Friday, August 31, 2012

Is Greenland Bouncing Back?

Yesterday there was a 6.6 earthquake off the coast of Greenland. It was widely reported in the Danish news, Greenland being part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and although it was quite deep and happened under the sea, it was still quite a big one by Greenlandic standards.

Although post glacial rebound hasn't really become a household term yet, I can't help wondering whether the astonishing levels of ice melt we are seeing this summer is somehow related. It's a pretty simple theory, as ice melts, the huge crushing force it exerted on the land mass is eased, allowing it to 'rebound' either upwards or laterally.

I'm no geologist, but I'm sure yesterday's tremor will not have gone unnoticed.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Don't Panic: There's Plenty of Oil

The latest video from the Post Carbon Institute.

And here's another video I recommend seeing. Once Upon a Time in Knoxville is a new film about a man who lives his life from the detritus of industrial civilization. He thinks many of us will be copying him soon (Thanks, William, for recommending it on your blog). You can order a copy here.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Collapse: Sudden or Slow?

Like everyone who is painfully aware of our perilous predicament questions arise in my mind with unwelcome regularity regarding what form a collapse will take. Will it be a gentle, flower-scented revolution in which humankind realises the error of its ways and converts to a solar powered economy as former Greenpeace director Paul Gilding reckons? Or will it be an all-out frenzy of looting and starvation that will lessen the footprint of humankind in short order and fling us back into the dark ages?

If it’s possible to hazard a guess at this stage it seems that neither of these two extremes is likely. In any case, what is a collapse and how do you realise that you are in one? Most definitions of collapse have it as sudden or gradual loss of complexity in a particular civilization. The Mayans would know about it, as would the Romans and the dynastic Chinese. To use a none-too technical definition, it’s when the wheels come off your civilization.

Just to be clear, the civilization we’re talking about and the one we belong to is the industrial civilization. Most of us belong to it these days, although a small fraction of humanity still manages to cling on against the odds to their own (although to my dismay I found out this week that Maasai tribesmen in Kenya  are now hooked on Facebook, which they access through their smart phones). Given that industrial civilization depends for its very survival on easy access to cheap concentrated energy, vast mineral resources and an ever expanding economy, it would seem to be common sense that it is hardwired to fail and contains the seeds of its own destruction. Yet this very obvious observation is itself contentious, with so-called cornucopians arguing that the resources available to us are so vast as to be well-nigh infinite.

The other fatal flaw in industrial civilization is the very thing that its most ardent proponents shout most loudly about; its interconnectedness. In a globalised economy all the things we have come to rely on in everyday life seem to end up, as if by magic, right in front of us and ready for consumption. Food is a good example, with the components of the average meal travelling several thousand miles along multiple supply chains before they reach your mouth.  Tracing the supply chains along which they travel is becoming an ever more complicated issue, with the net result being that you simply don’t know where your food is coming from.

I had an unpleasant reminder of this last year when dozens of my work colleagues and I all came down with the same condition a couple of days after eating the company Christmas meal. We all experienced a terribly bitter metallic taste in our mouths every time we ate or drank anything. Believe me, it was maddening. After consulting one another we realized that only those who had eaten the pine nuts that came with the starter were affected. Some further research revealed that we had probably been poisoned by the ‘cheap’ Chinese pine nuts which some suppliers in Europe had been cutting their stocks with. The nuts in question were said to have come from a species of pine that is different to the one the nuts are usually gathered from, and contained a form of poison. Gatherers, who were either unscrupulous or just ignorant, picked these nuts and once they had got into the supply chain there was nothing anyone could do about it. However they got there, they literally left a bitter taste in the mouth for weeks and I now avoid them at all costs.

This was a lesson in the relative powerlessness we have as consumers when considering supply chains and our ultra-complex system, but what if it’s petrol we’re considering and not pine nuts? When fuel delivery drivers threatened to go on strike in the UK earlier this year over pay and conditions, people got a gentle reminder of how reliant we all are on oil. Panic buying at the pumps ensued, as did hoarding, and one person even died as a result of syphoning off fuel over the kitchen sink. The strike was averted at the last minute, but the government later admitted that it had caused some panic among ministers and the troops were put on standby. For a brief moment, the fragility of our fuel supply was exposed, although, predictably enough when the crisis was averted everyone forgot about it in short order.

