Cycling through Greece..

..through air that's not thick with anything

The air in Greece is not thick with anything. There is nothing etched on the faces here. You cannot feel the tension on the streets... at least not the streets of Edessa, the northern town I reach soon after crossing from Macedonia. Greece is suffering a stark hyperbole crisis, sensationalism here has run into diminishing returns. If we were to tax the financial media's use of words like 'toxic' and 'brink'... southern Europe would soon be back in the black. Greece is a European country being stuffed by the markets. Simple. It's not doomsday here... just a country being stuffed by the markets.
 

Greece is not in turmoil. This is especially relevant to stock markets, which Flaubert once described as nothing more than "barometers of public opinion". Irrespective of any fundamentals, objective or otherwise, the projection of chaos that has become associated with Greece is partly responsible for the fact that the Greek government has to pay yields of up to 30 per cent to borrow money. I ride into Thessaloniki, up the inside of stagnant traffic jams. When whole cities can still afford to sit in cars, burning petrol at €1.80 a litre... there's obviously a lot of crisis left to run.

Everyday Greeks seem similarly dismissive of Crisis! A woman in a bakery smiles... "What did you expect?... are we all supposed to be crying?" A man sits outside a cafe... "Pro-pa-gan-da!... Bullshit!" His friend grabs a stool... belly like a water melon, stubble, black sunglasses, curly hair cut short at the sides. He spreads his legs, pulls his shorts up like a Greek John Goodman straight out of The Big Lebowski. He plants a finger on a hairy thigh... "You see a crisis here?!... we have sun, sea, farms, petroleum... There is a crisis... a bankingcrisis... and they want us to pay for it." He goes on. "The euro was a catastrophe for Greece..." he points into his palm... "€1 was 340 drachma... coffee was 100 drachma before... then it was €1." Italians will say exactly the same. Prices doubled overnight.

Meanwhile Europe is drip-fed a diet of ignorance. Reuters will whisper about 'Grexit' and a 'drachmageddon' that will cost hundreds of billions of euros if Greece fall out of the eurozone. Either lazy journalism or market omerta prevents the making of the obvious point that bailouts to keep Greece in the euro have already cost - erm - hundreds of billions of euros, failed to work, and will ultimately see Greece sell their national assets - from islands to major ports - at far below their true value. It's a little confusing that the structure of a Greek restructure is a country that has sold the very things by which it could once have made money... perhaps that's just the formula for the 'mature economy' the Greeks are to become. A mature economy is one that innovates new ways in which it can be stuffed by the markets.

Talking to people on the streets, what is most obvious is that everyday Greeks quite clearly do not want to be bailed out, just as Angela Merkel tries to appease the everyday Germans who do not want to bail them out. If everyday Europeans, both bailers and bailees, do not want to do any bailing... it seems the only ones in favour of a bailout must be the French and German banks that will otherwise be unable to absorb the losses of their own failed investments. Let's be clear... we do not bail out governments or taxpayers... we bail out banks, the primary representatives of capitalism who are not themselves subject to the primary rule of capitalism. Failed businesses are supposed to go bust.

And yet there's more to it than that, and northern Europeans would do well to resist judgements of lazy Greeks getting what they deserve. Greece is a foothold for the idea of market preeminence over societies, applauding its application in the Mediterranean will help bring about the day when we are all made Greek. The 1929 Wall Street Crash and Great Depression saw Roosevelt famously tell the American people, "we have nothing to fear but fear itself"... in the twenty-first century our governments encourage us to shit ourselves and hope that the markets will clear up the mess. Keep hoping. For five years Europeans have been given a constant crisis narrative, one accompanied by a paucity of any real information. Italians have low household debt, a banking system thought to be solvent, and high government debt. Spain has a largely insolvent banking system and low government debt. Public sector spending is higher in France than in Italy, and yet traditionally stable France has become a more attractive destination for investment since Crisis! gathered momentum. Britain saw a financial sector debt crisis transformed into a public sector debt crisis, not least because of the costs of supporting the financial sector. Faced with very diverse economies and problems, each different nation has been prescribed the exact same solution. Strip your states... empower the markets. The markets, the markets... always the markets, a remedy proposed by those who stand to benefit from its application... if this were a medical situation we'd be talking about quack doctors and second opinions. Only in a climate of hysteria could such flimsy reasoning have come so far.

 
It is this climate that has prompted the human suffering that is the overwhelming focus of contemporary media about Greece. A 40 per cent increase in suicides has become the most infamous indicator for as much... and I wonder if perhaps that's just what the markets call the price of a mature economy. Even with recent gains in the suicide rate, it should be noted that the Greeks were starting from a very low suicide base... you're still much more likely to kill yourself as a Frenchman, German or Brit. Racist attacks have also increased significantly, some Greeks have fallen for that all too human failing... when being screwed by a white man who speaks your own language or English... the obvious thing to do is beat up an immigrant. Health and social services are being deprived of resources, so that a recent case drawing nationwide and international attention saw patients in a psychiatric hospital facing food shortages. Modern capitalism will frequently be given credit for the notion that they are responsible for feeding the world. Whether in the form of austerity-hit hospital budgets or high oil prices diverting land to biofuel rather than food... it's less talked about that markets also know just how to starve people.

Heading east for Alexandropoli I see graffiti covering signposts, a handful of which caution drivers to turn on headlights in tunnels, to be aware of landslides. It's noticeable that just the English language portion of the warning has been painted over, so that you can only see it if you're passing slowly on a bicycle. I doubt it will cause the deaths of many foreigners, but the antipathy of some is clear. None of what I'm saying is to claim that all was once well in Greece. There is general consensus that taxes were evaded, corruption problematic and pensions generous. Whatever the truth in that, the solutions on offer will create new problems rather than eradicating old ones. 

As I ride for Turkey I think back to Paris, to the businesswoman who told me the French didn't believe in the crisis and would "bury their heads in the sand." The more I think about it the more I disagree. Swallowing the pill of austerity and putting your faith in ultimate salvation from the markets has been disguised as some sort of dignified resilience. Suck it up and don't squirm. She had it the wrong way round... the only dignified thing left to do is voice the sort of truths that society has long been made embarrassed to declare. The rules of our system are broken... we must take our heads out of the sand in order to say so.

A Greek road. Photograph: Julian Sayarer

Julian Sayarer is cycling from London to Istanbul, he blogs at thisisnotforcharity.com, follow him on Twitter @julian_sayarer.

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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up  coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.