Sun Grab: Failing Futures in Greece
From the Series: Green Capitalism and Its Others
The future of the Greek nation was once pinned to the potential of natural resources, particularly the sun and wind. In the bleak crisis years immediately after the 2009/2010 financial collapse, green energy was heralded as the savior of a people and a nation with no future. The global breakdown of the neoliberal system based on unprotected market capitalism that proved the downfall of nations like Greece was to be replaced, both the government and the European Union claimed, by sustainable long-term investment in the green economy. In 2011 the future of Greece was in the hands of photovoltaic (solar) and wind generation, with public and private investors alike harboring ambitious plans to repay national debt and decrease state deficit through a combination of international energy export and small-scale household sustainability. Farmers began to “plant photovoltaics” and “mine the sun” for an agreed period of twenty-five years in return for a modest monthly feed-in tariff. In the early days, for people facing destitution, this seemed like a good deal and offered alternative visions of life in crisis-ridden Greece.
The grassroots popularization of photovoltaic generation in Greece from 2011 was part of a wider Time of Sustainability that bubbled along as a counter-current to the 24/7 media coverage of a nation entering the gates of hell. Top-down narratives of futures based on green credentials gave rise to grassroots expectations and aspirations that a sustainable green economy might facilitate alternative socio-political futures for a nation in a chronic state of crisis. This Time of Sustainability was reinforced through political rhetoric and practical enterprises that promoted green futures (cf. Ringel 2019). For instance, in 2015 the radical left SYRIZA party swept to power on a message of hope with radical ecology at the heart of its constitution (Knight 2017b). At the same time, a new recycling and environmental responsibility initiative was launched by the Ministry of Environment, Energy, and Climate Change, while throughout 2015–2016 cycling became not just a practical means for reducing expenditure during times of fiscal austerity, but was established as a major hobby with cycling clubs founded all over Greece. Amid wage and pension cuts, unprecedented levels of unemployment, home repossessions, and tax hikes, the social infrastructure was being laid for radical change based on orientations of hope, aspiration, and sustainability, an affective nebula of optimism based on the potentiality of the green economy.
With my colleague Rebecca Bryant, I have recently written on how epochs or “Times” can be collectively perceived, how there is a sense of living within a period, a timespace, with particular sets of futural orientations. For our intellectual muse, philosopher Theodore Schatzki (2010, 52), a timespace incorporates “ends, projects, actions, and combinations thereof that participants should or acceptably pursue.” The social infrastructure is shared as people identify with certain affective structures, characteristics, and teleologies (Bryant and Knight 2019). The Greek Time of Crisis has been described by me and others as being characterized by paralysis, stuckness, and abject resignation that the future might simply be more of the same state of hardship and turmoil. However, as futural orientation, this epochal paralysis is at odds with the hope-filled momentum associated with the early days of the Greek renewable energy revolution. In this new mini-epoch of a Time of Sustainability, hope-inducing social and political programs encouraged people to imagine how physical as well as societal potentialities inherent in sun and wind might be actualized.
Alas, the Time of Sustainability and associated futural orientations of hope and aspiration did not last long. Renewable energy, and the green economy more generally, has proven to be a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing, promising sustainable growth, and clean, green, environmentally friendly power only to fall prey to extractive economies operating on the same principles of neoliberal capital accumulation as oil production and mineral mining (Argenti and Knight 2015). Owing to petty corruption and highly inflated rates, subsidies for feed-in tariffs have dried up, engineering challenges have scuppered plans for international export, foreign corporations have divvied up the green energy sector leading to so-called “green-grabbing” (Fairhead, Leach, and Scoones 2012), and renewable generation has failed to serve local communities. In the latter instance, from 2012 people began resorting to what they termed “archaic” or “peasant” means to heat the home—namely burning wood, old furniture, and at times household waste—leading to claims that the green economy is nothing but another form of neoliberal extractive economy (Knight 2017a). The cloak of sustainability and the opportunities offered to multinational corporations by austerity policy have proved ideal cover for the proliferation of exploitative economic practices.
Imaginations of a Time of Sustainability have been emphatically defeated. The hope that was generated by the budding solar industry has turned to apathy, planning for a sustainable future has collapsed into disillusion with green programs, and a creative method for dealing with the consequences of financial crisis has bred resignation that even green initiatives are extractive capitalist ventures. The social infrastructure and temporal orientations associated with the timespace of sustainability have long since disappeared from mainstream imaginations of the future.
Argenti, Nicolas, and Daniel M. Knight. 2015. “Sun, Wind, and the Rebirth of Extractive Economies: Renewable Energy Investment and Metanarratives of Crisis in Greece.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21, no. 4: 781–802.
Bryant, Rebecca, and Daniel M. Knight. 2019. The Anthropology of the Future. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fairhead, James, Melissa Leach, and Ian Scoones. 2012. “Green Grabbing: A New Appropriation of Nature?” Journal of Peasant Studies 39, no. 2: 237–61.
Knight, Daniel M. 2017a. “Energy Talk, Temporality, and Belonging in Austerity Greece.” Anthropological Quarterly 90, no. 1: 167–92.
———. 2017b. “The Green Economy as a Sustainable Alternative?” Anthropology Today 33, no. 5: 28–31.
Ringel, Felix. 2019. “Sustainability as Orientation: Towards Sustainable Urban Futures.” American Ethnological Society, March 28. https://americanethnologist.org/features/collections/orientations-to-the-future/sustainability-as-orientation-towards-sustainable-urban-futures.
Schatzki, Theodore R. 2010. The Timespace of Human Activity: On Performance, Society, and History as Indeterminate Teleological Events. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.