This column first appeared in Malta Today
Saturday’s national protest calling for development planning reform, was given the apt name “Xebbajtuna” (We’re fed up of you).
As I am writing this on Friday I have no idea how many people are actually fed up enough to have postponed their usual Saturday errands and join in. In fact, it is common knowledge that it is not easy to get people worked up enough to attend any protest, let alone one in favour of the environment.
A dry comment underneath the announcement urging ordinary citizens to show up encapsulates one of the reasons for this complacency: “citizens have become rich because of all this construction.”
The person who wrote this is not wrong, of course, especially when one stops to realise that the ripple effect of all those who have benefitted directly or indirectly from development amounts to a considerable percentage of the population. It is amply clear from what we see around us that there is a segment of the nation which has created a whole other income (or several) for themselves by investing heavily in property and becoming landlords overnight. With the constant turnover of foreign workers seeking accommodation, never in the nation’s history has there been a greater demand for rental property, and those with business in their veins were quick to sniff out the golden opportunity. It goes without saying that there is nothing wrong with entrepreneurship; however, there came a point when the unquenchable thirst for more and more tipped some people over the edge.
In the property market, the more unscrupulous one is, the more one rakes in …why rent out a whole apartment when you can rent out rooms? Why rent out rooms when you can rent out bed space? Yes, we have come to this – renting out beds to desperate people who come from such abject poverty that they are grateful for a bed in a cramped property they share with numerous strangers.
The wave of greed which has swept over the country over the last few years did not appear out of thin air but has been a deliberate, systematic approach which strikes at the very essence of human nature, and which is also at the heart of all marketing strategies: making people want and crave things which they do not necessarily need.
I was reminded of all this while watching a documentary about the US called “Generation Wealth” which was originally planned as a book and a photo exhibition. Although it traces the genesis of American materialism back to around 40 years ago and Reagan’s capitalist economic model, things really spiralled out of control in the years before the 2008 financial crisis. The parallels to current-day Malta are inescapable. To quote from the publicity material, the film by Lauren Greenfield “captures a portrait of a materialistic, image-obsessed culture. … the film bears witness to the global boom–bust economy, the corrupted American Dream, and the human costs of late stage capitalism, narcissism, and greed.”
The filmmaker is very astute in how she not only pinpoints when things started to change but in how she ties everything together. As a photographer she had long been documenting people’s lifestyles and as she narrates her own realisations through the thousands of photos she has taken, she concludes that in an upwardly mobile, aspirational society which focuses on getting rich, “if a lot is good, more is better”.
Her observations about the damaging influence of reality shows about the rich and famous are also pertinent. “TV fuels the feeling of inadequacy. People spend more time with those on TV than with their own neighbours… so now they want what they have.” This statement is so glaringly obvious and yet it had never really occurred to me before. In the past we used to say “keeping up with the Joneses” in reference to people we knew, but now, it is the unattainable way of life of the distant (yet so familiar) faces we watch religiously on television that we aspire to. It is no coincidence that one of the most famous shows was called “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and spawned a thousand lookalike makeovers among women – and Maltese women were no exception.
These days, social influencers are utilising this same ploy, marketing themselves as brands which in turn market other brands, so that their every day life becomes one long sponsorship exercise which they share on their Insta, their reels, their stories.
Leafing through her decades of photos, Greenfield also notes how so many other social issues have become connected to the theme of wealth: from eating disorders to porn to cosmetic surgery. I found myself jotting down her insightful comments as each one struck home and reminded me so much of this island and how it has become.
“Eating disorders are more prevalent in affluent countries where food is abundant and the withholding of food has power.”
“We’re a completely porn-ified culture and these sexual images have leaked into popular culture.”
“There is a value to staying young, and there is a cost to not aging. The rags to riches story is now seen in the physical makeover.”
She points out how different types of addictions, whether it is to sex, cash or body image prove over and over again how when we become obsessed about one thing, it usually trickles over to obsessions about everything. And, in the ironic twist one often finds in developed countries, it is the poorer strata of society who spend the most money on something like $700 trainers in their desire to be like their sports idols. “The ones who don’t have the money are the ones most eager to spend it.”
Because her photographic career has taken her all over the world, she was also able to witness first-hand how greed even permeates what were ostensibly classless societies. Visiting the homes of Russia and China’s wealthiest people she remarks that, “the more the state tried to abolish class, the more people craved it. They wanted luxury items, huge homes, expensive cars.” The footage she shows is of a vulgar, showy type of wealth, characteristic of the nouveau riche who flaunt what they have in an over-the-top display of their riches. (In contrast, those who come from what is known as ‘old money’ are more discreet, low-key, almost deliberately downplaying what they have because flashing one’s cash is considered to be the height of crassness.)
Again, the similarities to our own nouveau riche cannot be denied. Just think of those buying exotic animals as pets, or those making it a point to be constantly visible on social media wearing designer this and designer that.
What, you might be asking yourself, has all this to do with an environmental protest? Well, like Lauren Greenfield, I cannot help but connect the dots between all the undesirable changes Maltese society has been through, and the constant clamouring for more and more, which includes more construction and development projects. Even as (some) people became wealthier, we have seen a steady deterioration in our general way of life because so much surplus in a small country cannot be absorbed as easily as it can in a land with wide open spaces such as the US (and even there, zoning laws do not allow you to build whatever you want, wherever you want).
We are stuck in snarling traffic jams every day even as more new cars are added to our roads daily. Our news headlines report multiple traffic accidents on a regular basis even though the authorities were warned that wider, longer stretches of road will only encourage speeding. The influx of more people to work in the construction industry and other blue collar jobs which the Maltese do not want to do means we are overcrowded and becoming more intolerant, angry and resentful as a result.
On the other hand, restaurants, bar and clubs are filled to the brim on weekends by a population which wants to party hard and forget their frustrations, even for just a few days.
Are we really fed up enough to stop feeding into the monster which perpetuates greed? We might say we are, but sometimes it just feels like lip service. When the 2008 global crash happened, it was like a tsunami for many Americans who had over-stretched themselves and who lost everything. In her documentary, Greenfield shows an ostentatious mansion called Versailles being built by entrepreneurs Jackie and David Siegal – when the crisis hit, construction had to stop and the footage of the unfinished house becomes “a visual symbol of what went wrong.”
I cannot help but wonder if one day our island will also become an unfortunate symbol of how it all went wrong.