Wednesday 28 February 2024

Complacency in a comfortable age

This column first appeared in Malta Today

As I watched the way high tides have submerged the beautiful city of Venice, flooding and ruining iconic landmarks and posing a threat to the priceless artworks, an almost simultaneous news item also told us that this same city had just voted against measures to combat climate change.

According to “Ironically, the (regional council) chamber was flooded two minutes after the majority League, Brothers of Italy, and Forza Italia parties rejected our amendments to tackle climate change,” wrote the council’s environment committee chair, Andrea Zanoni, on Facebook, sharing photographs of the flooded rooms, which sit on the city’s Grand Canal. Zanoni had proposed measures to adopt renewable energy, replace diesel buses with cleaner and more efficient vehicles, and reduce the impact of plastics. The budget that was approved, however, “does not contain any concrete action to counteract climate change,” Zanoni said. Last year, UNESCO, the United Nations’s cultural preservation branch, warned that Venice was at severe risk from rising sea levels.”

This is just the latest in a series of extreme weather conditions around the world where the earth seems to be taking matters into its own hands to tell mankind that the destruction of the environment simply cannot continue.

But despite what climate change is loudly telling us, I have noticed that a blanket of complacency seems to have descended on people who have not been affected, cocooning them from reality; they snuggle up cosily against this comfort blanket and mentally switch off, because it is much easier to turn off the dismaying news and turn to other forms of escapism instead. 

On a local level, February’s severe storm was our own little taste of what Mother Nature can do, should it choose to flick a finger and wreak havoc on our microscopic dot of a country.   Once the debris was cleared up, however, and everyone had compared notes about how much damage was caused and how much it would all cost, everyone went back to their old ways.  Rampant construction has continued unabated even though we know that over-development of valleys inevitably leads to the flooding of low-lying coastal areas because the water has nowhere to go. Like clockwork, the minute it rains for more than an hour, the usual places become a mini-Venice and we joke about using gondolas, although I doubt that those who live in these places find that tired joke amusing any more.  Particularly now that Venice is in a state of emergency. 

Despite the constant warnings, marine life continues to be endangered by pollution with litter from those who go out on their boat and those who go to the beach.  A look at the amount of plastic and other debris which is washed up on the shoreline after a storm tells the story of what lies on our seabed – we should be ashamed to be doing this to our sea which we flaunt so much in tourist promotions, but are we actually ashamed at all? It doesn’t look like it as we haul yet more six-packs of plastic bottled water (free with every supermarket purchase) on to the back of our SUVs.

We persist on using our gas-guzzling private cars every chance we get, one driver to a car, even though we curse Ian Borg and his constant, never-ending roadworks every day with our fists and a string of colourful adjectives. “This traffic cannot go on, someone has to do something” we wail, even as we sit there, oblivious to the irony, comfortably ensconced in our expensive vehicles, which take a sizeable chunk of our salary each month to be paid off.   

Are we too comfortably complacent to care about corruption?

It has often occurred to me that if Armageddon ever comes it won’t be with a bang, but with a surprised whimper, as the creature comforts of the lifestyle we have become accustomed to are pulled like a rug from under our feet.  Because while we may tut-tut in scandalised tones in private about what seems like the undeniable corruption which infiltrated the highest echelons of power the minute this administration was voted in, it clearly does not bother the majority of people enough. For most, life is good, they are comfortable, they are earning an additional income (or two) from their rental properties and the consumer culture has never been so good.  What few are realising is that this uber comfortable existence has lulled us into a false sense of security and complacency.  

Like a wife who does not question her mobster husband too closely about where the money is coming from, because he is keeping her happy, dripping in diamonds, Malta too seems to be passively happy and obliging about what has led to the status quo.  Like the mobster’s wife, many believe that having it all means that one has to also accept an inevitable trade off. 

The fact is that the political party in power may have changed in 2013, but all that really changed is that we have simply exchanged one set of cartels and cabals with another.  To quote Moviment Graffitti’s last statement: “the business class has established a stranglehold on all areas of Maltese society by bankrolling the political sphere and subjecting it to its ownership. It is no surprise to see how economic deregulation has led to the present situation: a free-for-all in planning, slavery and abuse of workers in various sectors especially construction; weak enforcement in financial services, the very visible spectre of money laundering and dirty money entering our economy; undeterred fuel smuggling along our coast; all this, while policies and laws are constantly being written with the only intention of protecting business interests, not citizens.”

The businessmen who have the ear (and the clout) of those who are in the seat of power have the authorities clenched firmly in an iron fist.   But because so many have directly or indirectly benefited from this age-old system, many accept it with resignation, telling you with a sigh of weary cynicism, “that is how things have always been, and will always be.”

Meanwhile, the populace, even those who are highly aware of what is going on and have been warning about it for years, can only stand by and watch as towns and villages are irreversibly destroyed in the name of progress, much like the residents of Venice were forced to stand by helplessly as their precious city was flooded. 

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