Summary of JOIE article (25 August 2022) by Emmanouil M. L. Economou, George E. Halkos, and Nicholas C. Kyriazis, Department of Economics, University of Thessaly. The full article is available on the JOIE website.
In this paper we present a series of environmental policies that were implemented by the city-state of Athens during the Classical period (508-323 BCE) through a specific set of environmental institutions. They included: waste management, the implementation of a recycling process regarding animal manure as well as the implementation of hygiene practices. Special administrative bodies were set up for this purpose with the power to impose heavy fines to offenders, and the actual job of environmental protection was contracted out to private operators.
In particular, waste management was achieved through laws which severely punished citizens who fouled the streets of Athens with waste and sewage that was produced either in their homes or in other places. Furthermore, the supervision of the cleanliness of the streets and the hygiene (environmental) behavior of citizens as a whole was assigned to a state institution, a service known as the ten astynomoi, each one originating from the ten Athenian tribes. The task of cleaning the streets and every other urban areas was assigned to another institution, a special group of Athenian citizens who worked as private scavengers who acted as public sweepers under the direct supervision of the astynomoi, known as the koprologoi. The later could be also entrepreneurs who provided their services to the state, under what we nowadays characterize as a private-public partnership form of cooperation.
Regarding the implementation of a recycling process regarding animal manure, this is directly related to waste management policies (for example, the reduction of hazardous waste) and environmental protection. Based on ancient sources and the findings of modern evidence we argue that the koprologoi were able to profit by collecting and recycling waste materials, mainly the dung of animals which they collected from the streets and other urban areas of Athens and then sold it as fertilizer. This proved a very profitable activity for them. Furthermore, this was a practice that took place not only in Athens but also in many other city-states such as Larissa, Olynthus and the island of Thasos. Based on this evidence we argue that the institution of the koprologoi should be related to one of the first (or perhaps the first ever) recycling processes in recorded history and to one of the first (or perhaps the first ever) waste management policies. Thus, recycling activities were carried out by private operators.
Finally, regarding the implementation of hygiene practices as an environmental behavior in a wider sense, in principle, personal hygiene was commonly accepted as an established behaviour in the mentality of the ancient Greeks in general. This was important since body cleanliness is a personal issue, one which can generate positive externalities as a shared social value.
But what is also important (in terms of the provision of public goods) is that the Athenians and the other Greeks in general ran public baths. Those citizens and metics (alien residents) who did not enjoy the privilege of having a bathtub in their homes, from the 4th century BCE, could resort to public baths known as balaneia. By the mid-5th century BCE the balaneia were well-established in Athens as well as in many other places in mainland Greece and elsewhere, such as Olympia, Isthmia, Delphi, Nemea, Corinth, Delos, Epidaurus, Eleusis, Eretria, Messene and Olynthus, Syracuse (South Italy) etc. They were further expanded during the Hellenistic (322-146 BCE) and Roman periods and can be found, among others, in Alexandria (Egypt) and elsewhere. Therefore, before the famous baths of Rome, public baths existed in the Greek city-states too, ensuring collective hygiene and harmony within the society, thus generating positive externalities as a shared social value.
Our core argument in this paper is that the success of the Athenian environmental institutions as a whole should primarily be attributed to the economic stimuli that the Athenian state provided to the staff of these institutions so as to perform their duties efficiently, as well as to the imposition of fines and/or other penalties if they provided subpar services. Our analysis argues that the implementation of a number of environmental policies that today are considered as pivotal regarding the prosperity of present societies around the world, were also practiced in Classical Athens. Thus, in actuality, these policies have an intertemporal character. We finally provide proposals as to how the Athenian paradigm regarding environmental policies may be seen as an inspiration for our modern societies.
Our findings indicate that the success of the Athenian state to provide efficient environmental services to its citizens should be attributed to:
- the proper combination of institutions that were introduced and related to the provision by the state of what today we call environmental services
- economic motives for those groups that were entrusted by the state to provide efficient environmental services, plus profit opportunities
- the imposition of fines to the above groups in the event they provided subpar services
- the imposition of fines for every Athenian citizen (and residents in general) who trespassed environmental rules
- laws against environmental degradation
- The efficient provision of other state activities (healthcare and healing services) that were indirectly linked to environmental protection and preservation (such as the services provided by the asclepieia)
- The gradual development of a spirit of environmental awareness among the residents of Athens
Potential avenues for further research that this paper opens up are, firstly, a further focus on Environmental Economics issues through the prism of methodological approaches that link disciplines such as Institutional Economics and Economic History with Environmental Economics as this article does.
At present, environmental policy issues are at the forefront of international interest. The most current is climate change. Solving these issues requires effective international cooperation. We believe that the Athenian paradigm can serve as a source of inspiration regarding such discussions, that is, improving the quality of decision-making on environmental issues for the present and the future, at the global level.