The View from Mount Olympus
(this interview originally appeared on Counterpunch, July 5, 2015)
Interview with Mikhalis Styllas
by QUINCY SAUL
All eyes on Hellas! It seems that all the problems and solutions of the 21st century devolve today upon the people of Greece. Have the people who invented democracy been reduced to a choice between poverty and austerity? Or can the current crisis be an opportunity to reclaim lost visions and values?
Some say that SYRIZA’s referendum is a sham, that they are asking voters to endorse their failure, or that they are not fighting hard enough. Others say they are masterminds, making the best of conditions and negotiations that were rigged against Greece from the beginning. Some see in the crisis an opportunity for Greece to spearhead the salvation of Europe itself – a Delphi Declaration calls for a return to the principles of democracy, and another declaration signed by many prominent intellectuals also appeals to the values of Enlightenment to calm the crisis. A few others are less optimistic about the European Union and Europe in general – they urge us to prepare for war and/or insurrection. And as the world confronts the sixth mass extinction, some see hope in Greece for energy revolution, while others are less optimistic about overcoming a toxic legacy.
We speak today with someone who can unravel the underlying history with which current events are spring-loaded. Whichever way the vote goes this Sunday, it is the deeper dynamics of history, economics and environment which will determine the future. Democratic Polis or Oligarchic Tyranny? Environmental Inferno or Ecosocialist Avalanche? Here we speak with Mikhalis Styllas, an educator, alpinist, geologist and activist currently living on Mt. Olympus.
Tell us about all the history which culminates in today’s controversy and crisis.
Mikhalis Styllas: Greeks are blessed to be living in such a small area with such big natural and cultural diversity and history. But instead of conserving this unique place we are trying our best to destroy it. Apparently, it all has to do with the modern mentality of “immediate profit” and “business as usual” cultivated by our parents’ generation. Sadly this is not restricted within Greek territory but is a global phenomenon. There is an explanation for this which most people probably do not know, so first I will lay out the general context (social, economic, environmental) of how Greece reached the present-day situation, according to historical facts and personal perception.
After 500 years of continuous struggle against the Ottoman Empire (1453 – 1912), through Balkan Wars (1912 – 1913) and two World Wars (1914 – 1918 & 1940 – 1945) with the final part of this difficult period being the Greek Civil War (1946 – 1949, communists against the right wing party members), Greece was literally a wreck. The countryside was deserted, migration to USA, Canada, Australia, and Europe (mainly Germany) was unprecedented and the remaining population was politically and socially divided. The wounds took many decades to heal (if they ever will) and during the year I was born (1974), Democracy was finally established in Greece following the collapse of a USA-planted dictatorship (1967 – 1974 junta), bringing a halt to many centuries of social and economic instability.
As the country was trying to find its balance among “big ally” military and economic corporations like NATO and European Economic Community EEC (former European Union), the standard of living gradually rose and a middle class was created. This occurred simultaneously with the transformation of the economy from rural to urban, as many people rushed from the poor and deserted countryside to the big cities – mainly Athens and Thessaloniki – chasing the dream of a “settled, safe and rich” life. Along with the urbanization movement of the 1970s and 1980s, many public industries closed down during the governance of Andreas Papandreou and his ruling party PASOK. De-industrialization left many jobless people from the public primary production sector, who had to find shelter both for social and electoral reasons. And they did; they found shelter in the broader Public Sector that became humongous during the 1980s, 90s and 2000s. To give you an example, between 2004 and 2008, 60,000 more people were employed in the already-bigger-than-necessary and non-productive Public Sector with an overall wage increase of about 40% (1). This was the final act of the drama we are facing today, as growth during these decades was fueled by uncontrolled borrowing from public and private banks and from the influx of foreign funds. Poor political control over EU grants, combined with nearly a million public servants, plus corruption, tax avoidance and the fact that Greek society largely chose consumption instead of saving and investment, caused public debt to skyrocket.
During the same period, (1980-2010) tourism, small industrial units, textile factories, and independent companies providing services and merchandise flourished, strengthening the ever-growing middle class, but our economy remained a “closed system” with decreasing exports and increasing imports. As of 2013 Greek economy was based mainly on service sector (80%) and industry (16%) while agriculture had shrunk to a mere 4% (2). Economic growth was mostly led by domestic demand, and Greek society resisted any type of social reform. Any sense of environmental protection and natural conservation remained small if not nonexistent.
What are the big ecological questions facing the region today? How are campaigns for environmental justice developing alongside movements for economic and political justice?
