Wednesday 12 December 2018

Downsizing our lives

This article first appeared on Malta Today

I don’t know whether it is because I automatically gravitate towards films and TV series which have a topical theme, or whether it is pure coincidence, but somehow I always end up watching something which coincides with thoughts churning in my head for a possible column.

There I was, mulling over how I was going to write (not for the first time) about the problem of the unaffordable rental property market and the rise of poverty, which seems to be escalating at the same pace as the brash, in-your-face over-development, both of which are guaranteed to come back to bite us sooner rather than later. To supposedly clear my head, I decided to watch the film Downsizing, which is billed as a social satire.

The premise is simple: an ordinary couple who is unable to move forward with their lives and cannot afford a bigger home, decides to take advantage of a new scientific breakthrough. The concept sounds ingenious: you are literally shrunk to a mere five inches and live in a newly-created town with other downsized people, where everything is more affordable because of the (literal) economies of scale. Whereas in real life they were stuck in a rut, in this new world with the money they have in hand after selling everything, the couple learn that they will be able to afford a mansion and not have to work ever again.

The thing is that the original idea for downsizing was intended for other, more altruistic, purposes; the brainchild of a researcher concerned about over-population and the depletion of natural resources, who deduced that by shrinking people, we could somehow save the planet. The amount of waste generated would be reduced drastically while the food required to feed this new small-scale population would also be incredibly minimized.

But human nature is probably doomed to repeat its own mistakes for eternity. The noble aims of the scientist began to be used for much more pragmatic, less idealistic reasons and the whole thing began to be marketed as a way to check out of the daily grind and live in (minuscule) luxury instead. Inevitably, it was the people with money in the ‘big’ world, who still had the money in the new world – and those who were poor when they were larger versions of themselves, continued to be poor as tiny people, living in a horrendous poverty-stricken ghetto where everyone gathered round to watch a huge TV screen playing endless Spanish language soap operas.

As far-fetched as the plot sounds, I could not help but see certain parallels with what is happening in Malta on many levels. For example, a conference held last October debated whether Malta’s population would have to increase to several millions because we would have to import more foreign labour to counter-balance an aging population and lack of skilled and unskilled workers to cope with a growing economy. The very thought struck sheer terror in my heart. We are already at each other’s throats as it is on this crowded, densely-populated island, can you imagine if we tip over the million mark?

The latest blitz of permits for towers of apartments seems to indicate that this is the way we are heading, with people living on top of each other in anonymous proximity, not knowing or caring who their neighbours are, and not even bothering to establish any community spirit because of the transient nature of those who come to live here briefly for work and then move on. In fact, JobsPlus Executive Chairman Clyde Caruana, speaking at this same conference, had explained that, “there is an issue of high mobility among foreign workers in Malta – 70% of workers remain here after their first year, while 29% would have left after their third year.”

As historic houses come tumbling down like lego bricks, because no one seems to care about preserving our heritage (least of all the Government which should be buying these houses and preserving them), developers with shiny Euro signs in their eyes, are rubbing their hands with relish at the thought of all the cold, hard cash heading their way in the form of all this valuable real estate being turned into apartment blocks. Instead of renovating derelict buildings, they roam the island with insatiable hunger until they spot virgin ODZ land.

But what price, avarice? Most of the big names behind all these towers, luxury developments and petrol stations already have more money than they could possibly spend in one lifetime. Meanwhile, they can join hands with the Planning Authority and take a bow for being directly responsible for taking what was once a great place to live and gradually turning it into a suffocating concrete jungle.

In stark contrast, of course, with all this talk of a growing economy, is the harsh reality of a Malta where we are hearing stories of those who cannot afford basic housing because of obscenely high rents and who are resorting to living in their cars, which is only one step away from living on the streets. It is a crying shame to hear of such obvious poverty at a time when the country is boasting such affluence, and it is doubly shameful when all this is happening under an administration and a party which, historically, has always prided itself on providing a safety net for those who are the most disadvantaged.

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