How a miraculous transition from „Blue Zones“ to „Green Zones“ happened on a rocky island in the Aegean (a fictional story)
(Please note: the text is based on my experience while working with different European regions on the energy transition process. Here I put up a fictional story for the island I love)
It is a hot day in mid-July 2033 and Maria, 39 years‘ old, is arranging her pony-tale and straigthening her T-shirt. She is sitting in a kafenion in the harbor of Evdilos, Ikaria, ready to give an interview to a group of journalists coming from the United States. It is already her second round of interviews today. Just that same morning, she was showing a group of Japanese TV-reporters some selected eco-projects which are considered „key-projects“ for the „Green Zone of Ikaria“. „Green Zone“ is a label that Ikaria has officially received some years ago from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) – the leading environmental authority in the United Nations system – recognizing its efforts to implement a sustainable climate transition plan on the island (please note: this label does not exist). And this very label is the reason why the Americans, the Japanese and so many more representatives of different countries, NGOs and scientists are coming here.
Maria is a bit exhausted; it‘s tiring to talk so much, to repeat the same stories to different people in a very short time. But she is used to it. For more than 5 years now, she’s been doing this as she‘s been elected the spokeswoman of the citizen movement „We are the future of Ikaria“ – a movement created more than 10 years ago by dedicated people, most of them between 25 to 40 years. Despite her routine and high level of professionalism, as she is a journalist herself, Maria is always pausing when asked about the very beginnings of this green transition that happened so successfully on Ikaria. For a moment she looks very closely at her counterpart, as if trying to discern whether the interviewer wants to understand the whole story or whether they’re only interested in some superficial information. When she thinks it might be worth telling the whole story, she rolls a cigarette, and she begins: “Do you still remember the political and societal situation in Greece 10 – 15 years ago?”, she asks. “We’re talking about the years 2015 till 2023. At that time, we were still suffering from the economic and financial crisis which hit our country very badly and put us under the financial management of the European Union. The country was suffering from a high rate of unemployment, low wages, a high brain drain – especially from people my age (I was in my mid-twenties at that time). Around the 2020s we recovered a bit, we saw some light at the end of the tunnel, but in 2022 the war in the Ukraine started and with it, the Greek economy was hit again very badly. On top of low incomes, we had to face high energy bills, price increases and even less job opportunities.
At that time, I was living in Athens, I had been a dedicated student in journalism. I was eager to write about Greece, to travel, to get to know different perspectives. I was lucky, because even though money was scarce, I was given the chance for an Erasmus exchange so that I could live for a few months abroad, in France. It opened my mind; it gave me a lot of food for thought. It was a time when the subject of “Climate Change” dominated many of our discussions. The “Fridays for future” movement was still alive and I participated in many of the workshops organized by the civil society in the town where I lived. I was pleasantly surprised with the dynamics of these activities. Within a short time, small results were visible in everyday life: new recycling workshops; restaurants and bars reducing their food waste; after school activities where pupils were engaged in environmental projects in their neighborhood.
When I returned to Athens, I wanted to share these experiences, I wanted to bring these dynamics to my friends, to my university. But I could not. Coming back, I got absorbed by a “black cloud” of frustration, a lack of perspective. I was back to a life where the struggle to pay the bills was dominating our lives. Young people like me had several jobs to make a living … but it was never enough to live, to enjoy the bright side of life. Nevertheless, we teamed up for some environmental activities in our neighborhood, but it was never for a long time, because we all lacked the time and the energy to stay tuned.
At that time, we, the younger generation, were not dreaming any more, neither of a happy family life, nor about trips abroad. Already at that young age we had lost faith in politics. We had seen it all, different governments, but no changes for us, the young generation. Our highlight was the summer trip to a Greek island – in my case, to Ikaria –to just live some days in the illusion that life could be an endless, carefree summer at the beach, in the bars and at parties.
