photo credit: Euphemia Ganiari
Gods do not make mistakes. The plain of Eleusis was a source of wealth for the ancient Athenians. The soil was watered by the Eleusinian Cephissus River and supplied farmers with grain, and animals with fodder. There was ample room for olive trees and vineyards. Fishermen could earn a living from the sea. Demeter knew well what she did, when she selected Triptolemus, the young son of King Celeus, as her emissary. A man who grew in this earthly paradise was the ideal representative of the goddess to teach humanity the art of agriculture.
It is doubtful whether Demeter would recognize Eleusis today. The coastline has been altered, the hills excavated, the rivers all but disappeared. Agriculture has been substituted by heavy industry, and where there were olive groves today stand residential neighborhoods. The sea has become an expansive anchorage for oil tankers. It is clear that the Titans now rule here, and the environment has paid a heavy price.
Jobs for all
As far as the residents were concerned, the arrival of industry was a blessing for this town, since it offered them a way out of poverty and unemployment. In the 19th century, the oil factories and the distilleries absorbed a large part of the local agricultural production. After the end of the Greek Civil War, people welcomed industrialization with open arms, since their region had suffered tremendously during ten years of armed conflicts (1940-1949). The population of Eleusis grew rapidly, and workers found ample employment in the large industrial complexes. This is even more notable since, at the time, the Greek countryside experienced a prolonged population decline, as more and more young people emigrated to western Europe in search of jobs.
Pollution for all
The benefits to the local economy and social cohesion were counterbalanced by the uncontrollable degradation of the environment. Solid and liquid particles from factory chimneys landed on every surface. They coated leaves and prevented trees from photosynthesizing. They affected the chemical properties of marble at the archaeological sites, and destroyed the monuments. They reduced visibility and made breathing difficult for beasts and humans. Clearcutting and quarrying changed the face of the mountains for the worse. Industrial waste was discharged in the rivers without any treatment. The decomposition of solid waste from dairy factories, distilleries, and slaughterhouses reduced the available oxygen in the Saronic Gulf, and marine organisms suffocated.
There were some informed and environmentally sensitive citizens and intellectuals, who tried to alert people to the disastrous consequences of industrial activity, but they were mostly treated as “reactionaries”. The local council resolutions against the degradation of the environment and their quality of life were ignored by the majority of the population. Even the protests of a local association of cattle farmers, regarding the negative effects of industry on the health of humans and cows, failed to elicit a more positive response from the government.
The laundry of wrath
The focal point of most complaints in the 1950s and 1960s was “Titan”. The cement factory used the adjacent hill as a source of raw materials, leading to the 1953 destruction of a Venetian tower that had stood there since the Middle Ages. As the factory expanded, it also caused damage to the ancient theater of Eleusis and the walls of the acropolis. And yet nothing seemed capable of ending its policies, until a woman decided to hang her laundry outside. According to the Eleusinian lawyer and researcher Vaggelis Liapis, the cement dust destroyed the color of the clothes, forcing the woman to sue for damages. She won the first trial but lost the appeal. During the proceedings, a doctor appeared in court and argued that the dust was actually beneficial to human health, since it formed a protective layer in the lungs. The road to save the environment of Eleusis was still a long one.