Ecology and the economy

January 28, 2016

times of malta

Thursday, 28th January  2016.

Ecology and the economy

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The general convention Idea Ambjent organised by the Nationalist Party was the first ever convention on the environment convened by one of the main parties, a subject which many politicians across the board, and many commercial communities usually shun, avoid, and distance themselves from. It was a courageous positive initial step.

This convention offered an opportunity for all those who wanted to speak their minds, irrespective of their political or religious leaning, or academic level, whilst politicians sat, listened and ruminated.

A substantial number of stakeholders participated. There were young environmentalists in the making, and also seasoned ones; students, and representatives from the various layers of society, including various NGOs. Some seem to have shied away and stayed at home thus not benefiting from the opportunity to publicly declare their environmental aims and worries. Others took a wall-flower stand, though admittedly there was not enough time to enable everyone to make a point.

In-depth, specific, general, critical, academic, popular, educational, social, trade unionist suggestions and comments were aired without any hesitation or embarrassment. All inputs showed conviction, belief, yearning and commitment for a better environmental future in a professional way. The voices were strong, convinced, following an ever increasing public awareness, a yearning for better appreciation and environmental protection, and need for more responsibility and good governance in such an important unique life-dependency matter.

Different approaches, different styles, different aspects all expressed the will, the determination, the concern for our environment – in the widest sense possible. Stakeholders expressed fears of the negative impacts on the well-being of the local population, unless measures to restrain the abuses, the mismanagement, the destruction, the up-for-sale and grab-and-go mentality are not curbed. All were of the same opinion towards the common good… except for one.

“Different approaches, different styles, different aspects all expressed the will, the determination, the concern for our environment”

Speaking with a blinkered pro-business salesman vision, a lonely voice tried to convince participants that environment and development can never see eye to eye. To the extent that this was compared to the disagreement between husbands and wives! I had to pinch myself hard, very hard to convince myself that I was not dreaming, even more so when I heard that the shambles the environment is in, is all the fault of environmentalists, because developers never exploit virgin land! A confounded expression of failure with every spoken word.

Such a burst of a pro-business vision, made me drift, as I am sure many did, to the most recent issues at Zonqor Point and at Munxar area, where two hotels, camouflaged in bay-laurel leaves, are being planned… on public virgin land.

This was the only not pro-environment intervention during the general convention, a very feeble effort not to rock the boat too much as it manoeuvred through Scylla and Charybdis, while trying to convince the audience that a circle is square. It is the same blinded pro-business vision that has had some success in luring a few politicians towards the hand of the golden calf, while throwing overboard any social and environmental considerations.

But fortunately enough, this same blinded pro-business vision is also the catalyst, the driving force behind a fast gathering momentum of public awareness, which is getting stronger, eager, more vociferous, more intent to express in no uncertain terms the need to stop the environmental haemorrhage which is leading to social death.

Pope Francis’ teachings, in his letter Laudato Si’, which I consider as the constitution for humanity (irrespective of any religious belief), refers to economic activity as a noble vocation. Economic activity can contribute to society and to the protection of the indispensable life-bearing environment. When such activity is sustainable, economy and ecology walk hand in hand. It is only when such economic activity is not sustainable that it does not see eye to eye with social and ecological interests.

lever_balance.jpg (423×338)

The dynamic balance between the biological and physical environment of our ecosystem

Unsustainable development leads to the profitable greed of the few at the expense of the many: society and the environment. Thus unsustainable development can never be accepted by the many who unwillingly have to pay through their noses the exorbitant hidden costs. And unsustainable development is not only detrimental to society and the environment, but also to development itself. Scientific data on climate change is just one example which every sceptical entrepreneur cannot deny.

What will be the next steps following such a general convention where, the strong determination and will yearning for a better future, better well-being (not just financial), better assurance for the protection of our environmental home, and more responsibility and good governance were on everyone’s lips?

How will the commercial , the religious, the trade unionistic, the media, the legal, and above all the political entities respond to such a strong call to deliver?  The message addressed to all these social entities, who all have been given the responsibility to achieve such aims, is very loud and clear.

