Can we stop all this ‘Balance between Environment and Economy’ bullshit, please?

Where, in a nutshell, can any sign of this so-called ‘balance between environment and economy’ ever be seen: in this, or any other analogous case?

Such an easy thing to say, though, isn’t it? Which might explain why pretty much every single ‘Environment Minister’ we’ve ever had, since 1992 – when the portfolio was first instituted – has always said exactly the same thing… in (almost) exactly the same words, too.

Francis Zammit Dimech, George Pullicino, Leo Brincat, Jose Herrera, Aaron Farrugia, and now Miriam Dalli… all of them have, in one way or another, expressed precisely the same politician ambition, over the past 30 years. [Note: and if I left out the first-ever incumbent – Michael Falzon – it’s only because my memory doesn’t actually stretch back that far, in any real detail.]

“We need to strike a balance between the environment, and the economy!”

Honestly, though: how times have we heard that phrase before? Coming from people who – whether in ministerial capacity, or not – were somehow ‘responsible’ for the environment, while saying it?

Let’s start with Francis Zammit Dimech: who was Environment Minister between 1998 and 2003. Sadly, those years predate the wider proliferation of the Internet in Malta – and I can’t be arsed to go all the way to the National Library in Valletta, in search of original quotes.

So you’ll just have to make do with this excerpt instead, from a Malta Independent report in 2005 (by which time, Zammit Dimech was responsible for Tourism): “The Minister said a balance needed to be found […] between development and the environment. ‘Sustainable tourism concerns the future of humanity,’ he said…”

Now: it just so happens that I worked for the same newspaper at the time (since 1995, to be precise). And I can assure you – if nothing else, because I wrote about it so darn often, back then – that those words fully encapsulate Francis Zammit Dimech’s entire outlook on the environment, throughout his tenure as minister.

But they can also be attributed (often as not, as direct quotes) to every single one of his future replacements, ever since: under both Nationalist AND Labour administrations, please note.

This, for instance, is an excerpt from an interview with today’s Environment Minister - Miriam Dalli - as recently as December 2020:

“I would like us to strike a balance. Even when we speak about development, for example, I would like us to make sure we have a balance between the need to develop, but at the same time create more green spaces where families can go […] We need to make sure we create that kind of balance. We need to continue ensuring economic growth and economic prosperity. At the same time, we need to make sure we enhance […] the environmental aspect...”

Believe it or not, a full 25 years separate the first, from the second quote – which is probably longer than some of my readers have even been alive – and I need hardly add that Malta’s environmental issues have only escalated (sometimes, quite drastically) ever since.

Yet in over quarter of a century, there has been no discernible evolution, of any kind whatsoever, in the general political approach towards the environment (despite multiple changes of government in the meantime).

Regardless which party happens to be in power; or which government MP happens to be chosen for the environmental portfolio [Note: these things ARE supposed to ‘make a difference’, you know]: the strategy has always been the same. ‘Repeat the same old mantra, over and over again… and if that fails: well, just keep repeating it anyway…”

And all along, not a single one of those ‘Environment Ministers’ has ever lifted so much as the littlest of their little fingers, to try and actually STRIKE that elusive equilibrium, once and for all.

For let’s face it, folks: even the fact that Miriam Dalli is still talking about the ‘need for balance’ today – all these years later - only means one thing, really. That her own government (herself included) has manifestly failed to ever achieve that balance, in practice… as has every other Maltese government, since at least 1992.

“We want”; “We need”; “We would like to see”; “There needs to be…”, etc. etc. It all boils down to the same thing, doesn’t it? And coming, as it does, from the very people who are/were supposed to actually DELIVER this goddamn ‘balance between environment and economy’ (instead only ever ‘talking about it’)… what else can it possibly translate into, anyway: other than an outright admission of FAILURE, on their own part?

All the same however: on the plus side, it also means that every single Environmental Minister, since the late 1990s, has at least possessed the personal integrity to publicly admit that: “Hey, guess what? Maybe I’m just a little crap at my job, that’s all…”

But it remains a very, VERY small crumb of consolation… when you also consider that the job of safeguarding ‘the environment against economic exploitation’ falls to more people than just the Environment Minister (or even the government as a whole).

