Name: Stella Pierides
Organisation: prose and poetry
What first triggered your interest in environmental issues?
It started with my interest in the mind and its power to influence our environment. Our attitudes, beliefs, pre-conceptions, fantasies about the world, about what constitutes growth and progress, lead to behaviours which physically impact on the environment and climate, for better or for worse. The climate of collective opinion does influence the earth climate.
Whether and where new roads or bridges will be built, whether and which explorations and research will be undertaken, new gadgets and ‘stuff’ will be manufactured and bought, or whether wars will be fought depend entirely on our own mind-set and the choices we make. And these choices are only available to us if we are open to ourselves, to the world and the way we got here.
What are you working on, concerned by, or motivated by at the moment?
I am putting the finishing touches to a novel set in Greece, which is due to come out at the end of this year. It started when, several years ago, on a return visit to Athens, I got lost in areas in which I had grown up. New roads had cut through settlements, passed over fields where wild chamomile had flourished. New, faceless apartment blocks had transformed the landscape where small, albeit often make-shift houses had been as late as in the 1960s. The process had started earlier, of course, but while living in Greece I had failed to notice, even considered it progress, and later, living in England, I had forgotten. Confronted now with the massive changes that had been taking place, a sort of large-scale rebuilding of the city, I started questioning whether what I had considered progress, at least in part, had been a good thing.
On subsequent visits, I watched the apartment blocks go up, the roads multiply, the concrete cover the soil around the roots of the trees; the little gardens with lemon and olive trees, with white-washed pots of marjoram, thyme and basil disappear under concrete patios and verandas, cafés and shopping centres.
Then, during the preparations for the 2004, Olympic Games, I saw how excavations unearthed ancient sites and road networks, ancient wells, earthenware vessels, some of which were exhibited in glass showcases in the new underground metro stations where they had been found. I became aware of the many layers of history that exist under the city, only some of which have been uncovered. Also, associated with this, I noticed the sense of pride in the people about their city, and a wish to turn round and reclaim the urban environment, the public places, the Athenian green space for themselves.
In this context, the novel I have been working on aims to provide a space where a seam of one of the communities ‘covered up’ (to the point where hardly any physical trace is left to be unearthed) is brought back to life. The novel – set in Athens in the late 1950s, in one of the areas where refugees from the Asia Minor ‘Catastrophe’ in the 1920s had come to settle – provides a microcosm from that time. Through this novel, using stories I heard while growing up, I tried to recreate a world and a community which has disappeared under concrete apartment blocks and roads; and time.
However, my aim is not simply to preserve this ‘world,’ but rather to invite reflection upon its history and reveal the choices such a reflection offers: on the costs of seeing all development as progress; on the costs of war and displacement; the losses incurred when the customs, dialect, stories, poetry and song of those people were left behind, or were displaced to other countries all over the world (with the refugees emigrating, apart from Greece, to the USA, France, Germany, Australia, or fleeing to Eastern Europe).
Of course, it is not only Athens I am talking about. I am interested in the ways in which the climate of collective opinion influences the earth climate, how we can learn from the past so that we repeat fewer mistakes in the future. The war and civil war referred to in my novel are not things simply belonging to the past, or things that happened in Greece once, but collective acts of horror and destruction inflicted upon the human psyche, society, culture and the environment all over the world today; the ‘concretization’ of a city is evident in all cities around the world, and still considered progress. Conflict between short-term individual gain and long-term individual and social good is found in all societies, faced by all individuals. I believe that imaginatively thinking and talking about these human concerns, as they occurred in the past as well as how we encounter them in the present, will make the world a sustainable and better place to live in.
What do you anticipate working on, or thinking about, in relation to environmental issues over the next 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years?
I hope to expand my thinking on the contribution of writing to imaginatively reflecting on the choices we humans faced at various points in our past. In particular, I want to elaborate on the implications of the climate of opinion in everyday, social and political life for our environment.
How optimistic or pessimistic are you as you look at where we might be in 2020, and why?
I am both optimistic and pessimistic!
My optimism is founded on the fact that there are enough people who care about the world and the environment to take action. Campaigns like this one initiate and add to the momentum. There is a lot of humanity, compassion, conscience, sense of responsibility and imaginative energy to turn round the downward spiral.
My pessimism, on the other hand, is based on the understanding of another side of the human psyche, which is greedy, impatient and destructive. I hope there is simply less strength on this side. The good always wins. Doesn’t it?
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