Mikhalis Styllas: During the 1980 – 2010 period, Greece’s efforts towards economic stability, material prosperity and convergence with other European countries, together with a loose justice system, resulted in the abandonment of environmental awareness. Environmental issues were absent from elementary and high school education, and have only been raised as rapid urbanization, construction, intensive agriculture, industrial development and tourism have resulted in environmental degradation. The recent economic crisis brought a halt to this inferno, but environmental protection challenges for Greece are still ahead. Even though Mount Olympus is theoretically protected by several conventions (National Park, Natura 2000, etc.), in practice it is not protected at all. Illegal logging, illegal hunting, disposal of garbage, gravel mining and the everlasting desire for ski resort construction remain the main environmental degradation hot spots.
But the biggest threat is the mentality developed during all these years of prosperity and consumption, which makes people even more ignorant and careless when it comes to environmental issues. Local communities see growth through the immediate impact in their pocket and not through environmental sustainability or the long term development of tourism and agriculture. Environmental justice in Greece is buried under the saga of “business as usual,” as people involved in ecologically threatening enterprises traditionally have strong relationships with ruling political parties (if not belonging to those parties themselves). It will take years for Greece to learn to care about its natural resources, but this does not mean that we should give up the effort of educating and showing the way to younger generations.
You spend a lot of your life living in the Christos Kakkalos hut, just beneath the throne of Mt. Olympus, between Stargate, Profitis Ilias and the Plateau of Muses. Olympus seems isolated, but it is connected to the whole world, ecologically and politically. Even as sands from the Sahara sprinkle the snow of Olympus, the winds of political and moral desertification also cast shadows on the sacred slopes. In his famous and controversial poem “Shame of Europe,” Gunter Grass invoked the curses of the gods upon the EU commissioners, for wanting to steal the mountain. In your work as refuge manager, geologist and activist, you have been on the front lines: tell us about the view from Mt. Olympus.
Mikhalis Styllas: I grew up on Mount Olympus and I climbed to the summit for the first time at the age of nine with my parents. Since then I have always been fascinated by the beauty of mountains, and this is why I studied geology. Eventually I made Mount Olympus home, partly living here as I took over the management of a mountain hut (refuge Christos Kakkalos). Even though both my professional encounters (refuge manager, geologist) are based on some kind of exploitation of the natural environment, my goal is always to protect the ecosystem, as environmental threats in Greece seem to be alarmingly increasing.
Spending long periods of time (total 6-7 months per year) in a small mountain hut right in front of Zeus’ Throne definitely colors the way that I see political and social events, not only in Greece but around the globe. I also meet and have the chance to talk to different people every day coming from different countries and different social and financial backgrounds (from Greek oligarchs, to ex-convicts and so on), which gives this small place a global four-dimensional perspective. It is no wonder that Ancient Greeks placed their Gods up here. The unique scenery, proximity to the sea, and the violent natural phenomena were crucial in selecting a place that represents all aspects of life (deities); this is Mount Olympus.
The 6-8 hours of hiking required to reach our refuge provides unique chances to explore the human geography. The long march is a catalyst – when someone is tired and exhausted, their inner being becomes transparent. From a 12-year long experience interacting with more than 20,000 people, I have to admit that most still hesitate to rise up to the physical and spiritual level nature requires. We prefer to downscale mountains and nature in general to our personal needs and habits. Going the easy way…
During the period of virtual growth, mountain and winter tourism developed, but without any long term environmentally-friendly plans. Sustainability meant nothing in most cases. Luxurious hotels, expensive chalets and ski resorts were the Greek answer to the challenge of developing our mountains. Mount Olympus, Greece’s most iconic mountain and a global symbol of natural wealth, history and mythology was threatened twice under construction plans of a massive ski resort. The fact that Mount Olympus is Greece’s first national park protected by the NATURA 2000 convention and comprises a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve means nothing to a few good countrymen who see economic development only through ski lifts, probably not being aware of the fact that all 19 (!) Greek ski resorts contribute to an increase of public debt. Since some of them could not fulfill their desire of destroying another natural monument (due to environmental protection laws and due to the fact that there was not any more money to spend because of the crisis) they opted for heli-skiing.
The environmental protection of Mount Olympus to such threats (and many other environmental threatening cases) required from my part immediate correspondence to all responsible authorities (National Park Service, Forest Service and others) and work to raise public awareness through media and numerous personal talks to people, schools, alpine clubs, etc. It has not been easy – threats have been an ongoing story, but persistence works out and even wins. On our side are the Twelve Ancient Greek Gods that are still alive and protect their “home” from greedy invaders by creating harsh winter weather and terrible snowpack conditions most of the time. Non-friendly climate conditions and enhanced public interest and awareness resulted in a temporary ban of any heli-skiing activity on Mount Olympus.
You once made the long hike down from Olympus to vote for Alexis Tsipras, when most of your friends didn’t take him or SYRIZA seriously. Do you remain supportive? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the new government?
