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The environment, history and geography

'Why should the environment only be centre-stage at points of crises?'

As one does these days, I was having a conversation with several friends on social media about excessive construction in Malta. The starting point was whether the outrage one reads in Maltese media about over-development is actually happening in a bubble of like-minded individuals or whether it is more widespread.

These discussions go all over the place, but I was pleased to engage with my friend James Debono, who at some point made a comment which I want to quote in its entirety because I believe it chimes with my feeling over the matter.

James remarked that “we have to make allowance for being a nation state by virtue of history but not of geography.” To me, this hit bullseye and it prompted me to reflect over the conundrum of the desired (yet often frustrated) relationship between socio-economic necessities and the use of more land.

I am often commenting on how other, larger cities and countries, but also cities the size of Malta, have managed to protect green spaces for their communities, even when they seem to be developing over and above their restricted size and dense populations.

I do believe that Malta seriously needs to have an open debate in terms of what are our priorities

Only a weekend ago I was enjoying my favourite spots in New York’s Central Park as many other locals and tourists were doing. Like Central Park, there are far many other and much larger areas which are strictly managed and protected by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, ranging from small leafy patches in a square to full-scale parks and beaches.

Beyond their appearance, most of these parks and beaches are not natural, but have been built and managed by city leaders who had the vision of providing areas for the city’s (mostly middle and working class) inhabitants to have their escape from the big metropolis, as they could not afford a weekender in nearby counties.

However, as I mention these examples, the objection I get — which I think is somehow justified — is that my comparison does not stand as Malta is an island in the Mediterranean and not New York, Melbourne or London.

While I accept such objections, it is also true that Malta is more than just a small exotic archipelago of touristy islands in the Mediterranean. Unlike Majorca or Ibiza, or any of the smaller or indeed far larger Greek islands in the Adriatic and Aegean, Malta’s history and choices are that of an independent republic.

Compared to other far larger and more powerful nations aspiring for their own autonomous governance, Malta should count itself lucky in achieving the status of an independent nation. In the context of the EU, notwithstanding its size, Malta is not a region, like the Scottish, the Sicilian, or Basque nations. With a population of under half a million, Malta sends six MEPs to the EP, as much as Scotland sends with a population of just under six million.

James’s comment was qualified by the following: “[this] explains the very intensive post-independence wave of development. Now we have to choose whether to go sustainable and invest on the basics like mass transit transport system etc... while investing on our greatest capital; human resources or go in a wild spiral of unsustainable growth.”

Indeed James sums up a central dilemma. I would add that what I have always found outrageous and frustrating in Malta’s imbalance between development and the preservation of its countryside, is the lack of transparency from successive governments, which never seem to be honest about their intentions and strategy for the future. This is an issue that is not entirely environmental. Or rather, environmental issues are not restricted to protecting valleys, countryside or species, but are intrinsically linked to an economic and social vision.

We all know well that our choice to be a fully independent nation came with a price tag which the Maltese have always faced with grit and courage. We know that from the time Malta took its own self-governing powers, and especially since Independence, no Maltese PM has ever been spared from the challenge of how to balance the economy with the environment, though some seemed to be more conscious of this issue than others.

While I could never think of having any definitive word for this complex situation, I do believe that Malta seriously needs to have an open debate in terms of what are our priorities. The feeling that Malta is heading to the Singapore or Dubai phase may sound exaggerated to some, but is not unfounded, especially if one looks at certain areas which have become uncannily similar to neighborhoods found in such metropoles.

However, the issue here is beyond that kind of comparison (and here I agree with those uncomfortable with geographic comparisons). The issue has to do with Malta as an independent republic with its financial and economic ambitions, as balanced with its population, whose sense of belonging and identity, customs and what not, seem to clash with such a vision — while at the same time, most of Malta’s population is quite happy with a robust economy and a healthy state of employment and the benefits of a welfare state which even far larger economies don't seem to afford.

This leaves us with many questions, which may well be familiar to those who are in the know of the subject, but over which we are not exactly hearing any serious debates or discussion between our MPs.

Could Malta still enjoy its robust economic trajectories without further development? Could we at least have a sense of how this development is conforming, if not sustaining, this socio-economic trajectory? And why should the environment only be centre-stage at points of crises and disagreement, rather than as an upfront concern that belongs to us all? 

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