If we are to register any significant progress, our legacy to future generations should be a substantial improvement of what we ourselves have inherited from our predecessors. The roadmap to achieving this improvement should be the objective of the sustainable development strategy which was subject to public consultation until last Thursday.
Roman Krznaric, in his recent book The Good Ancestor asks a very pointed question: “Will our legacy to future generations be one that benefits them or will be it one that cripples them?” It is the question to which we must provide an answer, day in day out.
The politics of sustainable development seeks to mould such an answer. Properly managed it can shape the future as a result of acting in a responsible manner today. It does so by ensuring that our present-day needs are achieved without compromising the ability of future generations in meeting their own needs. It all boils down to how we can think (and plan) long-term in a short-term world.
Notwithstanding the rhetoric, governments do not give sufficient importance to sustainable development as this is not just about today. It is rather about how today’s activity should not prejudice tomorrow and future generations. This is not sufficiently on the radar of today’s politicians. Their interest, generally, does not span more than five years: that is until the next general election. We need to think and plan far more into the future.
This is a point underlined by former Norwegian social democrat Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland in her seminal UN Report Our Common Future published in 1987. She emphasised that “We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.”
This is most evident in the contrast between what the draft sustainable development strategy proposes (or omits) and the actual policy and practice of government.
Consider for example, the issue of transport policy.
The proposed sustainable development strategy speaks at length on vision and objectives relative to an increased use of public transport. It even identifies as a 2030 target the reduction of car drivers through the use of the following words: reduce the modal share of car drivers to 41% compared to 1990.
No one in his right senses can believe a single word of this statement in view of the fact that there has been a considerable effort in the past years in a completely opposite direction!
Current government policy encourages the use of private cars and continuously sends conflicting signals. The sustainable development strategy rightly seeks to address car dependency. In contrast to this objective government policy, through investing heavily in new road infrastructure and through the subsidisation of fuels sends a completely different signal: one which without a shadow of doubt encourages car dependency.
The congestion of our roads is not the cause of our problems: it is the effect of our malady which is car dependency. Hence it is right that the strategy aims to address and reduce car dependency. We do not need so many cars to travel the short distances so prevalent in this country! As our Transport Master Plan reminds us, 50 per cent of private car trips are for distances taking less than 15 minutes.
We find other conflicting signals in the draft strategy on sustainable development.
While there are a number of specific objectives spelled out in clear language (for example: climate change, waste, green purchasing, air quality, biodiversity, lifelong learning, digitalisation, migrant induction learning …….) beyond some general comments and observations, I fail to see any emphasis on land use issues. This is not right in view of the limited availability of land and its rampant misuse, contrary to the public interest.
In view of the current political gimmicks relative to open spaces one cannot but note the omission from the strategy on any reference to the urgent need to protect existing open space in our urban areas and in our villages. This includes large private gardens continuously targeted by speculative forces on the good books of this administration.
There is also scant reference to the need to safeguard agricultural land. What is the purpose in investing €700 million in open spaces if we are losing existing ones at an exponential rate as a result of the current practise of land use planning?
At this rate the legacy to future generations is generally negative. The short-term view is completely obliterating any possible long-term view. This is not a beneficial legacy; it is rather a very crippling one. As Brundtland pointed out: this is done as future generations have no vote!
We need to go back to the drawing board and have the strategy redrafted.
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 12 February 2023