The conventional wisdom is that Greece had no choice but to accept the EU/IMF bailout, and that the country now has no choice but to make the IMF austerity plan succeed. Either refusing the bailout or failing to reduce the public debt would mean bankruptcy (unpaid salaries and pensions), social unrest, long-term economic decline, and a likely exit from the eurozone. This scenario would be so odious that simply avoiding it would be enough of a success. Or it’s been taken for granted that the market economy (minus the high public spending and widespread tax evasion) that preceded the Greek debt crisis, itself, represented success, and that restoring that economy is the best for which we can hope.
Perhaps the Greek prime minister has something more ambitious in mind when he talks about a “revolution,” but so far he hasn’t offered anything outside the devastating prescriptions of the IMF. He does have a record of talking about sustainable development, but you know, talk is cheap. So while the planned economic repairs may be radical for Greek standards (smaller public sector, larger private one), they are intended to reproduce a capitalist economic system that is failing not only in Greece and other indebted European countries, but also the United States and, as climate change intensifies, the rest of the world.
The US economy – that neoliberal economic ideal to which countries like Greece aspire – has avoided a total collapse only with the infusion of billions of dollars in public spending and the socialization of banks and the automotive industry. The same economy, which strives for sheer growth and limitless consumption, has recently given us a mining accident that killed 29 workers in West Virginia, and now a Gulf of Mexico soaked with oil. Fish and birds covered in sludge, dying slowly, livelihoods and communities wiped out because the economy demanded ever deeper mining and drilling. Because this economy runs on fossil fuel (think Iraq). Because climate change is an economic consequence that is just too expensive to deal with both for business and its political cronies.
The same economic model has turned Athens, my birthplace, into a monstrous expanse of concrete. It has led to the contamination of groundwater and the poisoining Greek rivers and lakes. It has turned islands into repositories of bars, trinket shops, and hotels, where trash is burned out in the open, but mostly out of view, and where sewage often flows untreated into the sea. In this economy, forest fires make land available for real estate development. And it’s an economy where half the electricity comes from lignite, the dirtiest form of coal.
This crisis offers us all, whether we sit in Athens or New York, or anywhere else, an opportunity to create a new economics that accounts for the environmental limits of GDP growth, that values life, equity, community and democracy. Because what choice do we have?