But for me – as for my fellow students – even our summer ‘time-out’ no longer had the same effect as before. Coming back to Ikaria I could see that my beloved island was also facing tough challenges, because the consequences of the global climate change were hitting Ikaria, too: summers became hotter, draughts were coming up with a constant fear of wildfires and water shortage for the villages during the peak summer season. At the same time, the Greek islands were the focus of huge energy projects to produce renewable energy to reduce the use of fossil fuels and in addition to it, we saw big investments in tourism projects as tourism was still an important factor for the Greek economy.
Also on Ikaria a big project of 110 wind turbines was in the planning stage, which triggered discussions and met with opposition for years.
While talking to friends and family about the future of Ikaria I got depressed, because here on Ikaria I could see and experience every day the results of climate change, lack of funds, demographic change, lack of qualified people. What I was discussing in theory in Athens with my friends … was happening in practice here, on my island, just in front of my eyes. Here on Ikaria, we had all the problems in a nutshell: due to the overgrazing of too many free running goats, our mountains were not only crumbling, causing erosions, destroying the infrastructure. The biodiversity as well as the natural heritage of the island were being destroyed, too. This led to severe consequences: lack of water, difficulties for the farmers to plant and to harvest. We became less self-sufficient than our ancestors.
Due to lack of funding, we could not install a smart water system that would provide water for all the villages even during high summer season. The result? Water shortages in the villages and poor quality water. Our educational and health system were in a poor condition – like everywhere in the country, but on an island, it was always a bit worse. This caused a heavy brain-drain, meaning that many young Ikarians left the island after high school and only a few found their way back at a later stage.
Like other islands, Ikaria was economically dependent on the summer tourism season. But it got a bit out of hands. The ever popular local feasts, the panagyria, attracted thousands of people to our island, most of them just staying for a short time and just adding more cars on our narrow roads.
The big panagyria caused more garbage, but we lacked the facilities to manage waste. And the jobs created over the summer were mostly short-term, 2 months max. in the restaurants, bars, shops and hotels. And the cherry on top of the cake was that many Ikarians had transformed their house into Airbnb-style accommodation, making it even more difficult for locals to find a permanent home at an affordable price.
There seemed to be no end to this situation. Not only were we suffering from a brain-drain, but we were also unable to attract the doctors, nurses and teachers we badly needed. We were also missing the qualified people we needed to adapt to the changes that climate change was imposing on us: the architects to design houses and technologies to make them more resilient, the electricians to install smart energy systems, civil engineers etc.. This made me both sad and angry as I had to acknowledge the fact that my home, the place where I had my roots, my “paradise”, my “retreat” was at the edge of disappearing.
Maria pauses for a short while, sipping her coffee, checking that the American journalists were still interested in the next chapter of her story. As they still seemed to be OK listening to her, she continued: “And then”, she said, “I took a decision. Call it the “call of the universe”: I decided to stay. I decided to work on the future of this island. I couldn’t “just let it fall apart”. I didn’t want to accept that my island would not have a future. I knew that changes were urgently needed and I wanted to be there to make them happen.
So I didn’t go back to Athens. I had just finished my studies and I knew that I would not find a good job in the capital. Perhaps I might have found a couple of jobs in the bars or clubs I was hanging around anyway. This wasn’t a bright future after studying for 4 years under very difficult circumstances; for someone whose parents had made a lot of sacrifices to finance my studies. So if Athens could not offer me a chance for a bright future, why not try it here, on Ikaria?
Of course it was tough – and my parents and friends were strongly against it. During the summer I had been working in a taverna and earned some money. Not a lot, but enough to have a financial basis for winter. It helped that I could live in my grandmother’s house rent free. And I was writing for 2-3 online magazines in Greece and abroad, who were interested in my story of a “returnee” to a remote Greek island.
But what else could I do to make a living and get really rooted on Ikaria again? I felt pretty much alone, because most of my childhood friends had left the island. From my summer stays I knew some of the younger people who were living here for the whole year. Interesting people, not all of them Ikarians, but all with different backgrounds. The struggle to make a living and our concerns about the future of the island were our common ground when we met.