Social and environmental good governance is eagerly awaited, before it is too late. It will then not be at all possible to control and reverse damages done especially in this country which has possibly already surpassed its carrying capacity.

“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”  (Theodore Roosevelt).

aebaldachino@gmail.com

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Blinded by a pro-business vision | Part 2 (continued)

June 22, 2015

Blinded by a pro-business vision | Part 2

malta-today

Sunday, 21 June 2015

interviewed by Raphael Vassallo

continued from Part Ihttp://wp.me/pL6Mk-SO

One indication was the simple fact that MEPA went ahead and chose Zonqor Point without any basic studies or impact assessment exercises.

“The impact on society there, which has not been taken into consideration, is enormous. This area is the only open space, the lung, of this part of the island. Yet according to the electoral manifesto, ‘open spaces would be increased for the benefit of the people, from an environment and well-being point of view’.

“Great. Agreed. Now, if such an area already exists… why go against this direction, and propose development which will negatively impact society? The loss of that area will have social repercussions from a recreational and educational perspective, as well as from the point of view of science and ecology. Even commercially… because we also have to consider that the environment also has its commercial value. Development is not the only commercial activity…”

Another area where the government has departed from its pre-electoral pledges directly concerns the environment.

“We were told that ‘the environment would be given its full importance, and separated from MEPA so that it can function better in the interests of the people’. Agreed. In fact, I said I agreed with this before. But how is it being implemented? The environmental director is currently in limbo… no longer under the responsibility of the minister for the environment: he has no say whatsoever. He falls under the responsibility of the Prime Minister. And not only is the directorate rudderless, its officials not knowing whom they’re answerable to – they don’t have a director – but the latest blow to the environment is that when MEPA presented an official report to the government, it was a report without any input from the EPD…”

The EPD’s role would normally be to assess projects from both an ecological and also an infrastructural point of view. Baldacchino stresses that a serious decision on a project like this could not have been taken without this information.

“The construction of a university campus for 4,000 students will have a serious impact on the infrastructure, both in the vicinity and beyond. The traffic problem, for instance. How will this development impact the well-being of the people in the area, and also the rest of the island? These have not been taken into consideration at all.

“Not only that, but the CEO of MEPA, when talking at the committee meeting, made it very clear that the environment directorate has been completely ignored. How can such a report be considered professional and holistic, how can it contribute to the well-being of the country from a social, environmental and even political perspective, when the only unit to have any expertise in this matter is completely by-passed… when its data is completely excluded from the report? Instead, the report was entrusted to somebody ‘anonymous’… because MEPA refused to name the officials who drafted it. Then we all pretend that this is a serious, professional document for the government to decide upon in the interests of the country…”

This naturally raises the suspicion that the decision to propose Zonqor Point was taken first, then all the necessary adjustments were made to the government’s environment planning policies to make it happen…

Baldacchino shrugs with a wry smile. “This report is… I’ll say it in Maltese… ‘igib il-bocca hdejn il-likk’. I don’t know the equivalent in English…”

Neither do I. But it’s a pleasing analogy for (roughly) ‘setting oneself up favourably for the next throw’ in bowls…

“And this, too, runs counter to the spirit of the Labour Party manifesto before the election,” he continues. “That manifesto explained that the ‘government would be dedicated to the protection of the environment: not because of the obligations arising from our membership in the EU; but because it is in the interest of the people… of this generation, and future generations’. How do we achieve this? By preventing the competent directorate from contributing its data – not its opinions; its data – to the final decision? I cannot understand this. I just can’t… unless, of course, the electoral manifesto has not been accepted and taken on board by the movement in government…”

Meanwhile there are other indications that official policy documents may be facilitating certain individual projects. It has been noted, for instance, that the newly revised ‘Strategic Plan for Environment and Development’ has been imbued with ministerial discretion to allow certain deviations from planning regulations “for projects of national importance”. Moreover, the document was launched at a time when the Planning Act of 2006 is no longer in force… and the replacement document doesn’t go into the same level of detail regarding implementation and enforcement… does Baldacchino share these concerns about SPED?