But this is all small beer when you consider what might happen should several systems collapse simultaneously or, more likely, as a chain reaction. This is what is at the essence of the report entitled Trade Off, written by risk management specialist David Korowicz. Subtitled Financial System Supply-Chain Cross-Contagion: a study in Global System Collapse, it’s not going to knock 50 Shades of Grey off the bestseller list anytime soon. But for sheer terror value it is unsurpassed and could possibly be renamed 77 Pages of Terror.

I downloaded the full report and spent a day absorbing it. It’s very hard to summarise such a lengthy and technical report into a few bullet points, but I’ll try:

  •          Our world has become so complex and interconnected that a single ‘ripping’ event could cause cascading systems collapses.
  •           Parts of the system (say, individual countries) might in the past have been able to get away with failing but such a failure now runs the risk of bringing down the entire edifice.
  •          A reverse economies of scale can be applied to critical infrastructure and it can be assumed that any collapse will be dealt with in the exact wrong way i.e. by adding further levels of complexity.
  •          Peak oil and environmental overshoot means we have little room for manoeuvre when the collapse comes.
  •          In the past there has been tolerance with regard to shocks to the system, but the system is now so brittle that a single shocking event could shatter it.
  •          People fail to appreciate the vast complexity of the system we live in and are only able to focus on the small bit of it they are familiar with but are not able to see the overall system. This, combined with decades of relative stability, has given us a false sense of safety with the belief that ‘business as usual’ can and will continue forever.

That’s a gross over-simplification of some of the main points I picked up, and for a better analysis of it read what Dmitry Orlov wrote.

So let’s imagine an event – the event – which could deliver the fatal spleen-busting kick in the balls to our frail industrial civilization. Korowitz himself seems to think that one of the Euro countries defaulting should do it, but there are plenty of other scenarios, such as the US falling off its fiscal cliff this November, an Israeli strike on Iran, a large terrorist attack, a huge drought that sends food prices sky high – you get the idea.  In the default scenario, contagion would spread to other countries in a matter of hours as foreign banks self-imploded. Panicky leaders would do everything they could to limit the damage but in a very short amount of time the credit system would freeze up. With a frozen credit system you get a frozen world trade situation. People are unwilling to deliver their goods long-distance if they suspect they will not be paid (and most world trade is uninsured).

When cargo doesn’t move we have a problem of epic proportions. Our world, these days, is designed for just-in-time delivery, meaning that it functions like clockwork, with deliveries of goods timed to coincide with when the previous goods have been depleted. It’s a super-efficient system that works perfectly when the wheels of finance are moving, but the moment they jam is the moment that things stop getting delivered and that’s when we discover that efficiency isn’t the same thing as resilience. We saw this happen when the Japanese tsunami wiped numerous car parts plants off the face of the planet – and the knock on effects are still being felt.

One of the bad things that happens when goods and parts stop being delivered is that the critical infrastructure we take for granted suddenly starts to experience parts shortages. Electricity grids and IT systems are particularly vulnerable to this because of their indescribable complexity, but plenty of smaller systems are similarly affected. Some estimates say that power grids will stop working within weeks, or months at the outside, if there is a serious credit event – and that’s even assuming that they have fuel to burn to produce the electricity in the first place (coal and oil importing countries take note). I used to work within the UK energy supply system, and I’m always amazed that the lights somehow stay on even within the normal operating parameters.

But when electricity grids do fail all bets are off. By this point people will already be in an advanced state of hunger because they will by now have learned that food doesn’t grow on supermarket shelves. Fuel for civilians will be a strictly rationed and factories and offices will likely have closed down ‘temporarily’. But when the lights go off, due to the aforementioned lack of fuel or because of some other technical fault that even the most resourceful of engineers are unable to overcome, that’s when the problems really begin. Water, for a start, will no longer flow out of taps, and our communications systems will disappear in an instant. With no food, electricity or water there is no precedent for what happens next.