It was in this group that I finally got the chance to share the experiences I gathered in France. The thoughts fell on fruitful grounds. In comparison to Athens the framework was different: Ikaria is known to be a place where you can test your ideas. People may not act against it, but they may not necessarily support you from the very beginning. They will observe you and – when they consider your idea to be a good one – they may perhaps join in.
In addition, we had time. As we wanted to stay we could make long-term plans. So we just started with small projects, those necessary to make small changes in our everyday life.
We were all self-sufficient; we were all growing our own fruit and vegetables.But we wanted to go further.” Maria takes a little pause, in order to stress the following points: “Please don’t get me wrong. We didn’t want to conquer the island to implement a “free-style government” and turning Ikaria into a “hippy-village”. We wanted to find a way to keep the treasures of the island: its beautiful nature, its cultural heritage, its identity. But we recognized that it would all fall apart if we continued to do the same we had done for the past 15 years. So we identified 3 main subjects, which we considered essential to make the changes: education, participation of the civil society and funding. Ok, we knew it: you kill every discussion, every idea, when you start talking about funding, because money is never available. But we were confident that we would manage, because in our group we had people who had good knowledge in all these fields. We had people with experience in implementing educational projects. We had those who had already organized a large number of citizen forums in order to engage the civil society in the debates and decision-making process. And we were lucky that we had some people who already knew about project applications and project management to get funding from different sources.
But above all – and I consider this as new mind-set and very crucial for the success of our common work: we were dedicated to working together. We wanted to cooperate, we wanted to share our knowledge and we wanted to succeed together. You know perhaps the prejudice many foreigners have towards Greek people?”, Maria smiles at her counterparts sitting around the table. “Well, it is said that Greeks cannot cooperate. And it is said that we don’t trust each other. When somebody is coming up with a new idea, many of us are immediately suspicious, asking: what will he/she earn from it? … and perhaps this prejudice is right. But in our group, we had a different approach. We were very transparent. We were very clear about our personal and our common goals in our work. We discussed it and we found common ground. We trusted each other. And we put our goals down on paper; this somehow became our ‘manifesto’.
And then we just started. We had had our discussions, now it was time to act. We reached out more actively to the people on the island: local associations, like-minded people, hoping that we could get more people involved. What was important to us was to reach out to all kinds of different groups; this included also the elderly people. They were kind of surprised and a bit hesitant, because they had already lived through a big wave of people coming to them, interviewing them about their lifestyle. You may remember that some time ago, Ikaria was tagged as a “Blue Zone” because of the large number of elderly people living on this island. So – like you today – many foreigners, TV-crews etc. flooded the island, asking elderly people about the miracle, how this longevity happened.
But our questions to the old Ikarians were a bit different, and more important: they considered us as the natural heirs of their wisdom, because we were living on the island, they knew our families. So they became more open, patiently answering our questions, such as: How do we have to adapt farming/planting to become more resilient to draughts? Which role may the seeds from old plants play in it? Would it be possible to use the old water systems again and perhaps adapt them to the new needs? How could we integrate the old hiking paths into a sustainable tourism concept? We spent hours with them. And then we integrated their knowledge into our activities. We initiated small educational projects, for example workshops combining art with environmental subjects. We started film sessions about environmental subjects, followed by discussions. Via video-calls we invited representatives from NGOs, scientists etc. from all over the world to join the discussions.
And we created an internet platform, which became a virtual forum for exchanging ideas – not only from Ikaria but also success stories and for people who needed partners for their projects. But we didn’t just do virtual exchanges. We shared these ideas in the citizen forums we were organizing regularly in the different villages on the island.
Of course these were little steps and all of this was not new – not at all – because many things already happened on Ikaria. We were just trying to join in, to share ideas, encouraging exchanges and bringing people together.
