Green Or Gone

A Picturesque, Damning View Of Our Wildfire Planet

A Picturesque, Damning View Of Our Wildfire Planet

The Puglia region in Italy in flames

Alessio Perrone

Salento, the very southeastern tip of Italy, is a flat and shrubby land of farmers, stunning beaches and simple rural villages built around Baroque churches. Thousands of Italians and foreigners flock to this part of the Puglia region on the heel of the Italian boot every summer, lured by its promise of a rustic, idyllic break.

My family is there now, like every summer, because that's where they (we!) come from: my grandfather was one of the farmers that looked after the centuries-old olive trees, vineyards and orchards that grow in the parched, deep red earth under the scorching summer sun.

But it has more recently also become a land of wildfires. Dozens of hectares of farmland have gone up in smoke during a series of testing heatwaves — the harshest of which is predicted to hit later this week. The flames have sieged the highways, scared tourists off the camping sites, then danced towards the beaches, in scenes I have not seen there since I was born. It is just one flare up in a rash of fires that have consumed some 103,000 hectares across Italy so far this year.

Of course, it's part of a continental, if not global, inferno. The world has watched in awe as wildfires ravaged places as far away as Siberia and Turkey, California and Canada. Earlier this week, tourists and thousands of residents were forced to flee the Greek island of Evia after it experienced the worst heatwave in decades, propelling temperatures well above 40℃ and creating ideal conditions for fires to rage. On the other side of the Mediterranean, Tunisia's fires have suddenly turned deadly. After Greece, Italy has recorded the second-highest number of wildfires in Europe so far, with southern regions like Sicily, Sardinia and Puglia burning at unprecedented speeds.

Watching from a distance, I couldn't help but see the events as predictable — most of my generation has known the dangers of climate change for years. When a major UN climate report this week described climate change as an inevitable, unprecedented emergency that is happening sooner and faster than expected, that too was no surprise.

We've been warned plenty of times before. We knew there would be consequences, damages, casualties. We have, indeed, seen the fires spreading.

And yet it's a different feeling not only to know about the threat of wildfires but to see it on your doorstep, closing in on your family, devouring the increasingly arid land your grandfather used to look after. Even if I've always been conscious of climate change and have tried to act accordingly, I never thought it would touch someone I know so soon. It's frightening, mesmerizing, hypnotic — like watching a fire burn — to think that even myself and my generation have been staring at reality, and yet never truly realizing that it's already happening. That it's coming for us.

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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