by Eirini Glyki

After five straight years of recession, Greece greets 2013 with an economy set to further contract. Unemployment has increased 13% in the past year, reaching 26%. The largest increase has taken place in the age group 20-24; 55% of people aged between 15 and 24 can’t find work.

Just before this Christmas, the Greek finance minister admitted that despite being the recipient of €240 billion in European Union and International Monetary Fund rescue funds – the biggest bailout in global history – Greece is still in danger of default on its massive debt. About a month ago, The IMF’s top economist acknowledged that IMF policies for Greece and other European economies were not appropriate since they were based on forecasts that vastly underestimated how government austerity efforts would undermine social and economic prosperity.

Presently, a quarter of the Greek population is living in poverty – a proportion worse than Iran’s or Mexico’s. (Eurostat) And with taxes rising, the minimum wage falling, and social welfare being withdrawn, it’s hard to see a bright side. As a result, many Greeks feel depressed, helpless, and angry. Worse, many of these individuals are sacrificing the environment in their efforts to survive. National Public Radio reported that as fuel prices have shot up, people have turned to harvesting wood, even burning furniture to keep warm, leading to deforestation, worsened air pollution, and related lung ailments. The Institute of Environmental Research and Sustainable Development measured harmful micro-particle concentration – particles released in the atmosphere through fireplaces – in the atmosphere of larger Greek cities to have doubled this winter.

A part of the population attributes this economic crisis to a deeper social and cultural crisis; the crisis of badly applied capitalism combined with disappearing values and traditions.

The eco-community of Spithari (courtesy of Spithari)

But the good news is that some of these Greeks are coming to terms with the collapse of the failing social and political system. They are taking matters into their own hands and addressing crucial issues through grassroots activism and local collective action. Signs of lifestyle transformation are starting to appear, integrating both new technologies and traditional values.

Greece has had a history of social movements concentrating on what we now refer to as social sustainability, with most of these developing after the turbulent years of the civil war of 1946-1949 and the dictatorship of 1967-1974.

Strong political action remained within Greek society even after the restoration of democracy. Most of this activity was developed in squats of unused public buildings, renamed “free spaces”, which were colored by the ideology of anarchism and later social ecology. These squats were the first places Greeks would try to escape modern societal norms, where citizens would create, share and live in communities. These squats acted as beehives for participatory processes, involvement in the commons and the promotion of alternative living.

Presently more people are searching for alternative lifestyles to the ones promoted by the capitalist consumer model so fondly followed by Greek society during the last 20 years. Young Greeks, many with postgraduate university education, found themselves unemployed and unable to support themselves. Some immigrated to northern European countries, others remain frustrated and some, instead of being angry and helpless, chose to actively change their lifestyle.

Diverse small collectives are spreading across Greece, mainly ecological communities in rural areas. Contemporary ideas of sustainable living and ethical consumption are being woven into old-style economy and self-sufficiency. This bottom-up transition is pointing to the need for a new model of economy and uncovering the potential for cultural change towards true participatory democracy, equality, and ethical living.

Eco-living at Spithari

On a hill above Marathon in Attica is situated a transitional eco-community called Spithari (or “Waking Life” in English). Its members, mostly engineers, met during the protests of 2011 and soon realized they shared common values and beliefs. They envisioned a society based on the principles of sustainability, solidarity, and self-sufficiency. The team moved to a small farm just outside the city of Athens, practice small-scale natural farming, cover their energy needs partially by wind energy and operate a carpentry workshop.

The people of Spithari aim to create a living model of sustainability by reaching nutritional, energy and housing self-sufficiency. Additionally, they wish to offer a meeting point for the nourishment of participatory processes as well as the creation of a network of Greek eco-communities to help share experiences. Through this cooperation, volunteers in the network even helped install a wind turbine at Spithari.

The Caravan Project

An interesting project taking place in Greece at present is the Caravan Project. Two artists have set about to go on a journey, a passage through Greece with the aim of highlighting the personal stories of the people of the land. Focusing on the richness of human testimony and providing the necessary dialogue that will reevaluate current lifestyles, values, and ideals to the ones that can bring us closer to our real needs. The mosaic of images, narratives and documentaries focus on emphasizing a different way of life than the one systematically promoted by the media and has been imposed on Greek society in recent years catalyzing the current economic crisis. The “Caravan Project” plans to shed light on a land that continues to create, dream, and proclaim that “Another World Is Here”.

Watch 3 minutes from the story of Fred, who fell in love with Greece and is now living with his partner in the island of Mytilene, trying to live an alternative lifestyle (film part of the Caravan Project).

The Time Bank

In Athens, again following the 2011 protests, another group of people fighting for solidarity came up with the idea of creating a different kind of bank; one in which instead of money you save time. The Time Bank is a network built around the principle of an inclusive economy through which one can exchange knowledge and services through the unit transaction of time.

The content of services one offers is treated with respect, one hour of service is equal to one hour of any other service, regardless of it being mental or manual work. The time gained from each transaction can be spent using the services of any member of the Bank. It all works through an online portal that facilitates the saving and usage of work-time between its members. For example, one hour of Spanish class equates to one hour babysitting, one hour visit to the doctor is equal to one hour of self-defense course, one hour of guitar lessons can be exchanged for one hour of cleaning a house.

The motive behind the creation of the Time Bank is to work for the benefit of the community and not for profit. There are no formal requirements for participation in the network but there are some basic principles of respect among its members like the will to offer to the community, creative collaboration, equality and protection of the communities’ members against any kind of discrimination.

Finding the many initiatives like these in communities around Greece, it becomes clear how many people are striving to build a different future. These people envision a world of peace and freedom, with technological development that operates as an extension of human potential, a world that will strategically and consciously manage with balance earth’s natural resources; a world where the social reality is healthy living conditions, equality, free-spirited people, and real incentives away from modern city-living complete with its social isolation, artificial barriers, and work-spend cycle. And they do not stop at having a vision, they also take action—taking the best from both modern Greek culture and technologies but also from the traditional ways of their grandparents.

This article originally appeared on the Worldwatch Sustainability Blog.