“In brief, I would describe ‘SPED’ as a policy document to ‘speed up’ development at the expense of society and the environment. I’m a little blunt, but that’s how I see it…”

He adds that it had already sped up the level of environmental degradation. “Although, during the previous administration, the environment wasn’t something nice and rosy, today it is far worse. Because all the legislative instruments that were there are being dismantled. The directorate exists only on paper: perhaps to honour some obligation that we have to have a directorate in the EU.

“If there were genuine interest, MEPA would have remained under the ministry for the environment, and when all the amendments had been done for the demerger to take place, the planning directorate would have moved away from the ministry. But no, it was done the other way round, to accommodate development, and stifle environmental matters.”

It is this general policy direction, Baldacchino adds, that has led to this [yesterday’s] demonstration. “This will be attended by genuine socialists, genuine Labourites, genuine Nationalists, genuine AD supporters… the genuine man in the street who puts the interest of the country before the interest of any political entity.”

At the time of our interview, the protest is still some days ahead. But already there are indications that the issue itself has (somewhat predictably) taken on a decidedly partisan hue. It remains to be seen whether the turnout will match Baldacchino’s expectations… but there is also something of a counter-protest going on, with at least one petition being circulated in favour of the project in the South of Malta.

Isn’t there a danger, then, that this issue will slip out of the grasp of all those ‘genuine campaigners’, and become just another pull on the ropes in a political tug-of-war?

“One has to keep one’s feet on the ground, and accept the fact that a percentage of the electorate on each side of the political giants – I would say around 35-40% – are the type who would be shown a circle, and told it is a square… and they applaud the speaker for telling them that. It’s a ‘square circle’ mentality. And the fact that there is a petition going around applies to this mentality. The same thing happened in the Spring hunting referendum. For me, this is just a declaration of political failure by a government that says it listens, but then doesn’t hear. If there is a genuine interest in good governance, the electorate has to be part of the decision. Otherwise, one can only conclude the decision has been forced onto the electorate…”

And yet his own example sounds ominous. The Spring hunting referendum went on to be won by the hunters, in no small part thanks to the involvement of party politics…

“Yes, but the political intelligentsia of this island, whatever colour flag they wave, will get the message from that referendum. If they really are intelligent, that is. It was a very strong message. Despite the political intervention to achieve a ‘yes’ result, the intelligent electorate did not heed both parties’ stand on the issue. 49% voted against party lines. So for the politicians, the result is worse than it would have been had people been left to vote without political influence. I would assume the politicians will realise that the floating voters – the ones who realise that a circle is round – can think and act for themselves.”

At the same time, those defending the project (politically-motivated or not) also argue that the ‘South’ of the country has traditionally been neglected and abused over the years; and that projects such as this represent a turn-around in the area’s economic fortunes. The project itself is being touted as an example of ‘sustainable development’. Does he agree with the ‘sustainable’ part… and, short of this type of large-scale investment project: what would an environmentalist propose for the economic regeneration of the South?

“Thank you for bringing up the word ‘sustainable development’. That’s a buzz-word today. Before ‘the environment’ was a buzz-word. Now it’s ‘sustainability’… which is used by some politicians in a way that doesn’t make any sense, and only shows that they don’t understand the meaning of the word. ‘Sustainable’ means that the activity undertaken ‘will not be detrimental to future generations, in their use of the same resources in the same way as they are being used today’. But no politician would intend to define what he means by ‘sustainable’…”

All the same, by opposing individual projects such as the proposed Zonqor development, the environmentalist movement in general often opens itself to the charge that it doesn’t see sustainability in any form of development whatsoever. Is there such a thing as development which is ‘sustainable’, according to Baldacchino’s definition?

“I am not against commercial activity in any area, even in the area under discussion. But one has to take into consideration whether the commercial returns in the short-term will outweigh the negative social and environmental impacts in the long run. The hidden costs, the externalities of the whole project… these will have to be borne by future generations. For example, I was quite surprised to hear the MEPA representative at last Monday’s meeting declare that this project will generate jobs for the people of that area… as, for example, cleaners.”

