THE week before Greece's recent legislative elections, air pollution in Athens reached such levels that auto traffic in the central city was halted, factories were shut down, and children and the elderly were advised to remain inside. Falling as it did, the pollution attack may have had something to do with the first election of an ecologist - representing the Federation of Ecological and Alternative Living Groups - to Greece's parliament. That electoral milestone is only the latest sign, however, if arguably the most concrete, that Greece is feeling the same upsurge in alarm over a deteriorating environment that has swept other European countries.
Earlier this year, schoolchildren stood in front of bulldozers and local university students threatened a hunger strike when the mayor of an Athens suburb tried to push the construction start of a public theater in the middle of a stand of pines.
``That is just one example of how Greeks of all ages are feeling this threat to their environment,'' says Fyllo Tzilini, an Athens lawyer and activist in the ecologist party. ``When it starts seeming that good things like healthy air and clean water and beautiful forests are in short supply, then the nearest group of trees is suddenly a lot more important.''
There are good reasons why Greece's environmental problems are taking on this heightened relevance with the public. The evidence confronting Greeks is not just in Athens' dirty air, but in rampant deforestation and ensuing soil erosion, in overdevelopment of many fragile areas, and in the dumping of untreated sewage into gradually less-crystalline seas.
The Greek capital's air pollution, most of which is produced by automobiles, provides a good example of how a government's half measures and conflicting policies not only may not solve a problem, but also can actually exacerbate it.
Since 1982, Athenians driving in the central city have lived with alternate or ``odd-even'' driving days, based on the last digit of a car's license plate. ``But since then the number of cars in Athens has doubled,'' notes Christos Zerefos, general secretary of the Greek ministry of the environment. ``In seven years we're back where we started.''
At the same time, Greece maintains extremely high taxes on new cars - car prices here are generally double, or even triple for luxury models, what they are in other European countries - and that forces people to hold on to older, ``dirtier'' cars much longer. On the other hand, the government subsidizes the price of gasoline, making it the cheapest in Europe.
According to Professor Zerefos, who is also director of the atmospheric physics lab at the University of Thessaloniki, Athens' law on alternate driving days has simply caused the city's pollution cloud to become elongated. ``What we've seen since 1982 is accelerated construction of shopping centers and offices north of the central city, outside the restricted zone,'' he says, ``So now the cloud covers that area, too.''
Zerefos says Athens generally faces 40 extreme-pollution days a year, when meteorological conditions result in the elevated levels of ozone and photochemical oxidants the city endured earlier this month. Such days, which trigger alerts or more draconian activity bans, ``could double to 80 [days in] 10 years if strong measures aren't taken,'' he adds.
Many Greek environmentalists advocate a total ban on private cars in the central city. Others, like Zerefos, say improved public transportation - including a subway - a comprehensive traffic plan, plus a cleanup of auto emissions, can solve the problem.
Loss of forest land is another serious problem Greece has tried to address, though with halting conviction. Once virtually covered by forests, the country's 51,000 square miles are now 19 percent forested. And every year, between 1 and 2 percent of the forest is claimed by fire - often purposely set.
``We don't really know how many of the fires are arson,'' says G. Nakos, a forest and soil expert with the Athens Forest Research Institute. ``We do know, however, that the forest that burns is not distributed throughout Greece,'' he adds, ``but is generally in the hot Mediterranean areas, where there is a lot of competition for other uses.''
Forests are indeed protected lands in Greece, but there is currently a raging battle over the status of burned areas. ``Every law has little windows through which you can justify anything,'' says Dr. Nakos, ``and such loopholes are having an impact on our forests.''
In an effort to reduce meat imports, a two-year-old range management law (recently suspended) said that animals could graze on burned lands. Farmers and shepherds were thus often accused of setting fires to remove land from protected status. Valuable forest land around Athens is often opened up to real-estate development once a fire - usually suspicious - has ravaged it.
Nakos says there is a lot of talk about unscrupulous land speculators involved in the fires, ``but not much proof of it.'' On the other hand, he says there is plenty of visible evidence north and east of Athens of houses being built - usually in the moonlight - in areas that are scorched and charred.
``There was a spate of new houses going up all around just before the elections,'' says Nakos. ``It was the perfect time, because no one gets involved for fear of losing a vote, so the police and the politicians turn a blind eye.''
Only about one-tenth of burned forest is replanted each year, according to government figures. Nakos says the loss of forests is regrettable of itself, but he adds that, as a soil scientist, he sees an even more serious consequence in accelerated soil erosion.
``What is really lacking is a concrete forest and land conservation policy,'' says Nakos. ``There needs to be a strong legal framework and then financial support.''
Government officials acknowledge that present measures have not been effective. But the environment ministry's Zerefos says steps Greece recently took with the European Community to formulate a special forest policy for what is called the ``fireball zone'' of southern Europe could help put teeth into Greek conservation efforts.
Beyond such bureaucratic measures, environmental experts here agree that no efforts will work without further development of awareness - and personal engagement - among the Greek people. That's perhaps the only way, they say, that politicians will be convinced to take environmental issues more seriously.
``That's why I think this election of an ecologist [to the parliament] is so important,'' says Nakos. ``Scientifically they may not know exactly what they're talking about. But by voting for them I think people are telling the government to get serious.''