Nuclear power stations will still need to be cooled to stop meltdowns and the only way to do so will be with the help of large diesel-powered generators. I’ve heard it estimated that each unit will need around a billion dollars’ worth of diesel per year, and countries which don’t have their own oil supplies will need to get down on their knees and beg other countries that do in order to get the fuel they need. Do you live near one of the 440 or so commercial or 250 research nuclear reactors in the world? Do you live downwind of them? You can have a look at this map to find out.

At this point in the breakdown we have to ask what is recoverable from the mess and whether there is a chance of getting back into something approximating normality. One factor that didn’t seem to get a mention in Trade-Off (unless I missed it) was the chance that global trade in essentials might not freeze up quite as much as anticipated following a credit event. The assumption is that because credit notes are produced electronically they could never be produced otherwise. Is it likely that a strong trading relationship that had built up over decades between, say, a coffee producer in Colombia and an importer in France would suddenly be axed because of the financial log jam which, don’t forget, is affecting everyone simultaneously? Would not the two parties not just get on the phone to each other and hammer out some form of guarantee? After all, the coffee producer stands to lose just as much as the importer if the shipment doesn’t happen.

Nevertheless, having read the report I yesterday found myself wandering around my local supermarket with a shopping trolley piled high with canned goods and pasta in a small attempt to build some inefficiency and resilience into my own family. It might not last long in an emergency but I figure three months of food should at least give us a fighting chance. I’m probably the first person in Denmark to seriously ask themselves the question of whether, after a month of meatballs, we would look forward to a can of pineapple chunks as if it was Christmas Day. As I stacked up my survival stash at home I wondered whether many other peak oil writers have done the same thing – especially those who advocate a slow collapse taking place over decades. I realise that the concept of survivalism is virtually mainstream in the US, but on this side of the Pond it is practically unheard of. We just assume that shortages could never hit us. Well, whatever, at least I have plenty of tins of food now and will not run out of spaghetti this side of my 80th birthday – hardly the worst thing that could happen to someone. As for a water filter, which I don't possess, I considered making my own along these lines:

It should be obvious to most people by now that we are initial stages of collapse. That collapse started at 1:45am on September 15th 2008 when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Since then we've been in a deflationary spiral and the signs that this is not just another oscillation of the business cycle are becoming clearer by the day. The fact that it hasn't yet manifested itself as a single earth shattering event is probably something of a let-down to the many people who anticipate such things, but future historians will probably identify this date as the starting gun for everything that followed.

So, Trade-Off is about as clear a warning we could hope for, even if it is couched in academic language and filled with jargon (but nevertheless remains surprisingly readable and opinionated). Whether you believe that collapse will be sudden and brutal, or whether it will be a long-drawn out affair characterised by bankruptcies and boredom, it’s impossible to read it and come away feeling complacent. And with many people’s guts telling them that some kind of downward lurch is likely before the year is out maybe it is time to start looking around at the critical systems you rely on in your area and try and figure out what you would do if all of a sudden they were taken away. I know I am.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Greece: Part 2

Greece is liberally scattered with half-completed buildings and empty hotels ... but that's not the whole story

I had only been in Greece for a few days when I started laughing. It wasn’t a giggle or chuckling kind of laugh, but a deeper kind of gut rumbling, thigh slapping laugh that went on and on. I was sharing a bottle of wine with Dmitry, an ex-footballer, and we were talking about the situation in his country as bats flitted around above our heads in the twilight and the distant sound of bouzouki music wafted through the hot pine-scented air from the local taverna. We were talking about the politicians, or ‘comedians’, and the more Dmitry mentioned them the more he laughed.  

But enough of that, let me start by apologising for the piece of dramatic fiction I composed for my last post. I’ll admit that I couldn’t resist poking a bit of fun at the idea that the only alternative to economic ‘prosperity’ is total collapse and all-out lawlessness. Let's face it, that's what some in the media have led us to expect, but Greece, to all intents and purposes, is still a modern-looking European country and the casual observer would be hard pressed to notice any difference compared to a visit made a couple of years ago.