He gasps in mock surprise. “When you think that in the past, the Labour Party had tried to eliminate dependency on foreigners, because we had become a country of ‘cleaners’ for foreign interests… are we going to revert back to offering jobs as cleaners to foreign projects? It was quite surprising to me. This project was supposed to kick-start economic activity in the south. How? By providing cleaning jobs to people in the area?”

At the same time, however, we must also concede that cleaners do exist: and some of them might actually appreciate the chance of extra work…

“OK, fine. But how are we going to raise the living standard? Again, this is part of the commercial argument, and why you can’t exclude the social aspect from it. What is the government doing to raise the cultural standard and improve quality of life in the area? It’s offering menial jobs that, today, most people don’t want to do… And who said there’s no other type of commercial activity that can take place in an area which has so much historical and ecological value? You could have genuinely sustainable, eco-friendly activity, generating jobs without ruining the area… educational activities, for example. One natural asset we have, and which is being completely ignored, is the geographical position of the island which can attract tourists on the basis of the historical attractions we have. But this is not accepted, because it doesn’t give as immediate, high returns as development…”

He argues that this, too, forms part of the reason for yesterday’s protest.  “People are disappointed with the way their environment is being ignored, for a blinded pro-business vision. It’s good to have a pro-business vision, don’t get me wrong. But not a blinded one. Not at the expense of society and the environment…”

aebaldacchino@gmail.com


Blinded by a pro-business vision – Alfred Baldacchino

June 21, 2015
 malta-todaySunday, 21 June 2015

Environment policy has been sacrificed in the name of short-sighted greed. Alfred E. Baldacchino, a former assistant director at the Environment Protection Directorate, outlines how this was achieved

interviewed by Raphael Vassallo
 

Evidence for this was provided by none other than the CEO of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) at a parliamentary committee meeting last Monday: when he candidly admitted that the report authorising the selection of Zonqor Point for this project did not include any input from the environment Protection Directorate (EPD).

Alfred E. Baldacchino was present for that meeting, as he has been present for practically every environmental challenge to face Malta in recent years. I meet the former EPD assistant director at his Attard residence, and find him still re-living the arguments of Monday’s animated meeting.

Before turning to his complaints about the site-selection process, let’s talk a little about the site itself. Zonqor Point. Protestors were indignant to hear the place referred to by defenders of the project as a ‘wasteland’ and ‘dumpsite’. What is the significance of this area for people like Baldacchino?

alfred_baldacchino

Alfred E. Baldacchino (Photo: Ray Attard)

“My comments on the use – or rather, abuse – of this area are mainly based on the negative social and environmental aspects of this project. Because you cannot focus only on the social or environmental aspects; they go hand in hand. One might also add commercial aspects… but not on their own. Unfortunately, however, during last Monday’s discussion the project was being looked at just from a commercial point of view. And this is an official view of the project, by the competent authority: MEPA, which is still the authority responsible for the environment. And although the commercial returns, on their own, may be good, one cannot just ignore the social and environmental aspects. Because obviously, such a project will have externalities: hidden costs which eventually society and the environment will have to pay. Both socially, and ecologically…

This “greed”, he adds, has completely eliminated all social and environmental considerations from a decision which was taken almost as an obsession to develop this area.

“I like to base my arguments on the electoral manifesto of ‘the movement’. I won’t call it a ‘party’, because in my opinion, presently, it would be an insult to the Labour Party and to the concept of socialism. This is not a socialist party. It is a movement… in fact, the government never refers to itself as socialist. To use an environmentalist analogy: this is a socialist party genetically modified into a far right, capitalist movement. This is shown by the various decisions being taken, and also by the help it gets from official entities which are supposed to be qualified and responsible for the management of social and environmental matters…”

continued in part 2 on: http://wp.me/pL6Mk-T1

or

Read the full interview in MaltaToday

2015.06.21---zonqor-point

Żonqor Point which spurred civil society to make an environmental and social point in the national interest.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

A way paved with good intentions

January 4, 2010

Monday, 16th November 2009

A way paved with good intentions

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Early next month (December 7-18), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meets in Copenhagen.