There is – or is supposed to be, anyway – an entire infrastructure of autonomous institutions, and regulatory authorities, that exist for that very purpose. But what do you know? It seems that those entities, too, have grown just as ‘resigned’ to the status quo themselves.

Consider, for instance, how the latest chairman of the Planning Authority replied in Parliament – if ‘replied’ is even the right word to describe it - when asked if he thought Malta was ‘overdeveloped’.

“I have to keep an open mind and treat each application on its own merits. What I can say is that we need more open spaces. There needs to be balance between development, economic growth and the environment…”

Erm… Yes, Mr Emmanuel Camilleri; we know that already, thank you very much (after all, we’ve only had it drummed into us for 30 solid years, you know). But guess what? It happens to be YOUR JOB to implement government’s planning and environmental policies; so the very least you could do, as PA chair – especially, during a parliamentary ’grilling’ which was supposed to assess your own suitability for that post – is tell us HOW you actually intend to implement them, in practice.

This ‘balance’ you talk of, for instance: can it even be struck at all?  Are Malta’s current planning policies ‘helpful’, or ‘unhelpful’, in that regard?

And given that we’ve been hearing this same ‘balance’ bullshit for so very long, now: why are we still talking about it today? What is your own opinion, as to why we evidently never managed to strike any such balance before? (Or, for that matter, why we are still so very far from striking it, today?)

As it happens, those questions – or variations thereof, anyway - were all put to Mr Camilleri directly, in that Parliamentary sitting. And this is how he ‘replied’:

“We need to have a study to determine whether this balance has been achieved…”

Hmm. Ok: at this point, there only two ways I can possibly react to that, as a human being. The first is to sign off immediately, with a long, protracted…

‘AAAAAAAAAAAAARGHHHHH!!!!!!!’ (And believe me: I am sorely tempted…)

The second is to draw Mr Camilleri’s attention to the many, many, MANY studies that have already been conducted; all of which have conclusively proven – time and again – that: no, actually. There is no such thing as a ‘balance between environment and economy’. For you cannot possibly talk about ‘equilibrium’… when the balance is flung so very far in one direction, at the expense of the other.

Examples? Too many to even mention: so I’ll stick with only one, for now. It’s about Comino - and in particular, the Blue Lagoon – and as such, it serves as a text-book example of what tends to happen, whenever ‘environmental’ and ‘economic’ interests collide (in other words: all the time).

In an article this week, Prof Alan Deidun – a marine biologist, and also a former ERA board member – revealed details of a 2017 study into “the carrying capacity of Comino, both in terms of vessels and in terms of visitors on land.”

The same study, we are told, “documented the extensive damage being wrought to the seabed within four different embayments on Comino […] largely through random and haphazard anchoring by a flotilla of vessels on seagrass meadows still colonising the same bays.”

As a result of this, and other environmental concerns – including the potential erosion of the sand that gives the ‘Blue Lagoon’ its name - the study recommended ‘capping’ the maximum volume of visitors to Comino.

That was but one of several other recommendations, in that study (drawn up, it must be said, by experts in the field)… yet Deidun notes that: “Five years down the line, the authorities have still to act on the outcomes and recommendations from the same report.”

Now: who benefits the most, I wonder, from government’s permanent ‘unwillingness’ to ever implement those, and other recommendations? Is it ‘The Environment’; or is it the private interests of (in this case) tourism operators who are active on Comino: including major industry players, who may-or-may-not also be ‘major Labour Party donors’?

Where, in a nutshell, can any sign of this so-called ‘balance between environment and economy’ ever be seen: in this, or any other analogous case?

Oh, well. At least, that last one is a question that – unlike all the others – can actually be answered. Nowhere, of course. Because the entire ‘balance’ mantra has been nothing but bullshit, for all the 30 years we’ve been hearing it….

… and, let’s face it: there’s only so much bullshit you can take, in the end.