Why cheap is not always good

I would like to suggest that ‘il-kont tad-dawl’ (literally ‘the electricity bill’) is not the right theatre for sensible energy politics. I refer to the actual sheet of paper we get in the post every few months or so, and which seems to have become the key venue for talking about the cost of water and electricity.

Water and electricity bills that require careful budgeting are a good thing
- Mark Anthony Falzon

It wasn’t terribly wise of the Prime Minister to do a 1964 Borg Olivier with a zero-total kont the other week. Joseph Muscat and his positively-arrogant sidekick Conrad Mizzi are even worse. They tell us they have secret plans on how to lop a digit or two off the kontijiet, and that we’d be able to spend the spare change on all manner of luxuries.

The sight of an ARMS envelope sitting in my letterbox doesn’t exactly make me jump for joy. Like everyone else, I’d rather not have to pay my bills. Even so, I can say hand on heart that I don’t think they should come cheap. And also that Joseph’s Big Discount leaves me unimpressed, for a number of reasons.

The procurement of water and energy requires tremendous effort. I’ve seen women in India and elsewhere walk several miles a day to fetch water and firewood.

That’s not necessarily because they’re ‘poor’. We do much the same, only we’ve delegated the task to paid specialists.

The expenditure is equally significant, in terms of the huge infrastructural outlay as well as health, aesthetic and other costs. Suffice it to say that the conversion of fuel into light, warmth, or motion turns us all into passive smokers.

Contemporary life tends to mask these costs. Take the domestic spaces we inhabit. No matter how ample their appetites for water and electricity, homes will hide the plumbing and wiring inside walls and under floors. The original source is lost somewhere in the Arabian Desert and the power stations rendered as inconspicuous as possible. (Residents of Marsa and Marsaxlokk will beg to differ – but that’s exactly my point.)

There’s another thing. Unlike say shoes or plasma screens, water and electricity are not instinctively seen as consumer products. That’s because they do not involve the appropriation of objects of desire. The argument is complicated but the upshot is that paying the bills feels like spending one’s money on nothing tangible. Fifty euros on a week’s energy is experienced as a burden, the same sum on yet another shirt as a joy.

All of which makes the kont a fertile patch for populism. And my argument is exactly that while cheap energy may render a politician popular, it betrays a lack of foresight and solid thinking. I’ll stick my neck out even further: more expensive energy has brought about a number of changes for the better.

Plenty have done away with useless external lighting and our town and village skylines are quieter. Energy-saving bulbs are no longer the preserve of funny-looking individuals with too much facial hair and water heaters are being brought under the rule of timers. Old wells and cisterns have been cleared of decades of debris and are being used as their makers intended. Double-glazing and insulation no longer raise eyebrows. And so on.

Cars and to a lesser extent boats are among the pockets of resistance. It seems that no increase in the price of fuel is steep enough to keep the boy racers off their resuscitated executive saloons. The blessed things are simply too potent a status symbol.

In other words, water and electricity bills that require careful budgeting are a good thing. They encourage us to think of energy as the precious resource that it is. If that sounds like vague moralising, there are other reasons why we would do well to think past the kont.

For instance, it makes sense to explore sources of energy other than fossil fuels. One well-trodden piece of popular wisdom which irritates me no end is that Malta has no natural resources. This is nonsense. The sun for example is an excellent resource, provided one can be bothered.

It’s largely a matter of perception. One of the reasons I so love Anderson’s There will be blood (2007) is that it portrays wonderfully well the spectacle of striking oil.

That’s probably also why our politicians like to remind us of the secret life of rocks every time an election approaches. Solar panels may be effective but they contain less theatre. Another good thing about the spiralling cost of energy is that it prompts us to revisit old conservation techniques. Leafing through the latest issue of Kamra tal-Periti’s The Architect, it’s striking to see just how high-profile energy efficiency has become.

I happen to live in an old house, insulated against the elements by deffun (terracotta roofing) and imramma (infill). Ventilation is provided by long vertical shafts (ċmieni) that run the height of the building. One of the results is that air-conditioning is quite simply not on my agenda. Carol Jaccarini’s charming book Ir-Razzett (2002) should be compulsory reading for architects.

Electricity and water – and in Malta these two are much the same thing, given that reverse osmosis is really a swap – shouldn’t come cheap, even if that were possible. With a global population of over seven billion, one would have to be exceptionally brazen not to concede the point.

One might object that I argue from a position of relative privilege; that higher bills end up consigning people with low incomes to energy poverty. To which I’d say two things.

First, the short term. Higher bills needn’t rule out special assistance to vulnerable groups. It’s the promise of lower kontijiet across the board that is so silly, rather than forgiving rates to those who reallyneed them.

Second, that efficiency and wise use tend to reduce energy poverty in the long term. Better-built homes are cheaper to run, for example, and make infinitely more sense than ranks of people on low income complaining (rightly, in some cases) that air-conditioning has become unaffordable. Which means that the way forward is certainly not to foster a sense of easy-come-easy-go.

I’m sure it would be quite possible for us to pay lower bills on fossil-fuel energy. Labour apparently would do it by cutting down on unnecessary expenses in various sectors (‘innaqqsu l-ħela’). I’d say do that by all means, but think twice before shrinking the kont.

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