Sunday 13 June 2021

The state of the nation could be much, much better

This column first appeared in Malta Today

On Friday, the President of Malta presided over a one day conference about the state of the nation.

Statistics from a national survey were presented by statistician Vincent Marmara about a variety of topics, some of which (as reported in the media) seemed to be rather frivolous: whether we like to plan or prefer to take life day by day, whether we feel we have succeeded in life, whether we confide in our colleagues, and the most redundant of all, whether people always vote for the same political party. Did we seriously need a survey for that last question? The only consolation is that those who said yes amounted to 83%, which shows some slight progress from, say, 40 years ago when it would have probably been 99%.

The conference itself included a healthy cross-section of speakers who delved into how the Maltese identity has evolved. From traditional values to the superficial gratification of Facebook likes, society and history, the economy and the environment, culture, the Arts and communication, politics and finally citizenship and what it means to be a state.

The topic which interested me the most was the environment, because frankly, once we have destroyed it, that’s it, kaput, it’s gone forever. At the moment, when I drive around, I try not to look too closely at what is being done because, like Phoebe in that famous episode from Friends, I feel like crying out “my eyes! My eyes!”

What have we done to this island? I ask myself over and over, although more precisely, that should read what have THEY done? Namely, the ones in power who have dished out permits with the nonchalance of waiters handing out hors d’ouvres at a reception. Here, take a chicken wing, help yourself to a vol au vent, and here, go on, take a permit for a 6 storey apartment block where a lovely garden used to be.

As I fast forwarded through the video of the day’s proceedings, one speaker caught my attention immediately. Marisa Xuereb from the Chamber of Commerce encapsulated everything I feel when she pointed out that not only does the economy not have to depend on construction but it does not necessarily have to spell damage to the environment either. As we all know, it is the lack of real long-term planning which is our downfall, which she zeroed in perfectly through the example of a new luxury hotel built to the highest standards in Valletta which has on its doorstep the most atrocious, broken slabs of pavement (which fall under the direct responsibility of the state). “We are not even capable of planning a proper pavement,” she pointed out dryly.

As I watched her making her arguments in her calm, measured tone, it was as if she had become my voice. “We have to separate personal, private Interests from that which is in the interest of the country and future generations…we talk about how the environment is being ruined but when we come to developing our own plot of land, everyone forgets everything…”

Turning to the President himself, she boldly suggested that he should not give his go ahead for the general elections to take place before a bipartisan pact is concluded between the two major parties to revise local plans in favour of the environment (as suggested by former PN Minister Tonio Fenech at the same conference).

“I’m so tired of conferences which lead to nowhere”, she said. “Let’s do something tangible, because in here and out there we are all saying the same thing, but no one wants to take the difficult decisions in this country…I will go so far as to say that the damage to the environment is in fact causing harm to the economy. Why are we assuming that for our economy to grow, we need to cause utter havoc to our environment? I’m fed up of hearing, ‘but isn’t it too late?’ No, it is never too late…A question which should have been asked in the survey is, do you think you are contributing enough to a sustainable future for your country? On an individual basis can you tell your children and grandchildren in 30, 50 years, that you did your part?”

She closed by pointing out that we have a moral obligation when it comes to the type of messages and educational values we are passing on to our children for life. To tell them that, ‘get rich quick’ is not good and that to create economic growth without considering the harm to the environment is not good, as otherwise we are setting them up for a quality of life which is much poorer than they deserve.

I tell you, I felt like standing up and applauding her from behind my laptop.

As often happens, as all this was taking place, a prime example of what is wrong with the political discourse in this country unfolded itself on social media. A documentary by the French channel ARTE entitled Malta: A Concrete Paradise was being circulated, which included comments by many environmental activists. It showed Malta as it really looks like at the moment (as opposed to how travel brochures would have us believe): a sprawling mass of badly designed chunks of buildings with no thought to blending them stylishly with existing landscapes or architecture. Everything plonked like Lego building blocks, and squeezed into any available space like a toddler who has rammed his toys into impossible crevices. A film of fine white dust from the chasers used to cut through stone, covers everything. Long stretches of concrete and tarmac glinting in the Mediterranean sun.

And, as the by now world-weary joke goes, the documentary prominently features Malta’s national bird…the crane.

I watched the short documentary and wanted to just put my head in my hands and weep for our Malta, the hapless victim of unbridled greed and political callousness.

Inevitably, there were those who started pointing fingers at those who took part in the documentary, accusing them of “harming Malta” and that they were “traitors” and “enemies of the state”. This warped reasoning floors me every time: rather than becoming angry at the culprits, in this case the politicians who are allowing all this to happen, the politically blinkered turn their cannons, take careful aim, and shoot the messenger.

Leading the clarion call was the head of the Valletta Cultural Agency, Jason Micallef who let rip against environmental activist and lawyer Claire Bonello who was interviewed by the French journalists. Yes, once again, he demonstrates why certain people who work with the Government really should have their social media account forcibly removed, purely for their own protection. Actually, if the people around him were media savvy (and if he listens to them) they would have told him to delete his comment because all he has done is brought much-needed attention to the documentary. So, on second thoughts, maybe we should be thanking him instead for the publicity and ensuring the documentary is watched by even more people and making it go viral. Talk about the Streisand effect.

The people who jump on this bandwagon and accuse us of “talking against Malta’ are so out of their depth, it’s not even funny. I have news for them, we who champion the environment are the ones who really love Malta. If they are so ready to swallow the spiel and propaganda that we do not want progress because we want the economy to suffer (and hence make the Labour administration “look bad”), then they really need to ask themselves: why are environmentalists constantly trying to protect the scenic spots which make Malta an attractive tourist attraction? Contrary to what the Government often tries to feed us, it is the environmentalists who are truly working hard to preserve and promote the unique brand of our once charming islands. I do hope that the MTA realises that pouring buckets of concrete over everything is the opposite of good marketing.

This is like accusing a distraught parent that they want their child to get off drugs because they don’t want them to have any fun, rather than because they cannot stand by and watch their child destroy themselves with substance abuse. Substitute drugs for the wanton eradication of our land, and you might get an inkling of how painful all this is for many people. Governments come and go (just ask the PN), but the legacy of what they leave behind will have a ripple effect and repercussions for generations.

As things stand, what the Labour Government is going to be remembered for by a growing sector of the public is that, despite its many electoral slogans, it really does not love Malta at all.

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