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The growth delusion

Malta is bursting at the seams, and yet we cross our fingers and plough on

There are self-evident limits - and downsides - to growth. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

There are self-evident limits - and downsides - to growth. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

‘I wish you wouldn’t squeeze so,’ said the Dormouse, who was sitting next to her. ‘I can hardly breathe.’

‘I can’t help it’, said Alice very meekly: ‘I’m growing.’

‘You’ve no right to grow here said the Dormouse

‘Don’t talk nonsense’ said Alice more boldly: ‘you know you’re growing too.’

‘Yes, but I grow at a reasonable pace,’ said the Dormouse: ‘not in that ridiculous fashion.’

Lewis Carroll’s fairy tale offers an antidote to Malta’s current fairy tale that endless growth is not only possible, but also self-evidently desirable.  The fairy tale insists we can have everything and we can have it now.  There is no downside (except for begrudgers and tree lovers) and we ‘prosper’ with prosperity in the form of a ‘tax rebate’ cheque.  We can all have the lifestyle of our dreams (nightmares?) if only we have faith and truly believe in the god of growth, the narrative goes.

I come from a country (Ireland) where we were offered the same fairy tale – ‘highest growth rates in Europe’, ‘outperforming the performers’, ‘carefully planned’, ‘soft landing guaranteed’, ‘it’s different here’ etc.  ‘Our leaders know what they are doing’, ‘our banks are prudent and strong’, ‘the underlying basis of the economy is sound’, ‘our accountants, lawyers, architects and developers are world class’, ‘this is a new era’ etc.  We now know otherwise and the cost in social terms has been nothing short of horrendous, with an externally imposed programme of vicious austerity where those least able were forced to pay the highest price.  And our children and grandchildren will be paying that price for years to come.  But the fairy tale lives on (‘growth is always and every time good’) and we look set to go at it again. 

The current manic growth in Malta has the country bursting at so many seams, but with fervent faith on the one hand and our fingers crossed on the other, we plough on – all is/will be well.  Really?

Criticism of Malta’s current ‘growth mania’ is not about jealousy or envy of success (an infantile response designed to appeal to primitive nationalism and an insult to all Maltese). Nor is it about which political tribe one supports - both have the same impossible model.  It is about an appreciation of the unique beauty of the islands. The morning and evening light, the breath-taking sea, the landscape’s seasonal palette, the country’s extraordinary history, its architecture and diverse culture.

It is about appreciating how vulnerable much of this is and how it needs care and nurturing, not simply concrete and crassness.   A one-size fits all model of growth (based on the US, Singapore, Monaco etc. or whatever current ‘vision’ is on offer) does not and should not fit Malta.  It urgently needs a model of development that is ‘right sized’ for the place, its limits, capacities and possibilities.  Malta needs to embrace the concept of ‘sufficient’ as against ‘endless’ growth – growth that is nurturing, not plundering.    

Yes, Malta obviously needs growth but, as the Dormouse might say, not ‘ridiculous’ growth. 

There are self-evident limits: physical (the country is only so big); environmental (water, soil quality, pollution, degradation etc.); social (giving free rein to elite economic interests over society undermines social cohesion and fosters anarchy); cultural (promoting Malta’s ‘uniqueness’ while selling swathes of it to the highest bidder reduces culture to a price tag); and ethical (if everything is for sale, nothing has any real value). 

Just as we live on one set of tiny islands and on one small planet, it is madness to imagine we can sustain lifestyles based on the biological capacity of more than seven Maltas or more than four planets, as we currently blindly do.

It’s time to remind ourselves that appropriate levels of growth have a broader purpose – to achieve socially negotiated objectives around quality of life, ones that can be actually sustained. Human prosperity and the well-being of our planet depend on it, not to mention the possibility of the flourishing of life in all its forms. 

‘Make hay while the sun shines’ indeed. When it rains (and it will) we can always blame someone else – Brussels, foreigners and immigrants, environmentalists, the ‘other’ political tribe, whoever is handy…

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