‘Environmentalism’ is about our wellbeing and living well together. Hence, rather than some abstract moral obligation that only ‘the better’ of us are able to uphold, environmentalism is about recognizing our common interests and acting upon them.
by Michael Grech and Raisa Galea
Image: Martin Galea De Giovanni, amended by the IotL Magazine
Undeniably, the protests in favour of the environment, trees and the few remaining open spaces are much needed initiatives. As the ecological degradation in Malta is reaching its new, appalling, levels, the stakes for environmental protection are high. What are the protests’ strong sides and what are the shortcomings? It is imperative to analyse them both in order to succeed in our demands.
What Do We Talk about When We Talk about the ‘Environment’?
The way we talk and think about ecological issues is indeed important. Language shapes our understanding of the problem and, ultimately, affects all our future actions in this regard. Be it rancid exchanges on social media or features in the national media, the environment is often spoken about as a standalone issue, disconnected from the rest of social life.
For example, expressions like ‘caring about the environment’ imply that the subject we are expected to care about is a separate dimension of which we, humans, are either not part or which we are even antagonistic to. Such discourse is misleading at best. Ecology is about how everything is connected to everything else and all of us form an intrinsic part of this web. Therefore, to speak about ‘the environment’ is to reflect on how we engage with our physical surroundings—natural or manmade—and with each other.
Ecology is about how everything is connected to everything else and all of us form an intrinsic part of this web.
‘Caring about ‘the environment’ is a matter of protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink and the spaces we inhabit. It is about our wellbeing and living well together. Hence, rather than some abstract moral obligation that only ‘the better’ of us are able to uphold, environmentalism is about recognizing our common interests and acting upon them.
Futility Is Not a Virtue; Effectiveness Is Not a Vice
As the political class turned a deaf ear to civilians, any form of protest may seem futile. Questioning whether resistance to the butchery of trees is futile after all, a few thoughtful persons argued that one ought to resist precisely because this is futile, suggesting that resistance in the name of principle alone makes it more genuine. There must be something fishy, one person suggested, when resistance does not happen for its own sake.
Such attitudes imply that anyone resisting with a clear goal in mind must have a weighted interest in its successful outcomes. This argument is indeed misguided: Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi militated to achieve objectives, not simply for the joy of doing so. Protesting for the sake of protesting plays into the authorities’ hands since it provides an opportunity for civic expression and makes us feel good about ‘doing something about the problem’, yet does not achieve a clear goal.
Protesting for the sake of protesting plays into the authorities’ hands since it provides an opportunity for civic expression and makes us feel good about ‘doing something about the problem’, yet does not achieve a clear goal.
This is the attitude that people who have an interest in perpetuating the status quo would want militants who are fighting for change to adopt (precisely because it would imply that there will be no change.)
There may be causes which, no matter how seemingly futile, we ought to uphold for ethical reasons. Still, this does not mean that futility is a virtue in itself—not many causes come to mind which justify protesting for its own sake. Objectives can be met and results—like not having trees chopped down or Malta overbuilt—can be achieved if protestors try to be as effective as possible.
There is no universal recipe for success and we must use our own brains to devise a suitable strategy for each particular case, but nevertheless we should strive towards a clear goal rather than sticking lances in the first windmill.
Challenging the Dominant Values, not Only the Perpetrators
Recent protests against the physical peril the construction industry is creating or to save trees and land in Attard attracted sizeable crowds. Yet, if an election were to be held tomorrow, the incumbent party would win by another landslide. AD, the only party with a decidedly green agenda, would probably fare badly once more. In such circumstances, green activists could be tempted to adopt a high-brow attitude and accuse ‘the people’ (whatever this homogenizing term means) of ignorance and/or greed, perhaps toying with the idea that some kind of moral, intellectual elite should dictate the country’s agenda regardless of what the demos think and want.
There is obviously some truth in the claim that a society has the politicians it deserves, especially when they are elected by a significant majority. It is also a mistake to mystify or romanticize sections of the ‘people’—peasants or the poor—as fundamentally virtuous. Yet, our values, worldviews and ideas about society and politics are neither inborn nor form in a vacuum; they are cultivated by institutions such as the media, schools, academia and law and take a significant effort to question.
The individualistic ethos classifies any premise of clamping on self-interest for the sake of common good as unreasonable or even oppressive.
The dominant values, virtually unchallenged on our islands for the past 25 years or so, hold that the right to private property is sacred, that no economic sector (say the importation of cars by private dealers) ought to be curbed by government, that successful individuals ought not to be hampered by taxes or other means, and that markets (large and small) ought to be left to their own devices so that they regulate themselves. This individualistic ethos classifies any premise of clamping on self-interest for the sake of common good as unreasonable or even oppressive.
The culture of self-interest strikes back whenever green activists decry ecological degradation, overreliance on cars or adding another floor to a block of apartments: an attitude encapsulated in the question ‘Wouldn’t you do the same thing if you were in their place?’, which, surprisingly or unsurprisingly, leaves some activists dumbstruck as they may subscribe to the same values.
The mass green movement in Malta must begin from understanding that environmentalism is about recognizing our common interests and acting upon them. Protesting the uprooting of trees or gobbling up ODZ land is futile without challenging the values they are based on.
The Economic Model is to Blame—General Strikes Can Save Us
The dominant individualistic culture is not a self-sustaining web of ideas, mores and habits that has a life of its own. It is grounded in an economy which sustains it and which is sustained by this ideology in turn. Our current neoliberal variant of capitalism, whose main assets are financial services and gaming, with construction as its main labour-intensive sector has been in place for some time, rapidly expanding in the last few years.
Construction industry turns a lot of wheels and involves many individuals, whose reliance on the sector prevents them from joining the green movement, no matter how sympathetic to the environmental causes they may be in principle. Moreover, in precarious economic circumstances, a person with a moderate amount of savings seeks stability (not necessarily a filthy ‘egoist’) and thus can only invest in one sector and expect a quick return—construction.
Dismissing people who do not support environment-related issues vociferously as greedy is short-sighted. In order to succeed at protecting our common wellbeing, we urgently need a better strategy.
Although a thousand office workers protesting outside of working hours exemplify a civil commitment, their gathering poses no threat to the balance of power. However, a strike of construction workers, or a general strike which would paralise an economic sector for a few days would certainly send a stronger message.
For as long as our demands remain harmless, they will remain ignored. It is only when the protests will result in significant losses of profit, our concerns stand a chance to be heard. Although a thousand office workers protesting outside of working hours exemplify a civil commitment, their gathering poses no threat to the balance of power. However, a strike of construction workers, or a general strike which would paralise an economic sector for a few days would certainly send a stronger message.
A long-term strategy for an organized and effective eco-movement should also engage in economic analysis and critique, it should develop ideas for sustainable and feasible green economic projects instead of the ecocidal one we have in place. Unless such a project is launched, protests and resistance will be morally noble but politically ineffective. However, no matter how much there still remains to be done for the green movement to gain a proper momentum, we must attend the national protest on September 7. Only by joining efforts can we achieve our common goal.