I know! Let’s throw a bone to the environmentalists

‘Open spaces’ is the latest buzzword in the greenwash policy

There is one thing worse than being completely ignored by politicians, and that is when they simply insult your intelligence by pretending that they have done something which boils down to a big fat nothing.

A recent announcement by Environment Minister José Herrera got people all excited because they saw the phrase “eliminate single use plastic”. Finally, many thought, a step in the right direction! On closer reading however, the double-speak soon began to emerge. This was a document outlining measures which were being proposed for a strategy for 2020.

The Minister was speaking at the launch of the public consultation exercise. The words which pop out at you when you take the time to go through the article soon make it clear that the press conference was giving the illusion that something was being done, when in reality, after you sift through the political blustering, what you are left with is a lot of wishful thinking and vague promises.

“The strategy includes 23 measures that are being proposed and which will be introduced over the next five years,” we are told and what follows are all very commendable proposals. The question is, why do they even need to be discussed rather than just be implemented through a decisive decision taken by the authorities? Just to take one example: “The use of balloons and plastic confetti will be prohibited at public events by 2020”. Why wait till next year when this can be done now?

Another proposal states: “All coastal areas, camping sites, picnic areas and touristic areas will have to be equipped with bins for the separate collection of waste by 2020”. Again, why wait? Get moving and do it, just like domestic households have been obliged to separate waste. Come to think of it, why aren’t schools, sports clubs, and all sorts of either entities still not obliged to do their bit when it comes to waste separation? It should be mandatory across the board or not at all.

Those who defend the government at every turn because that is their only scope in life, often claim that it cannot simply just take unilateral decisions like this. I find this funny considering it has taken all sorts of unilateral decisions on so many other areas of our lives, rushing through legislation so swiftly it’s enough to give you whiplash as you attempt to follow its quicker than the speed of light progress.

In the meantime, I’ve noticed that these types of press conferences, where what looks like pro-environment news is announced with a flourish just to grab the headlines and guarantee that the public will share the article, are becoming quite common. Whittled down to its essence, however, the news often ends up being just another example of ‘greenwashing’, to make us think that our concerns are being listened to, when in fact it’s just an attempt to mildly appease those who care about the planet. It’s like throwing a bone to the environmentalists to keep them happy and (hopefully) shut up.

The sudden attention being paid to the environment by politicians is no coincidence. Of course, I’m sure the fact that we are in the middle of an election has absolutely nothing to do with this sudden passion for embracing green policies.

With more people making their angry voices heard as the quiet in their neighbourhoods is shattered by excavation machinery, and the houses in their street are turned into heaps of rubble while their lungs are choked by thick clouds of construction dust, those in power have belatedly woken up to the fact that the environment is a major issue. Muscat seems to have finally realised that human beings don’t just want money in their pockets to live a happy life but need ‘open spaces’ during their leisure time.

As reported by Malta Today, “On the environment, Muscat said that the main drive would be towards increased cleanliness, conservation and an appreciation of the natural heritage and open spaces in each locality”. Too bad that he did not consult with his Infrastructure Minister, Mr Ian “I hate trees” Borg before he started busily bulldozing his way through the island, taking agricultural land for more car lanes and chopping down anything which is remotely green.

‘Open spaces’ is the latest buzzword in the greenwash policy. “This government knows that people want more open spaces so we are providing the solutions,” Muscat said. But open spaces are not the artificially created parks such as the one Muscat is proposing at Ta’ Qali, reminiscent of the man-made recreational areas found in the parched deserts of Dubai.

There is so much contradiction between what is said and what the reality is that it beggars belief. 80,000 trees are going to be planted at the new space in Ta’ Qali, but meanwhile, as life passes you by while you are waiting for them to grow, development permits are lurking for existing gardens which already have mature trees.

This week we learned that Villa Gollcher in Mosta, which has 13,000sq.m of mature citrus trees, is being earmarked for, wait for it, a car park. As pointed out by Carmel Cacopardo from Alternattiva Demokratika: “Many large gardens worthy of protection in our old urban areas are at risk of being sacrificed on the development chopping board. This will only be possible with the complicity of the Planning Authority and it is our duty to ensure that the Planning Authority is kept on its toes in order that this is avoided. It should be focused on carrying out its duties in ensuring that land use planning is a service from which the whole community stands to gain.”

The thing is we do not need to create open spaces, we just need to leave well enough alone, preserve what is left and ensure that every town and village has a garden no matter how small, with trees and grass and shrubbery – and not slabs of concrete, uncomfortable garden furniture and a few anorexic saplings. I am informed that the newly-refurbished Gnien Mintoff, for example, was filled with mature trees which were removed, which is something I cannot understand. Surely the place could have been upgraded and given a facelift while protecting the trees which were already there rather than just pouring more concrete everywhere?

The open spaces which Muscat is envisioning are the opposite of what is really meant by that term. They are not these humongous places where families congregate (after having to drive) en masse. They should be little oasis of greenery which dot everywhere you look, where you can go with your children on foot and let them play in safety. They do not have to be perfect, antiseptic displays of symmetry, they just need to be natural. Those gardens which are part of a property which is privately-owned and are in danger of being demolished should be purchased by the authorities who can administer them and turn them into public gardens. We hear so much about the famous surplus and projects carried out through EU funding, so I am sure the money can be found for something as important as our natural heritage.

The government’s role is to step in to protect and preserve existing gardens and not wield an axe and go on a rampage as soon as it spots a clump of trees. Everything is being sacrificed at the altar of the Holy Car – either to make wider lanes for cars, or to provide more parking space for cars. An administration which is truly pro-environment would know all this rather than try to fob us off with rhetoric which simply sounds hypocritical.

Because how can you eradicate that which is natural on the one hand and then try and “sell” us the idea that you have the environment at heart by telling us, look, you see, I am creating an ‘open space’ for you?

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