Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Energy Talk, Temporality, and Belonging in Austerity Greece

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Energy Talk, Temporality, and Belonging in Austerity Greece

Article excerpt

Introduction

On the sparsely vegetated Plain of Thessaly in central Greece, summer temperatures soar above 40° celsius for weeks on end. Now, in December, the frosty Plain is desolate. In some places, almost all the trees have disappeared. The road to the cemetery in the small village of Livadi, 5 kilometers outside of the town of Trikala where I have conducted ethnographic research since 2003, is scattered with twigs and small branches-remnants of a recent search for firewood. Just beyond the headstones, glimmering in the winter sun, ten large photovoltaic (solar) panels stand on prime agricultural land. Since the solar program was introduced in 2006, the region has gone photovoltaic-crazy. From home installations to developments on agricultural land and large solar parks producing energy for international export, solar is heralded by the Greek state and European Union as the future for year-round energy self-sufficiency (Knight 2013, Knight and Bell 2013). Yet, as evening draws in on this cold December day, thick smog descends over Trikala as people light their open fires and wood burning stoves. While the future-orientated new technology of photovoltaics is advocated by the national government and European Union as a long-term solution to economic sustainability in Greece, the winters of 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 have witnessed a return en-masse to wood burning open fires (tzakia) and stoves (ksilosompes) last popular during the 1960s and 1970s.

The Greek financial crisis has made global front-page news since 2009, but often the consequences of the economic downturn for peripheral regions are overlooked as media outlets adopt an Atheno-centric stance with often cynical analysis based firmly in the field of macroeconomics or mainstream political economy. By employing "energy talk" as a means to gauge how Greeks are dealing with the consequences of severe economic crisis, this article addresses how local people in a town in rural central Greece critique their position in what they term "modern Europe." People re-examine their position vis-a-vis European modernity and the West, and re-evaluate their temporal trajectory towards what they perceive as progress and prosperity. The exploration of these two points emerges from an ethnographic contradiction: the application of photovoltaic panels (a practice associated with European modernity and futuristic technology) and the simultaneous re-introduction of wood burning stoves (a practice locally associated with pre-modern tradition). Energy talk helps us to understand what has changed and what has remained constant in the Greek response to a crisis widely seen as a new form of colonialism. Through the ethnography presented here, it becomes clear that local people perceive energy as critical to understanding broader social and economic phenomena, mirroring the growing opinion among academics that more social science research on energy is urgently needed (Boyer 2014:328). Through energy talk, my informants discuss being brought back to dilemmas of identity that they thought they had finally escaped via accession to the European Union and membership of the eurozone. Importantly, here I demonstrate the continued value of pre-crisis ethnography-the work of John Campbell, James Faubion, and Michael Herzfeld is particularly pertinent to the present case-to understanding the complexity of current events in Greece.

Two seemingly contrasting energy sources-high-tech photovoltaic panels and open wood burning fires-have become local symbols of the livelihood changes brought about by economic crisis. My research participants associate photovoltaics with clean green energy, futuristic sustainability, ground-breaking technology, ultra-modernity, and international political energy consensus. Open fires conjure images of pre-modern unsustainability, pollution, and extreme poverty.1 A fourth-generation agriculturalist with 30 solar panels standing on his once fertile fields, Dimitris laments that every night his village is engulfed in suffocating smog while on the surrounding plains glistening solar panels point to the heavens. …

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