Anyway, let me get straight to what I think of the ‘Greek situation’ and be done with it. Here it is in a nutshell: Greece is okay. It’s a bit stale around the edges, like a piece of pitta bread left out in the sun, and the young university-educated career minded folks I sat on a roof terrace with in Athens one evening don’t like it one bit. This wasn't the country of opportunities they had studied so hard at university to take their place in. But it’s a country where suicide capitalism has been stopped in its tracks, leaving half-built concrete eyesores at the edge of every town and empty nightclubs and fast-food bars in places where they should never have been built in the first place. If your idea of ‘okay’ is the endless construction of new shopping malls, roads and airports, where everyone works in an office and has a mortgage and a new car every three yearsand kids are placed on a conveyor belt which processes them and turns them into worker/consumer drones, then I’m afraid to tell you that Greece is in a very bad way indeed.

But if you’re not that way inclined you might well ask what’s left now that the festering boil of suicide capitalism has been lanced. Well, the heart-breaking beauty is still there, the 1,400 islands with soils so fertile that the tables are laden with more fresh produce than people can eat haven’t gone away either, and nor have the 10 million or so adaptable souls, some of whom are actually unaware there is a crisis and still sacrifice bulls in a pagan tradition going back millennia. In fact if you view the world solely through the distorted lens of economics and power politics you might think that Greece should just jump onto a sharpened bronze spear and be done with it. But if you’re of a romantic bent and have the a bit of an appreciation of history you might just realise that this economic crisis has been whipped up by a media that is beholden to the power of what we may as well call The System, for want of something better.

It’s pretty hard to sit, as I did one evening, gazing out across Athens and the nearby Acropolis, reading a potted history of Greece and not come to the conclusion that this economic ‘crisis’ is a mere blip that will barely register on that country’s timeline. Financial doomsters may spew forth frothy talk of Eurogeddon and Grexit, but really if you can only see the world in terms of economic statistics and indicators then it probably does look doomed. True, it seems impossible for Greece to hang onto its euro membership – everyone I met said so – from waiters to a bank manager. But were they gnashing their teeth and pulling their hair out and begging to be allowed to stay in the ‘privileged’ Eurozone club? No, most of them just shrugged and said that at least they’d got quite a few infrastructure benefits from it (such as the superb Athens transit system pictured below) but now it was time to go back to the drachma. It’s the kind of intransigence that infuriates free marketers and talking heads on CNN.

A gift from the gods? Athens' super clean and efficient mass transit system

The party was over. The party was just beginning. From several people I heard it said that they had friends and colleagues who had ‘gone back to their island’. Many Greeks were turning off the office lights as they left and returning to their ancestral island homes in what Homer called ‘the wine dark seas’.  Foreigners,at least those that like to be called ex-pats, were leaving like rats from a sinking ship. They didn’t want to be in a country with ‘no future’ (although quite which country with a future they were returning to remained to be seen). Other foreigners, let’s call them immigrants, were getting one way tickets back to their home country courtesy of the police.

We, for our part (and this was a holiday, so you’ll forgive me for not spending my time cruising the back streets of Athens seeking out stories of people selling their mothers’ kidneys for pennies) stayed in Athens for a few peaceful days before driving across the Peloponnese and catching a boat to the island of Zakynthos in the Ionian Sea. Athens, if you will forgive me for being sentimental for a moment, has a special place in my heart. It was here that I travelled when I was 18 and fell in love for the first time. We had slept on a flat roof, crammed in with hundreds of other cheap-as-chips backpackers, and walked up to the Acropolis by day to sketch the caryatids (I was studying classics at the time – sorry if that sounds pretentious). Athens is now just as it was then: dirty, chaotic, ancient, romantic, and unpredictable - and still a great place in which to fall in love. It’s a mixture of the first and third worlds, and is dotted with ancient ruins and little green parks filled with snoozing lazy cats and old men playing backgammon.

On Zakynthos we stayed in almost monastic calm in a stone building on an organic farm with few concessions to the modern world. No TV, no computer, no mobile phones and no other mod-cons (except an aircon unit, which I must admit I found it very hard to sleep without as I’m not accustomed to 40 degree centigrade heat). Some mornings, before the fearsome heat of the day took hold, I would go for a walk through the nearby countryside, ogling the numerous smallholdings with their strutting turkeys and staring goats. I would reach a cliff and look down on a wide sandy beach where, if I was lucky enough, I might just see the shape of a huge loggerhead turtle hauling itself back into the sea after a night of egg laying, just as they had been doing for the last 150 million years. The air everywhere was suffused with the smell of wild herbs and myrtle, and the music of birdsong was always audible.