Mikhalis Styllas: To my great hope things may change as a new government has been established in Greece. It is still too early to judge. It was definitely a change that our country needed. We had to get rid of the political personnel that ruled the country over the past 30 years. Previous governments were mostly destructive to the country. Besides giving the public sector gigantic dimensions and privileges, they also gave space for the local upper class – involved in banking, shipping, construction, media and industry – to become even bigger, on many occasions with public money. When the economic crisis started, lower class people, mainly employed in the private sector, were called to pay the bills. That was unfair. When SYRIZA came into power, many (including myself) hoped for better and fairer governance for all citizens. They set a high goal of creating a small Keynesian pocket in a global capitalist world, and to spread the message across Europe; a very ambitious proposition. The fact is that we are living a relentless fiscal war: an invisible WWIII between the big empires of the planet, who in most cases blindly ignore the fact that the consequences of their struggle for more wealth and power will be environmentally irreversible. Our Europe of 550 million inhabitants, instead of investing in the principles of Renaissance, Enlightment and of recalling the bright moments of European history, is struggling to catch-up to US-type metropolitan capitalism. The gap between the rich and the poor is continuously increasing and modern “slaves” live in far worse mental and physical conditions than the ones from ancient times, despite the high-tech mobile phones, cars, etc.
SYRIZA has been in power for six months and some changes are already obvious within Greece, but it is not easy to change things that took thirty years to establish. The party’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, is my age, and I feel delighted that a representative of our generation came into power. The problem is that in order to win the elections they promised things which cannot be fulfilled under the pressure of the country’s creditors. The good thing is that they have been negotiating in more realistic way with EU, ECB and IMF, something that previous governments did not do. Politics are vicious, and decisions on reform initiatives are hard, coming usually at big political costs. But we all get the feeling here that they are fighting to end the six year-long austerity period for Greece and Europe. This is why Greeks still remain supportive despite current fiscal stagnation.
Tell us about the history of Greece’s relationship the European Union. What’s the path forward, inside and/or outside of the EU?
Mikhalis Styllas: The EU has been partitioned between the northern (richer and financially more stable) countries and the southern (poorer) countries. When Greece entered the Eurozone and obtained the “Euro” as the new currency, things changed overnight. A bottle of water which used to cost 50 Drachmas suddenly cost 50 Cents or (140 Drachmas); almost three times more. Our entrance into the EU made life more expensive but also brought more money to Greece in the form of support grants for agriculture, tourism and other sectors. People and companies would get EU funds to modernize their enterprises, but a portion of that money would often end up in things nonrelated to original funding goals (expensive houses, cars, etc). Big companies (construction, media, etc.) became even bigger by receiving EU grants and also by not paying back taxes or even social security, due to their close relationships with governing parties and politicians, The justice system was and remains selectively blind. Access to easy money, publicized by Greek banks and local media, encouraged increasingly more Greeks to live beyond their means. Real estate was blooming. People were buying new houses without taking into account signals from abroad, warning of a future blow-up. We also hosted the 2004 Olympic Games… a great honor for all of us, that eventually left behind a great debt… for all of us.
During this period, multinational corporations were gaining huge profits from Greece. Detachment from the EU now is really a gamble, as we import more goods than we export, and because political and economic attachment to countries like Russia or China may prove “bumpy” and not straightforward. But the fact that we did not properly utilize all the benefits derived from being an EU state member is our fault. At some point we should stop blaming others, look to our own weaknesses, enhance our own strengths, and move forward as an EU state member that still has multiple benefits like mobility, exchange of scientific knowledge, access to academic institutions, funding for enterprises etc. Our creditors (EU, ECB, IMF) should be more flexible, as increased pressure for more austerity will bring only new problems and not solutions to the real problems.
If during the past 30 years there had been a strong political drive and social maturity to both modernize basic infrastructure, abandon urbanization (more than 65% of Greece’s population is now living in the 5 biggest cities) and develop tourism in more environmentally-oriented ways, with direct relation to the primary agricultural production sector, things would have been different. We are far away from such a situation but there are some positive signs. Between 2000 and 2007, organic farming in Greece increased by 885%, the highest in EU – a fact which should not to be overlooked (3). Judging from my personal experience of managing a small refuge on Mount Olympus by utilizing local products and local natural and human resources, a return to a more rural way of life, together with immediate consumption of local products is the way to go for Greek tourism, which in 2008 represented 18.2% of NGP (4).
Contact with nature is a good way to develop personal consciousness, unselfishness and independence, values that when combined with proper education can set the basis of a democratic society. Maybe I am dreaming, but why not dream? At least I dream with my eyes open. I gave up an academic career for ethical reasons to be more connected to and make my living from nature, and the benefits have been outstanding. I still believe that such a lifestyle can be applied to bigger social structures, potentially leading to the establishment of a revised but real version of Democratic Polis (Δημοκρατική Πόλη), as the ones that exist today are Oligarchic Tyrannies.