Climate change was mainly brought about by man’s way of living, where economic importance by far superseded social and environmental considerations. The prevailing global mentality is that there cannot be prosperity without growth, ignoring the relationship between growth and the growing environmental crisis and social poverty.

While global economy doubled during the last 25 years, 60 per cent of the world’s ecosystems have been degraded because of increased resource consumption. The uneven distribution of the benefits of such growth shows that a fifth of the world’s population shares just two per cent of global income.

Sustainable economy can lead to prosperity without growth, if one redefines prosperity and what this contributes to people’s well being. The root of all evil, the denominator to modern life, is money, which has replaced all other principles and concepts for the responsible sharing of the planet that sustains life. The concept of modern economics is the highest financial return in the shortest possible time, a question of numbers and metrics.

Man has now, rather belatedly, realised that he has come to the crossroads of his existence on this planet. The mishandling and depletion of resources and the subsequent natural phenomena will sooner rather than later lead to scarcity of free commodities, which man has always taken for granted, such as air and water. A very high price will have to be paid for their availability. But what about other living species (in the ecosystem) that are dependent on such resources? How will these and the poorest of societies pay?

The Copenhagen meeting is being seen either as an extension to the Kyoto Protocol, which the US and Australia initially refused to ratify, or as a new protocol calling for deep cuts of emissions. The US is still unwilling to stake out a position, while developing nations maintain that talks are pointless. India and China are major developing nations whose national emissions are skyrocketing.

The 192 countries expected to be present for this meeting will all speak from platforms that most suit their agenda. Already, about 50 African countries have boycotted a preparatory meeting in Barcelona in November, claiming that the industrialised countries had set carbon cutting targets too low for reducing global green house gas emission. Africa is already the worst sufferer from drought, agricultural damage, rising sea level threatening coastal areas and the spread of tropical pests and diseases. The increase in extreme weather conditions, the number of epidemic diseases and humanitarian disasters are inevitable. The scarcity of resources will fuel more conflicts. It is becoming obvious that the world’s poorest nations are faced with a Hobson’s choice: No climate deal or a bad climate deal.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that by 2080 up to 3.2 billion people – one third of the planet’s population – will be short of water, up to 600 million will be short of food and up to seven million will face coastal flooding.

The UN Secretary General admitted that the Copenhagen pact could more likely be an agreement on principles rather than specific targets agreement for cuts. This is mainly due to a lack of political will. Some environment ministers are pessimistic because each country will remain stubborn and various parties will not compromise. Those in advanced countries are not willing to accept the necessary rethinking, restructuring, and changes in lifestyle.

One reason being projected at such international meetings is that measures needed are necessary to save the planet. But since when planet earth depended on one of the species in its ecosystem to save it? Planet earth has seen similar and worse scenarios. The present natural phenomena, which we are being subjected to, are just hiccups for planet earth till it adjusts the ecological web, which man has torn apart through greed and egotism. These are just eye-openers for the selfdeclared most intelligent species, who generally is still very sceptical of the fact that homo sapiens is part of such an ecosystem. The main aim of such international meetings should be to save homo sapiens and not to harness or save planet earth, which without fear or favour will take the necessary corrective measures.

Even the world’s main faith representatives (including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism) met in Windsor Castle, England, to give their religious input in the fight against climate change. Under the banner of Faith Commitment For A Living Planet, this Alliance of Religions and Conservation aims at unveiling programmes that could motivate the largest civil society movement the world has ever seen. “It’s much more about the moral idea of ‘Nature is God’s Nature, so we have to be kind to it’.” That is, if today’s monetary culture leaves any room for morality.

In Copenhagen, there will be three platforms to choose from: Economical, social and ecological and it is expected that the economical one will be quite overcrowded. Such meeting must focus on opening the door to common good and closing the door to common disaster for man. Indeed, the path to Copenhagen is paved with good intentions. But, as I write, my subconscious keeps reminding me that so is the way to hell.

aebaldachino@gmail.com

Article © Allied Newspapers Ltd., printed on Monday, November 16, 2009.