A typical smallholding in the early morning with inquisitive ram

It is a truly magical island, tenaciously hanging onto its charm despite the best efforts of the legions of young holidaymakers who tear around its coast during the day on quad bikes, partying all night and tolerably often ending up flying home in a black zip-up bag. Attempting to stay away from them wasn't too hard (tip: stay away from infrastructure if you want peace and quiet) and I spent quite a few days swinging in a hammock on a remote beach re-reading Homer and snorkelling with my daughters. Such a state of calm came over me that I even started writing poetry (I know, I know ...). In fact, as a survival technique for countering the toxic effects of media overload and peak oil over-contemplation I would highly recommend something similar. It doesn’t have to be a sun kissed Greek beach, just away from most humans and electricity will do.

I soon learned indeed that the island was girted with concrete and the seas filled with banana boats, party cruises and jetskis, but that the interior was more or less how it has been for centuries. Here, farmers rode donkeys, old women sat in the shade weaving baskets and people laboured in the fields bringing in melons, tomatoes and lots more besides. Roadside stalls were buckling under the weight of fresh bread, olive oil, wine feta cheese, fruit and eggs. Some had erected small signs that said ‘Supermarket’, perhaps because they didn’t know what a supermarket was.

Fresh produce was available wherever you went like at this 'supermarket'

Greeks, on the whole, are a friendly and talkative bunch (apart from the guy in the Athens souvenir shop who refused to serve us because he thought we were German). Between us, my wife and I have a good handle on eight languages, but Greek isn't one of them. So it’s a good thing that Greeks tend to be very good at speaking English and love to shoot the breeze with strangers. What most of them seemed to be saying was this: economically speaking, things are bad, but they are not half as bad as they are being made out to be in the foreign media. Madonna was a case in point, and her comments about starving Greeks did not go down well.

Still, the Greeks care about what people think of them and their country (as they well might with so much depending on tourism) and it was with some amusement that one night, on the television in our Athens hotel, I spotted a grizzled American talking about how friendly and nice everything was in the country. He looked familiar and on closer inspection it turned out to be Robert De Niro on some kind of hospitality PR offensive. Next to him sat John Travolta, who was making similarly encouraging noises. This, it was hoped, should be enough to convince jittery tourists to come back (I did speak to a couple of heavily tattooed English yahoos in a bar but they hadn’t watched the news for several years and were unaware of any ‘crisis’ or otherwise so they don’t really count).

Here’s my disclaimer: yes, I know that lots of people are hard up in Greece right now and we see and hear lots about the country on the news. We can even see people lobbing bricks and wearing face masks on the evening news (but tell me, what country in Europe doesn’t have a sizeable contingent of anarchists? – even Denmark has them). Greece has a debt problem and how did it get into it? It got into it because all sorts of dubious development was rammed down their throats in the form of loans to build the swanky new airports, highways and other things that are deemed necessary to be a global player in the 21st century.

Yes, a lot of people were willing to swallow it and get wildly in to debt and, yes, the politicians and officials are sometimes crooked, just like they are in any other country that has passed its 500th birthday. I’m not saying it isn’t hard for a lot of people in Greece right now, but in my opinion it’s going to be a lot harder for people in other countries soon enough. Greece, at least, still has members of what we might call a peasant class (and I’ll never tire of pointing out that peasant means ‘country person’ i.e. one skilled in making a non-exploitative living from his environment, and not a term or derision). In Denmark, for example, I doubt most farmers would even be able to start up their combine harvesters if the control software failed to boot up.

On the farm where we stayed, the owner, Dionysios (it seems almost every man on Zakynthos is called Dionysios after the island’s patron saint, including their celebrated poet Dionysios Solomos.) was a case in point. He might be a farmer, but he was also internet savvy and knew how to network with like-minded organic farmers across Greece, and I noticed an organic cooperative operating on the outskirts of the island’s main town.