Our efforts didn’t immediately produce results. It was a slow and difficult process, but we didn’t give up. And after a while, we became more visible. Even though most of the people in our group are humble, not keen to be in the spotlight, visibility was necessary so that we would be considered more seriously as political partners. At that time, civic life was still dominated by our parents’ generation, sometimes even grandparents – most of them men, most of them in the political parties for decades. And the discussions always went the same way. It was very tiring and tedious process. But we had to compromise: if we wanted to succeed in making changes on our island, we had to raise our voice in a way that we were heard.
And we had to participate in the decision-making process if we wanted real changes to happen. So we went through that door. It was tough, believe me, it was very tough. Especially for us, the young women. The elderly people did not trust us. Even though some of them were family members, they thought we were not serious, we had no knowledge, that we were just good in talking, but not in working or making things happen. It was frustrating … but we found our way.
We showed up at every political debate in the town hall, we asked questions, we put proposals forward. And believe me – we were good at both talking and writing . All those years at university and our engagement in many citizen forums were finally paying off in the Ikarian town hall.
At that time Ikaria stood at a crossroads. It badly needed an energy plan to make the transition to climate neutrality; it needed a tourism plan both to make tourism more sustainable and to extend the tourism season to generate more income for the island. And it needed a mobility plan as well as sustainability and climate strategies. It may sound arrogant to list themall like this, but we were looking at other European regions, who were facing exactly the same challenges, and who had been working on these plans and strategies. The aim was to engage the local community in this transition process so that they could claim ownership of it and find the right answers for their problems.
Our group was very active on social media and we scanned the internet to find answers to our questions. We wanted to know how young people were getting involved in the transition process for their region. Had they found the magic wand? They hadn’t, but we had hundreds of online chats with people in many different places: Croatia, Poland, France, Denmark etc. We learned from their projects, we learned from their strategies to find funding and – where possible – we copied their local activities. Via these exchanges we extended our local Ikarian group and made it international. First, we were surprised that it worked, because we thought ‘who might be interested in Ikaria and the problems we are facing?’, but just to the contrary. As Ikaria is a remote island in a difficult geographical and political situation, other regions were interested in our questions and our answers to the common problems.
And also on Ikaria our activities attracted more and more people; other islands joined in. We managed to convince the local government to start work on what we suggested and we took part in the planning and writing process. We organized citizen forums to ensure that the process was transparent, and the locals were involved. We ensured that women participated in this process by giving them more room to bring in their ideas; we integrated the younger generation into the discussion – something new, but necessary to give them a platform to be heard, because we were talking about their future, too.
After a difficult start, more and more people – of all generations – showed their appreciation by participating in the citizen forums and we tried to bring the results back to the city hall. But here we got stuck again. Decisions were taken, very often not taking our proposals into consideration. That was very frustrating. The only solution was for us to sit at the decision table, too, having the right to vote. So we founded the citizen movement “We are the future of Ikaria”, a registered entity, which could also participate in the elections. With this step we reached the next level. It generated more work, but it gave us more possibilities. And indeed: we participated in the next elections, getting 4 seats in the local government. And we used this chance. We managed to convince the local government that at least 50 % of their members should be women. And we invited the youth organizations of the island to participate in our discussions on a regular basis.
We succeeded in bringing new people to the discussions in the town hall – a game changer, as the decision makers could listen to new ideas, to different experts; we introduced new discussion formats.
“Ok, wait a moment”, said one of the journalists, interrupting Maria’s monologue. “it looks like that you tried a lot on different levels, not only in the field of sustainability and energy. But what was finally the breakthrough to start the eco-projects we are visiting today?” Maria smiled at him. “I think there’s no specific time for the turning point and it’s not the result of one single strand of activities. It was a process and only by looking back we recognized that changes started to happen. And they started in different fields. Like in a big puzzle, activities fit together.
Perhaps our biggest success story happened some 8 years ago. We had to work on an energy transition strategy for our island. This was crucial if we wanted to oppose the big wind turbine project that was planned for our island.Looking back, I think our work on this strategy really boosted the sustainable and environmentally friendly transition process of our island.
