Missing the wood for the trees

‘Wider roads = less congestion = less traffic fumes = better air quality’, etc. Yes, but only for the first five or so years. For while the roads are getting wider, the number of cars being driven on them is increasing exponentially from year to year

Josè Herrera has said a lot of odd things in the wake of the Central Link controversy… but I shall have to admit that he did have a point, when he warned of the dangers of ‘false nostalgia’.

“The environment was nicer in the 1950s, because the population was smaller, there were more farmers and there was more countryside.

But did people live better then? From an environmental aspect, yes. But from the economic side, no, because there was poverty,” he said in an article that cropped up recently on my Facebook feed.

As if to illustrate that very point, the link to that article was (coincidentally) sandwiched between two old photographs of Malta: both of Marsamxett harbour, viewed from different angles, taken around 1870 or thereabouts.

The first difference I noticed is that the hill rising above Pieta’ creek – which I believe is now called the Sa Maison ‘Pinetum’ – is completely devoid of trees… and indeed of anything at all, except an infinity of dust.

And while there are no buildings of any kind on what is now the heavily developed promontory of Ta’ Xbiex… the panorama nonetheless looks bleak, stark and forbidding.

The second thing you will surely notice is the presence of a large barge in the middle of the harbour, facing Manoel Island, and topped with a small mountain of what looks like coal… as used to also exist in Marsa, up until just a couple of decades ago.

Looking at those pictures, I tried to imagine what life would actually have been like in Malta in the late 19th century.

That coal mountain probably smelt like the old Marsa power station in its hey-day.

Even a small breeze would whip clouds of black dust - of the kind that recently still plagued Fgura and Paola - which would end up being inhaled by anyone within a radius of a few miles.

Unsurprisingly, life expectancy in Malta back then – especially among infants - was astronomically lower than it is today.

Children as old as 10 were still regularly dying of things like dysentery all the way up to World War 2: so much so, that another ‘nostalgic’ article circulated recently was a 1920s health warning about ‘diarrhoea’ being the lead cause of infant morbidity and mortality.

This is a reflection of both the quality of the air people breathed, and – more particularly – the quality of the water they drank (among other factors, such as hygiene and sanitation levels, malnutrition, etc).

So no: here I have to disagree with the Environment Minister. People did not exactly ‘live better from the environmental aspect’, either in the 1950s or any time before that. This is, in fact, part of the ‘false nostalgia’ myth he correctly identified in other areas… and it is reflected in other, equally misplaced beliefs about our collective past.

For instance, the absurd idea that people living in the Palaeolithic era ate a healthier diet than we do today.

I have even seen ‘Palaeolithic cook-books’ advertised on ‘Healthy Eating’ websites (makes you wonder where you’d actually find fresh mammoth-meat these days…), for all the world as if we should should return to the eating habits of 25-40,000 years ago.

It doesn’t seem to ever occur to anyone that people back then only ate what (if anything at all) they could actually hunt and gather for themselves.

So if the Palaeolithic diet consisted chiefly of certain nuts, roots and berries… it was not because those nuts, roots and berries were particularly more nourishing than others; it was because they happened to grow within hunting, gathering and foraging distance from where those people lived.

And even then, the average lifespan of a Palaeolithic hunter-gather was around 40. Only one out of 10 children would be expected to reach adulthood at all… and by their late thirties, they would be considered ‘old’.

Strange, isn’t it, if they’re the ones who knew the secret of healthy eating, which we (who might easily live for 80 or 90 years) seem to have forgotten…?

But back to those pictures; and sure enough, nearly all the comments beneath were along the lines of: ‘look how beautiful Malta was back then’; ‘how did we manage to ruin it all today?’, etc. etc.

I shudder to think how those same people would react, if they were suddenly whisked back some 150 years, and told: ‘Here’s your beautiful, unspoilt Malta back… try living in it for a few years.’

But that’s an impossibility anyway; and besides… this isn’t really the ‘danger’ of false nostalgia that Jose Herrera prophetically warned us about.

No, the real danger is another: and we all got a glimpse of it last week.

