Twenty-five hundred years ago, Plato, noticing the degradation of the land as the Greeks cut down their forests for timber and farmland, observed:
[In earlier days] Attica yielded far more abundant produce. In comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body; all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, .... But in the primitive state of the country, the mountains were high hills covered with soil, and plains were full of rich earth, and there was abundance of wood in the mountains. Of this last traces still remain, for although some of the mountains now only afford sustenance to bees, not so very long ago there were still to be seen roofs of timber cut from trees growing there, which were of such a size sufficient to cover the largest houses; and there were many other high trees, cultivated by man and bearing abundance of food for cattle. Moreover, the land reaped the benefit of the annual rainfall, not as now losing the water which flows off the bare earth into the sea ....Now history repeats itself. Many of the fires raging in Greece today have been set by arsonists clearing the land for development.
According to Nikos Georgiadis, head forest officer for the Greek office of the World Wildlife Fund, "Most of the reasons concern changing of land use – from forest to something else [such as] construction, or building, or to grazing, or agriculture." Georgiadis adds, "But the response from the government has not been effective at all."
Georgiadis's comment reflects Greece's environmental record, one of the worst in the European Union, particularly on forest protection. Environmental groups claim development is largely unregulated and protected areas are neglected. The Greek government seems ignorant of the country's ancient history when despoliation of the environment was a major reason their civilization collapsed.
Fortunately, like Plato before them, ordinary Greek people today are becoming increasingly aware of the problem and increasingly unhappy with their government's lack of action. "Since the response that we got after the big forest fire on Parnitha mountain, there is a big change," says Dr. Georgiadis, "More and more people became sensitive on environmental matters."
The ancient Greeks taught us so much, yet we failed to learn from their folly of allowing development to overwhelm the environment. Modern Greeks seem, through trial by fire, to be catching on. The lesson is there for all of us.