Current conditions are still against this kind of transformation but things have been slowly moving towards this direction. Small communities of young people working in agriculture and tourism have already been established on many islands and mountain villages – they show the way for the future. Agro-tourism is in its infancy in mainland Greece but in other areas, like in Crete, it outnumbers luxury tourism. If there were more state subsidies for young people to move to the countryside, such a revolutionary transformation would accelerate the changing of our society in a better way.
You recently participated in the first Greek expedition to summit Mt. Everest. In the past decades, Mt. Everest seems to have become overrun by the global 1%, with decadence measured in tons of trash littering the base camp, in ascents on fixed ropes, and in the exploitation of local sherpas, who take the greatest risks. The recent earthquakes in Nepal have made some consider closing the mountain altogether. But because it is such a big source of revenue, this is a big debate. What do you think about all this? What was it like to be in such a secluded and sacred place, but penetrated and profaned by capital?
Mikhalis Styllas: I am happy to have made it to earth’s highest point, but what I witnessed on Mount Everest made me more or less sick. Unfortunately most are not willing to pay the price of rising up to the challenges posed by nature and instead prefer to take the easy way; to bring things down to their needs. All my expeditions after Mount Everest have been with small teams in remote areas, without any help from sherpas or high-altitude porters, bottled oxygen, pre-placed camps, or fixed ropes. These trips were pure adventure, with no focus on success and no spirit of conquest. Feeling free from goals and desires is the greatest luxury of a mountaineering life.
Since childhood I had always dreamed of climbing Mount Everest. But once there, I felt I was part of an industrial show with a strong dose of human exploitation – definitely not the spiritual place I had been dreaming about. The whole “Everest industry” brings many millions of dollars to the local and national economy. In pure capitalistic terms, one solution would be to increase the permit fees even more, so less people will have the capacity of attempting to climb Mount Everest. But at the same time, it is insane to pay money to climb a mountain. From a spiritual point of view, the mountain should be cleaned and closed altogether. Between these perspectives, I would vote for a minimal number of climbing teams (5-10), with higher permit fees, higher sherpa wages, strict environmental rules, and big bonuses for garbage removal. If future climbing generations reverse the ecological destruction taking place on the slopes of Mount Everest and other famous Himalayan peaks, the place will regain its spiritual prestige.
Some people think that mountain climbing is about conquering the mountain, about “man versus nature.” What do you say to them?
Mikhalis Styllas: Mountains are beautiful in photos, but they are hostile and much bigger than us. When I stood below the north face of the Eiger I was shocked by the massiveness of the wall. On Everest, Makalu, Dhaulagiri and Cho Oyu it was the same; I felt minute. “How the hell I am going to get up there?” was spinning in my mind in the first sleepless nights at base camp. We are too small to put ourselves up against nature. We think we are big because nature moves on longer timescales than our lives. But regardless of our technological and mechanical advances, nature rules the game now and forever. What happened recently in Nepal is a good example of humanity being helpless when the earth decides to move. The only things climbers can conquer are themselves. Being possessed with goals, summits, publicity and posing – a conqueror’s attitude to nature – eventually leads to injury or death. Being the mountain ourselves is more of a spiritual than a physical process. Once such a state has been achieved, mountain climbing becomes a pleasant and emotionally extraordinary experience.
Any comments about “Truth and Dare: A Comic Book Curriculum for the End and the Beginning of the World.” (Autonomedia and Ecosocialist Horizons, 2014 – available in the Christos Kakkalos hut on Mt. Olympus).
Mikhalis Styllas: An excellent piece of information, graphic art and a great synopsis of where we are going to. “The end and the beginning of the world”. I like the inverse sequence. Maybe I should try to put out a Greek edition and share it with young students at the talks I am invited to give to numerous high schools. Recently I came across another French masterpiece in the same wave-length (La Grande Transformation. Climat, inverserons-nous la coubre?). This kind of literature is a positive sign of increased awareness. To be aware and to comprehend the problem is one thing (Truth). To act is another more difficult matter, as it compromises personal comfort (Dare). Action starts in everyone’s heads and extends to everyone’s personal every-day life. Only independent, educated and civilized personalities can build creative societies that continuously readjust their socioeconomic status by respecting each other and the environment as a whole. From there on it will be easier to avalanche towards a global ecosocialist movement.
Anything else you would like to share?
Mikhalis Styllas: As the world moves so fast, ecosocialist movements have to keep up the pace and even leapfrog. I am convinced that things will eventually move in this direction. I hope future generations will set aside uncontrollable profit, and that the scientific knowledge and technological advances achieved during the last centuries will eventually lead to the construction of ecosocialist communities around the world; not just as the only solution before the end arrives, but due to our desire to survive in harmony with nature.