Facing widespread criticism, Transport Malta launched an information campaign to defend the Central Link project: arguing that its effects will actually be beneficial to the environment.

Transport Minister Ian Borg specifically cited ’improvements to air quality’ as a result of ‘less traffic congestion’ on the new road network. But people only seemed to stand up and take notice ofone part: the public reassurance that the most iconic of the Aleppo Pines lining the Rabat Road would be spared.

Already, this seems to have placated many objectors. ‘OK, so they’re not going to touch those trees after all. Mission accomplished: we can all go home now, and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done…’

Erm… sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the environmental impact of this project is not going to be limited to the uprooting of a few trees here and there.  

That, in fact, is what Herrera tried to warn us all about a couple of weeks ago: by investing all our emotional capital only in trees, we have spectacularly lost sight of the what is really objectionable about this project from the environmental angle.

Never mind how many trees will be spared the axe: the problem is the widening of roads.

Let’s go back to Ian Borg’s main argument, shall we? ‘Wider roads = less congestion = less traffic fumes = better air quality’, etc.

Yes, but only for the first five or so years. For while the roads are getting wider, the number of cars being driven on them is increasing exponentially from year to year.

In time, the new road network will be every bit as congested as the one it replaced: with the significant difference that there would be a heck of lot more cars, all belching out even more exhaust fumes, packed in even tighter over the same surface area.

So while the short-term benefits might indeed be felt… in the long term, this project is really an investment in worse air quality tomorrow.

And please note it is not just me saying this – I, who am but dust and ashes, etc. No: it is the government’s own Strategic Traffic Management Plan, approved in 2016.

Yet faced with all this, the one objection that still seems to have the power to move people remains rooted to the one issue that isn’t even part of the real problem. Trees. And even then: those trees in particular. The ones we know; the ones we ‘like’.

If that’s not a classic case of missing the wood for the trees, I don’t know what is…

‘Banker Never Loses’

I keep telling myself I won’t allow personal issues to spill out onto these pages, but I cannot not bid a final farewell to my old friend (and partner in, oh, so many ‘crimes and misdemeanours’), Niki Soler.

I have just come home from his funeral, and with my own eyes I saw him lain into the earth in a coffin. Yet I am still finding it difficult to accept that he’s gone.

But because Niki had many friends – probably more than he ever knew; and certainly some who were much closer to him than I ever was – I’ll share this one little detail… in the hope it makes a small difference for them, as it did for me.

For the past four days I have been incessantly flooded with memories of Niki, in both good times and bad – but overwhelmingly more in good times: such as when he ‘taught me to dance’ at Axis when we were around 16. (“It’s easy, man, you just keep your feet together on the same spot, and wiggle your ass to the music… like this!”) and… well, you know how it goes. The more I laughed, the more I cried, and so on, and so forth.

Sooner or later, a friend texted to say that: ‘I didn’t know him myself, but so sorry to hear the news’…

I was about to reply: ‘In a way you’re lucky: you didn’t know him, so you have no reason to feel any loss…’

But I erased the message without sending. For it suddenly occurred to me that… well, what if I really did have the power to go back in time, and arrange things in such a way that I never met Niki Soler at all?

That way, I wouldn’t be remembering all those times we skived Sixth Form together to play pool at the ‘Kazin’. Or any of those priceless, classic Soler quotes round the card table, ever since…

There would be nothing, in brief, to remember that larger-than-life personality by.

My life would have been completely devoid of that unique (and insanely likeable) embodiment of so many excellent qualities: charm, wit, warmth, intelligence, conviviality, generosity… and, yes, a touch of maddening stubborness, too. (Never said he was perfect, did I?)

But the question remains… if I could erase all that, as easily as I erased that unsent message… would I do it?

I don’t think I really need to answer, do I? Quite frankly, I would sooner saw off my own arm.

In a way, that made me realise that I was actually the lucky one to have known Niki Soler, for at least part of the short time he was around to know.

And while it might not even mean all that much, at the end of the day… that realisation nonetheless did what Niki so often managed to do over the past 30 years.

It put a smile on my face.

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