Why? Because the process was going deep, it touched all economic sectors and all groups within the society. It brought about new discussions about ownership, property, democracy, citizens’ involvement and it highlighted the urgency for acting. And new ideas were born, which we could finally realize here on Ikaria and which we are going to visit today.
The most important is perhaps the energy cooperative. This fits many of the old Ikarian beliefs, such as equality, democracy, sharing. We’re sharing ownership of the energy and electricity system; we’re deciding together what and how things are happening.
At that time, the discussions about the energy cooperative became a turning point for our society and the political system. People wanted to get more involved, they were asking for common decisions in other fields, too. And this took us further.
As I said before, an energy transition is not free-standing, but it is closely linked to tourism, education, mobility, to name but a few. So finally we got the leverage to make the different strategies and concepts happen we’d been asking for so many years. The planning of it was a painful, thorough very slow process, but necessary. But in the end it happened: a kind of “master-plan” for projects and funding needed to build the future of our island. It was like a miracle: our island was standing up, working together.
Granted, there are still some people who don’t want to get involved, but the big majority supports the ideas – or at least they’re not trying to sabotage them – because the benefits for the island are already visible: with our new energy concept we were able to become self-sufficient and reduce costs considerably. Our sustainable tourism plan is supported by all those working in this field;the hotels, tavernas, car rental companies etc. For example, the number of local festivals was reduced so that the flow of tourists in relation to the natural capacities and possibilities of our island is better managed.
We’re all making an effort to reduce garbage; we’re all working to “re-use, reduce, recycle”.
The tavernas are buying from the local farmers who are all certified “organic” and we are self-sufficient again when it comes to fruit and vegetables. We no longer have to depend on Athens and other regions.
We now have a very good public transport system, and less cars on the roads. We closed the open landfill garbage sites for good and implemented a waste management system, which is already copied by other islands. And we created new jobs, we created more income.
This way, we managed not only to stop the brain-drain, but we’re also attracting people to come and live here, because they like our ideas.
Another couple of things worth mentioning: we managed to end the free grazing of goats, believe it or not! As more and more people were becoming vegetarian or even vegan, they no longer ordered goat meat or other meat for that matter– neither in the tavernas nor at the panagyria. And the new generation of goat keepers understood they had to play their part in the changing process if they wanted to continue doing good business on the island.
Another important aspect was the improvement of our education system. In the past Ikaria had been known for its good quality schools. The elderly people gave us many examples. We took this up – and where the government would not support us, we got funding elsewhere to do it ourselves. Our international partner network is still a valuable source of wisdom, when it comes to financing and making things happen.
We initiated new curricula at school, including new subjects like the environment and climate change. We also improved our Technical School by offering new courses. It was there that we trained the people we needed so badly for the transition process, like electricians for the installation of solar panels, engineers to repair the wind-turbines, builders who could work with new materials and new techniques to make houses more resilient. We also taught those working in the car workshops how to repair the public transport buses as well as the new e-cars, e-bikes and so on.
To sum up: today we are proud and happy to say that Ikaria has become a role model for a diverse transition process on small remote islands. When we officially received the label “Green Zone” it was overwhelming. With this label our efforts to build the future of our island following a comprehensive plan are being recognized, not only integrating all the various groups in society, but also safeguarding the cultural and natural heritage of Ikaria and implementing new democratic decision-making processes.
And this is what makes us so interesting for other islands and other regions. And I suppose this is the reason why you are here today”, Maria says, looking around the table. ”I dare say”, she continues, “ I am very proud of my island. This process brought up some of the good Ikarian characteristics: to work hard to make things happen, to stay together, to support each other. For a while we lost it a bit, but through this process also our society has lived through a big transition. For good.”
“And now,” Maria is standing up, grabbing her bag and her laptop, “I am happy to show you around the “Green Zone”. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say. Let’s start with the office of our energy community. They’re looking forward to sharing their experience with you”. Maria guides the group to the nearby bus stop and a few minutes later they are off and Maria is starting her second visitors’ program of the day. And this will not be the last one today:another group from a Swedish NGO is already waiting for her in the evening.