Time to Clean Up the Garbage and Repower Greece

For two and a half weeks, my commute to work has involved step-stoning through wide expanses of trash. Plugging my nose has become second nature. Like the rest of Athens, I have started to forget that there were once marble and cobblestone sidewalks beneath the mountains of garbage. The trash men are striking indefinitely as a result of the severe cuts to their wages, along with the dramatic tax hikes.

In the face of this lethal combination, an alarmingly large portion of the population is sinking below poverty level. My resentment for the men that are allowing the stench, grime, and health hazards to settle upon this city begins to fade as I realize they won’t be able to put food on their tables for much longer.

Say hello to the dumpster in front of my apartment

While my commute to my internship at Deree College involves gingerly tiptoeing amidst the trash bags, the commute to my internship downtown is arguably worse. Well actually, if the public transportation system is striking, as it does two or three times a week, there is no commute at all. I find myself emailing the Consulting Firm yet again, asking if there is any work I can do from the comfort of my home. If the public transportation system does happen to be operating, the commute is harrowing at best. Because everyone else living in this delightful city must take full advantage of the limited window of time within which the transportation system will be running, I find myself wedged between smelly people far too often for my liking.

Occasionally, I can coerce friends into driving me to either work or Greek class, but they are always reluctant to do so, as the price of gas has gone through the roof. Moreover, it’s not that unlikely that every gas station in the Athens area is on strike, or at least planning a strike. Or perhaps the container trucks that transport gas into Athens have decided to strike and the gas stations will be out of gas indefinitely. Just before a strike is scheduled to begin, cars will line up at gas stations like the end of the world is upon us. Sometimes, the gas stations will call off the strike just moments before it was scheduled to begin, as they have successfully wrung out every last cent from the pockets of panicked drivers.

On the one hand, I cannot respect this automatic instinct to strike. Powering down the public transportation system seems so counterproductive. How can you expect the economy to recover when people can’t get to work? How can you expect capital to circulate when people can’t leave their immediate neighborhoods? Stores are closing left and right partially because customers have such limited means of getting to these stores. As the piles of trash strewn across roads and sidewalks threaten to create severe public health problems, supporting the garbage men’s strike is close to impossible.

But on the other hand, I understand the message that these strikers seek to convey. Firstly, they are saying something like “you need us.” If you deprive us of our rightful pay, we will not be of service to you. Strikes are a form of passive disobedience; they are the peaceful protests. As harsh austerity is imposed upon the country from above, the people feel that they have lost their voice. In times of desperation, striking serves as the default action. It is the only way the people can get their point across. It is the only way they can make their statement. Hence, strikes convey the true plight and wretchedness of the times by revealing that the people have no other outlet. There is the implicit message that the people simply cannot handle the cutbacks.

Even the kiosks go on strike

Rather than turn to face the austerity measures, the Greeks choose to reject this harsh new reality. Strikes carry an underlying element of revenge and punishment. The people that have hit rock bottom figure they might as well bring everyone else down with them. In Greece, there is the widespread belief that the economic situation is not the fault of the people, but the fault of the government and the elite. The fat cats remain in their Kiffisia mansions, while the average Joe pays for their sins. The people’s anger and frustration originate in their belief that they played no role in the mammoth deficit. The harsh austerity measures place the Greek people in a Promethean situation– chained against a cliffside with crows picking at them– through no fault of their own.

From both outside and within Greek borders, the situation appears to be unraveling with no end in sight. Like Sisyphus, the Greeks are condemned to endlessly push the rock up the steep mountainside over and over again. The international community views Greece with a mix of pity and annoyance. The media continuously draws attention to the profligacy and fiscal irresponsibility that nearly brought about the demise of the euro. But as austerity rips across the land, uprooting everything in sight, the international media sadly shakes its head at the rapid degeneration of things. Continued criticism seems cruel. As wages nosedive, taxes skyrocket, and unemployment abounds, Greece appears to teeter on the verge of Third World status. Financiers turn their backs on the hopeless situation, believing the risk of investment to be far too acute. Greece seems to have been branded with the scarlet letter, as tourists look to switch their reservations to less volatile countries and Greek youth endeavor to find a more promising future abroad.

Yet amidst the rubble springs a brilliant idea. It is not a cure-all remedy, but it is certainly a start. While the deficit might take decades to atone for, involving years of cruel austerity and hardship, the image of Greece is something that can be refit and refurbished within the immediate future. Initiated by a variety of academics, diplomats, and technocrats, RepowerGreece.com is a social awareness campaign coordinated by the Institute for Regional Dialogue and Strategy, a non-profit organization.

The campaign seeks to transform perceptions of Greece by showcasing the individuals and businesses that have harnessed entrepreneurship, ingenuity, innovation, and a devoted work ethic. It endeavors to create the perfect springboard for change and growth by isolating and elevating a side of Greece that will impress the international community and motivate the Greek morale. In this way, RepowerGreece will fundamentally alter the assumptions and understandings upon which Greek society is perceived to function, thus allowing Greece to strategically reposition itself on the international chessboard.

The cornerstone of the online campaign involves the stories of people who, through determination and perseverance, managed to achieve their objectives in spite of overwhelmingly hostile contexts. These stories revolve around the country’s sectors of strategic interest: education, culture, innovation, agribusiness, tourism, energy, and shipping. The website represents those who find solutions and create opportunities. In highlighting these success stories, the campaign strives to promote a new-and-improved Greek mentality that combines critical thinking with result-oriented perceptions.

The second piece of this multi-layered public relations program involves opinion-editorials discussing the county’s current predicament. These pieces promote new ways of thinking by suggesting innovative strategies and solutions. Then, the initiative solicits and integrates “snap-thoughts,” or quick and simple ideas that seek to motivate and inspire, in an effort to engage the grassroots. The campaign therefore seeks to repower Greece by “rebranding” Greece as a country with a constructive new mindset that can adapt and evolve. It creates a platform for progress by redefining the role and enhancing the image of Greece, both at home and abroad.

This ground-breaking initiative is the most practical and worthwhile solution that Greece has produced during these bleak times. It strives to promote Greece to strategic key audiences, while fostering dialogue between critically thinking citizens and serving as a forum for new ideas. And most importantly, the campaign is not profit-oriented in any way. The sponsors behind the initiative, namely the Bank of Attica and the Hellenic Postbank, cover publicity and advertising expenses, while also offering access to the audiences with which they interact.

One of the primary objectives behind the initiative is to create a viral effect, to maximize outreach within both Greek and international public opinion. Here’s how you can get involved: first, participate in the movement. Go on RepowerGreece.com and explore the website; read the stories and contribute a “snap-thought.” Follow the Facebook page, and find RepowerGreece on Twitter and Linkedin. Then, help spread the word. Promote the initiative via your social networks (Facebook/Twitter/Linkenin), and recommend the site to your friends, family, and other contacts. Encourage them to visit, support, and participate in RepowerGreece.com.

The desperate need for an initiative like this is evident wherever you look. The Greek people need this. With its strategic geographic location, ideal climate, and superb human capital, Greece could be vibrant and flourishing. The country can emerge from this crisis strong and reinvigorated. Don’t allow it to fade into the Third World. Don’t allow it to be forgotten.