Much of the problem here is people’s reflex against authority. People bypass or plainly violate the law. Having close ties with a ministry, prefecture, municipality, town-planning office or the police inevitably causes distortions. The small minority of people who have lived in better-organized societies have a responsibility to resist the beaten track. It’s no easy task. When foreign experience clashes with Greek reality, the result is often grief, disappointment and, finally, isolation. But maintaining a passive stance or blaming the state for all society’s ills will not solve any problems. Using public means of transport instead of cars can ease traffic and reduce pollution. Reducing our waste and making use of recycling programs can help clean up the city. Even noise pollution depends on us. After all, the organization of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games showed us that we can be better if we really want to.

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