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Leaving a better legacy

Resource overdraft means society must work to help future generations

Today marks Earth Overshoot Day, the day when the planet has overshot its ecological budget.

For the last five months of 2018, we will be in a natural resources overdraft.  While we can argue about the precise date, the broad reality is that it now takes the resources of 1.7 earths to satisfy our requirements and to generally sustain our annual mega-consumption patterns.  A second and more difficult truth is that the vast bulk of that overconsumption is First World generated, which, despite many shrill protests, does include Malta. 

I imagine a conversation that will take place with some frequency in years to come where young people with increasing urgency will ask their parents and grandparents, “Did you know?” How do we approach a conversation with our progeny about our culpability in the mess we’ve left for them to clean up, especially as it becomes clear that earlier interventions from our end could have made a difference. As generations before did in the face of disaster, so will the young Maltese turn to their elders to ask: “How did you let this happen?”

This reality can be partially sustained (with untold damage) for a short period of time, but, like any situation in overdraft, the day of reckoning will arrive.

While Malta has yet to experience the full impact of such overshoot, the signs are visible for those not wilfully blinded by the rush for wealth and further consumption.  In recent decades, there has been an increasing awareness that the fragile environment in which we live and the resource base which surrounds it is being dangerously damaged.  That damage is obvious and routinely forms a basis for popular discussion across our islands. Despite being well-documented, the issue is dismissed daily, especially by vested interests and by opportunistic politicians and ‘expert’ commentators.  The results of that damage will be inflicted on our children and grandchildren. 

The most significant aspect of this is that so much of the damage is unnecessary and could be significantly mitigated if circumstances and the public practised and demanded change.  Individual and community action is vital but insufficient; economic, political and systemic change is unavoidable and must be enacted with some urgency. 

Limitations of space prevent a detailed outline of the evidence and arguments around overshoot day and its consequences. But perhaps the most sobering reality is that the most recent data available indicates that Malta’s current ‘development’ model overshoots its biological capacity by a factor of six times plus! This can only be sustained in two ways: international trade (using other’s capacity) or through depleting or degrading Malta’s own resource base – something that has been obvious to all of us for some time now.  This reality makes Malta extremely vulnerable.

Making the right decisions builds awareness, momentum and possibility

Having fended off the normal responses to these concerns – accusations of idealism and jealousy abound – we tend to end up at an ideological impasse; those who are in agreement but lack the motivation for change. When I encounter this reasoning, I get the impression that it is designed to absolve the commentator from responsibility and to argue that it is simply someone else’s problem.  One of my favourite recent examples is that of a shop owner in Valletta who routinely complains of the council’s failure to provide his family with parking spaces for their five cars!

Articles such as this now routinely list the top 20 things you can do to ‘save the planet’, turn off the tap, the light switch, the electricity socket etc.  These are examples of the hundreds of small decisions we make daily.  It is popular to scoff at those who suggest them, but the key challenge is to pose the question; ‘why not?’  Your tiny daily decisions are replicated millions and millions of times over and making the right decisions builds awareness, momentum and possibility, challenging a fatalist mentality. This alone, however is not enough.

In my attempts to find some  sort of broader solution, threeavenues arise:

Stop and think.  Most of our bad habits are just that – learned, habitual, behaviour. Just as we have learned, we can unlearn and re-learn it. 

We often waste resources simply because we can, never having reflected on our deeply ingrained habits.  Re-thinking behaviour is a key first step to making a real and sustained difference in the world.

Don’t waste.  Our economy and society are built around waste, every day we waste countless tons of food, water, energy, paper etc. We also waste opportunities to change, for example through the three Rs (reduce, re-use, recycle) or in refusing single use plastics. These small but important choices may lead to bigger ones – using sustainably managed timber sources, opting to buy from companies who take their environmental responsibilities seriously and challenging the local councils on the abuse of  resources. These choices illustrate our commitment to alternative behaviour.

Ask bigger questions. Increasingly, our economy and those who control it give no value to nature. Our economic development model takes nature for granted, if it had to factor in the cost associated with sustaining it, the real cost of our economic miracle would be exposed.  We are told the economy is all that matters and in our complacency, fail to ask vital questions. Questioning the social and environmental cost of development and infrastructure and highlighting what it limits, not just benefits, is key in keeping the competent authorities in check.

We need to be more engaged and more outspoken that our most basic resource, the planet itself, is being depleted irrevocably.

Everyday activism has become a key characteristic and necessary skill in a globalised world. My thoughts on this inevitably collect back to one place. In February of this year my granddaughter, Maud, was born. With a bit of luck, I will be 83 when she reaches 16. When I field her questions, I want to be able look her in the eyes and say, “I knew, and this is what I did to help”. I can only hope that she will be satisfied with my answer.

Colm Regan lives in Gozo and is a human rights educator.

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