Even cavemen understood ‘sustainability’ better than us

So the irony, I suppose, is twofold: on one hand… well, we don’t exactly have an awful lot to show for all this new-found ‘awareness’ of our, do we? 

There is something disquietingly ironic about that new (and increasingly irritating) political buzzword, ‘sustainability’.

In the last two weeks alone, I have heard it applied to anything from tourism, to agriculture and fisheries, to the construction industry, to economic growth, to energy policy… and – given that the Spring season has just been given the go-ahead, as usual – also to hunting and trapping (more of which in a sec).

But before asking ourselves just how ‘sustainable’ any of those things really are… just consider, for a moment, how deeply that word has penetrated our collective psyche.

There is even a ‘Malta Sustainability Forum’ going on at the moment – spearheaded by the President of the Republic, no less – which aims to “raise awareness on the topic of sustainability with the aim to empower citizens in making conscious decisions towards a more sustainable life.”

So the irony, I suppose, is twofold: on one hand… well, we don’t exactly have an awful lot to show for all this new-found ‘awareness’ of our, do we? This week, for instance, I interviewed a local tourism consultant, who pointed out that: “we’ve been talking about sustainability, in tourism, for more than 50 years. What has been achieved, in practice, in all this time? Very little...”

Much the same could be said for all those other areas to which the word is so liberally applied…  but never actually acted upon. How ‘sustainable’ is it to constantly expand the existing road networks (and issue more permits for petrol stations, etc.)… at a time when we’re actually supposed to be doing the opposite: by phasing out the internal combustion engine altogether?

And where’s all the forethought and planning, when it comes to liberally dishing out ever more development permits – for ever-larger, ever-greedier development projects – in a country where land is already scarce enough as it is; and when the Environment (and Sustainability) Minister himself admits that: “it is important that these processes are done in an environmentally responsible way, towards a more sustainable building and construction industry”?

So it seems that, the more conscious we become of the need for sustainability… the less sustainable our practices turn out to be. And the results, I am sorry to say, are now visible almost everywhere you look.

But the second irony is slightly more perplexing.  Listening to politicians bandying that word about today – with all the excitement of a toddler, suddenly discovering the faculty of speech for the first time – anyone would think that ‘sustainability’ was itself some kind of new-fangled, recently discovered innovation.

It is as though the idea of simply ‘planning ahead for the future’ – because that, when all is said and done, is all this magical buzz-word really boils down to – was too ground-breaking a concept to have ever occurred to humanity, at any point in history, before the present…

And yet, the very opposite is true. Some of the oldest evidence we even have, for anything that can be described as ‘human culture and intellectual development’, revolves precisely around the same the concept of sustainability…. and it also seems they understood that word a lot better than we do today.

Early Palaeolithic cave paintings, for instance – drawn by humans as long ago as 30,000BC – reveal a fundamentally dualistic approach towards nature: many depict animals in the process of being hunted (some, such as the Trois Freres murals in France, with arrows and spears still protruding from their bodies)… but many others focus on the feminine animal form: often with exaggerated sexual features, and – like the ‘Mother Sow’ image, still visible on a monolith at Tarxien Temples; or, for that matter, the typical ‘Fat Lady’ effigies from the same period – suckling their young.

And from these (admittedly sketchy) glimpses, anthropologists have theorised that humanity’s earliest experiments with religion must have been channelled into two, mutually interwoven superstitions: one, a belief that ritualistic practices (in this case, depicting the desired outcome on a cave-wall) could somehow guarantee the success of the hunt itself; and two, the emergence of a fertility cult, to encourage reproduction and proliferation of the animals they actually hunted…

As the Larousse Encylopaedia of Mythology puts it: ‘Since hunting of necessity required the existence of game it is natural [allow me to repeat that for emphasis: NATURAL] that Paleolithic man, in order that game should be plentiful, also practiced fertility magic…’

And as the same source goes on to imply: this dualistic vision – torn, as it is, between the Creative and Destructive forces of nature – went on to underpin almost all the subsequent religions and belief systems humanity has ever come up with since.

It is the blueprint for Gods and Monsters; Heaven and Hell; the eternal struggle between Good and Evil… in a nutshell, the basic building blocks of every civilization that has ever existed: including our own.

And yet… well, just look at us today, all these millennia later. Just compare our own approach to what is, ultimately, the same old issue – ‘hunting’ – and tell me how much more ‘sustainable’ one is than the other.

As I mentioned earlier, the Ornis Committee – acting on the recommendation of the Wild Birds Regulatory Unit (which statutorily exists “to oversee and drive the implementation of Government policy in relation to SUSTAINABLE [my emphasis] hunting) – has just recommended the opening of the spring hunting season for 2021.

Let us, for a moment, ignore the specific context in which this decision was taken – i.e., during the COVID-19 pandemic: when all 20 or so of Administrative Enforcement Officers have been diverted to cope with the crisis… and also after the fiasco that was last year’s spring hunting season: which, for the same reason, resulted in the worst massacres of birdlife witnessed in recent years.

Even without those extenuating circumstances, the decision to allow any hunting to take place at all, during the breeding season, is itself a dictionary-definition of the word ‘unsustainable’: for reasons even a Palaeolithic caveman would have instinctively understood (and even explained to us directly, through the cave art he left behind).

Like other examples of unsustainable practices, it only depletes the natural replenishment of a supply that is needed for the future continuation of the activity concerned. And in this particular case, the effects of this depletion can even be quantified: descriptions of Spring migration patterns, observed by Maltese ornithologists in the early 20 the century, dwarf the occasional flocks of such birds as quail and turtle dove we witness today. And in the last 30 years alone, the number of resident breeding species has declined to a mere handful: the Barn Owl, the Kestrel, the Peregrine Falcon, the Jackdaw, the Pallid Swift… all now numbering among the casualties.

There can, I fear, be no two ways about it: our hunting policies are demonstrably unsustainable… and they are also in direct breach of a European Wild Birds Directive that – precisely for reasons of sustainability – prohibits hunting and trapping in Spring.

Yet those same policies have been aggressively defended, not just by the current administration; but by every Maltese government for… as long as I can remember, to be honest. Up until today, it is still Malta’s official position in defence of the Spring hunting ‘derogations’ – if any such things really exist, in practice – in front of the European Court of Justice.

But not only have we consistently defied the European Commission, on the issue of Spring hunting, ever since we joined in 2004… we have also consistently demanded more, and more, and MORE exemptions from the Birds Directive. Even now, the Maltese government is trying to secure a derogation to permit trapping of certain bird-species – once again, during the breeding season – for ‘scientific purposes’.

At every turn, then, our entire national approach to the issue of ‘sustainable hunting’ has been to simply exploit any possible loophole, in order to maximise the amount of hunting and trapping – in one guise, or another – that can actually take place here: regardless of its impact on birdlife itself.

And at no point whatsoever, it seems, has any Maltese government – at any time since around 1981, when the first proper hunting regulations were introduced – ever spared a thought for the possibility that… “hey, you know what? Those European regulations we’re always trying to break… maybe they actually exist for a reason. And who knows? Maybe that reason is also linked to the future survival of hunting itself: you know… the same practice we ourselves claim to be ‘defending’… but which we might actually be hastening towards an early grave…”

Well, that is precisely the sort of realisation that came naturally to people who lived and died around 30 or 40 centuries ago… and who (unlike ourselves today) really did depend on the successful outcome of the hunt, for their own present and future survival.

We, on the other hand, just don’t seem to ever get it all…