Empty concrete shells were on the outskirts of many towns and cities

Oh yes, and those unemployment figures people keep talking about. What is it – 30% youth unemployment or something? Well, I can tell you that those figures are certainly wrong. Unemployment, you see, is relative and the kind that gets mentioned all the time is the kind of Anglo-American statistical unemployment beloved of economists. Greece, like other countries in southern Europe, has millions of invisible employers known as parents and relatives. No matter how idle or unemployable their offspring they can usually be found something to do stacking shelves in a shop or helping out raising children or lending a hand with the cash-in-hand cleaning business. And, yes, they probably claim unemployment benefit while doing so. Urban sophisticates in Athens would be horrified by this, but in truth it is they, when they lose their jobs, who are the truly unemployed. It must be particularly galling having left one’s family for a career in the bright lights of Athens only to find yourself coming back, tail between legs, and moving back into your childhood bedroom.

But perhaps more worrying is the rise of the far right. We made friends with Yannis, a veterinarian professor who lives in England but was on holiday in his own country, who expressed concern that the Golden Dawn party were on the ascendant. The cause of their recent popularity, he opined, was people’s fear that the destiny of their country was in the hands of foreign powers. Greece has no desire to be a client state of Germany, and neither does it go down well with the populace at large when the papers are filled with talk of selling off the islands to the Chinese. People, it seems, are being offered a choice between lifelong poverty and national bankruptcy on the one hand, or salvation in the form of foreign overlords on the other. Does it really take a genius to figure out why nationalist sentiment is being aroused?

It wasn't too hard to find signs of decay if you looked for them

So Greece has a lot of natural capital, is thinly populated, and has a bountiful supply of free energy in the form of sunlight. Why doesn’t it just declare itself bankrupt, devalue its currency, and get on with life (and get to keep the goodies, such as that nice metro system)? Life would be a lot easier without all that debt, plus the tourists would return because it would be much cheaper for them to be there. Well, the reason it doesn’t do an Iceland is because it’s not allowed to by its ruling political classes aka the Comedians, who are clients of the Eurozone central powers. Germany won’t allow it because of the feared domino effect which will result in quite a few northern European banks disappearing in puffs of smoke. Perhaps that’s why I encountered this in a field as I was passing through a town.

Putting China into the mix, it seems that the vast country hasn’t thrown in the towel over Greece either. Knowing that Greece has the world’s largest merchant fleet, China has pledged $5 billion in loans to its container shipping industry, allowing Greece to execute a coup that has left a lot of red faces in Germany. Greece sold many of its larger ships to Germany five years back when the good times were still rolling, but now Germany has no need for them because of the global slowdown in freight shipping and Greece is buying them back at bargain basement prices.  

But how long can the Comedians who currently have the power hold this act together? At the moment the crowds which occasionally gather outside the parliament building are kept at bay by the police – but when the government can no longer afford to pay them … what then?

The only thing to do is wait and see.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Greece: Part 1

Athens: From above it looks so peaceful

The plane began its descent over the blue Ionian Sea, buffeted slightly by the thermals rising from the land as we passed over the crusty landmass of the ancient Peloponnese. Already the mood in the cabin had started to tauten and matters weren’t helped by the stewardess issuing a terse announcement to the effect that any German passengers should remain on the plane after the others passengers had disembarked for a ‘consultation’.

A camera positioned on the nose of the plane relayed a video feed back to the LED screens set into the seats and we watched as Athens, visible as a dusty smudge on the horizon at first, hove into view. Even from this distance a faint blue pulsing was discernable, indicating the huge ground force of security services that awaited us. As we drew closer the airport appeared as a sea of blue flashing lights in the sun baked yellowish landscape. A child began to wail and its mother clutched it to her bosom.

We landed without incident and were ushered off the plane and into the arrivals hall, which was liberally populated with heavily armed whistle-blowing police. All the usual shops were there – Louis Vuitton, McDonald’s, Burger King – but most were shuttered and bolted. The crowd of tourists surged through passport control and some scuffles broke out when a stressed-out policeman thwacked an angry Frenchman with a baton. The Frenchman was enraged about some matter or other and slunk away with blood gushing down his forehead.

Outside, in the raw heat of the afternoon, taxi drivers grabbed at our luggage and fought over us as if we were loaves of bread tossed into a hungry crowd. After a chaotic ten minutes we eventually found ourselves sitting in a dilapidated yellow cab, speeding along a broken highway to Athens. It was only as we left the airport zone that we could see just how many people had gathered there – held back and kettled in by the police, but an angry mob nevertheless. Some held up signs in Greek while others just waved their fists and spat insults at the jittery looking officers - and at us.

A few minutes down the motorway we pulled up at a roadblock erected across the road. It was a barricade, jerry-built out of empty oil drums and two telegraph poles. Some men with guns – perhaps military – leaned in at the window and one asked for a ‘tourist tax’. The driver looked at us nervously in the rear view mirror, perhaps expecting me to complain and start a scene. But I have travelled around South America in the past and know better than to kick up a fuss with armed men at road blocks. Eighty euros lighter (20 each, pocketed by the ‘soldier’) we were allowed to proceed. My wife gave me an angry glance – she had wanted to go to France instead of Greece after everyone had warned her about how the country had descended into a state of lawlessness. Perhaps she was right after all.

Athens, when we arrived on the outskirts, looked like a city straight out of a zombie apocalypse movie. The driver told us to lock the doors as we passed through broken down neighbourhoods of shabby buildings and potholed roads. People wandered in the road, begging for scraps, and empty-eyed children sat on the dusty pavements stroking thin cats and imploring passers-by to put a coin or two into their tiny outstretched hands.  I told my own kids, healthy and nourished, to look away as we passed by.

For maybe twenty minutes we drover deeper into the heart of that ancient city, passing by burned out shops, broken windows and abandoned cars. Men wearing business suits pushed broken shopping trolleys stacked with cardboard and empty drinks cans and hungry-looking teenage girls stood on street corners eyeing strangers and leading them into dark alleys. We passed by a supermarket with fat men sitting outside on deckchairs, their rifles slung across their laps. In the deserted car park I saw a heap of cardboard and newspapers and was horrified to see a brown shoed foot poking out at an unnatural angle while dogs snuffled around it. The taxi driver turned to me and grinned, revealing a row of black teeth. ‘My country, not good,’ he said.

Shortly after we passed the Temple of Zeus the driver’s radio crackled to life and an animated conversation followed between him and the controller. He looked alarmed and drew to a halt in the middle of the road before sticking the car into reverse and executing a three point turn.  There was sweat dripping off his brow and fear in his eyes as he tried to turn the vehicle around. I tried to ask him what was going on but I needn’t have as I soon saw with my own eyes what the radio controller had warned him about. There, pouring out of every side street and alley, they came. Most of them were masked and some carried rocks and bottles. They were running, all of them, and silver projectiles spewing out smoke began to rain down on them. The driver tried to push through them but there were just too many. We clung together in fear on the back seat as the missiles began to rain down on the car. The police, driving powerful motorbikes, bore down on the protestors, firing rubber bullets and lashing out this way and that with their batons. I saw one strike a young woman who fell to the ground like a rag doll. Our driver floored the accelerator and we ploughed through the crowd, scattering them like ninepins. We pulled clear of the mob and sped away from the scene of carnage, our eyes running from the tear gas which had seeped into the vehicle.

Eventually we arrived at the hotel, a tawdry concrete affair down a side street in the area which, on my last visit, was thronging with tourists but was now more or less deserted except for beggars and stray dogs. It had looked far better on the internet. The driver got our bags and then threw himself down at my feet, imploring me for an extra payment for the danger we had encountered. He pointed at his mouth and at his flat stomach and then clasped his hands together in supplication. I tossed him a two euro coin and he grabbed at it greedily, slinking away into his car with it before anyone could take it off him.

When our pulses had stopped racing my young daughter turned to me and said “Daddy, can I have an ice cream now?”

Needless to say, only the last sentence of what I wrote above is true. But, come on, I bet some people thought it might have been, based on the headlines that are coming out of Greece right now. Even Madonna (much to the Greeks’ annoyance) has been talking of ‘people starving in Greece’.

In the next installment I’ll write about what we really saw in Greece.