The Malta Independent 7 June 2023, Wednesday
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Progressing in a regressive manner

Mark Said Sunday, 12 March 2023, 07:37 Last update: about 4 months ago

In our Maltese society, progressive and regressive tendencies are being combined and complexly interacting. It is in constant development, in the process of changes and transition from one state to another. Changes that have taken place in different areas of our society have been and are being multidirectional, with progress in one area accompanied by regression in another. For example, the progress of science and technology has had mixed consequences. The use of computer technology not only expanded the possibilities of work but entailed new diseases associated with prolonged work at the digital displays such as visual impairment and other related ailments and deficiencies.

Furthermore, the complication of production and the rhythms of life in our everyday life has increased the load on our human body, giving rise to stress. This is all perceived as a result of people's creativity, where both progress and regression take place. Humanity is characterised by the desire to go forward, opening up new opportunities. However, it is necessary to remember what will be the consequences of such a progressive movement, and whether it will turn worse for people. Therefore, it is necessary to minimise the negative effects of progress. Do you recall the often quoted phrase of how much better off we were when we were worse off? Quite a nonsensical paradox, you might think. Yet there is a lot of truth in it.

More and more, we are seeing a dominant economic theory supporting policies that are destructive both to the human community and to our natural environment creating a situation becoming less sustainable daily. The regress is evident. Our country is on the brink of decay. Of course, there are scattered examples of restoration of what seemed lost, but the most one can say in general is that some forms of decay have been slowed. Other aspects, such as the increasing filth all around us, may be accelerating.

There are, at the same time, some hopeful signs. As corporate dominance becomes more and more apparent, there is more discussion on how their increasing power should be exercised. They are showing more sensitivity to the need to be responsible to the public, while environmental concerns are on the radar screen almost everywhere. But could it be just too little and too late and should we look in other directions? When, over decades, it becomes clear that not all ships are raised by the rising tide, that, indeed, the littlest ones are sunk, and many others are damaged, that only the yachts truly float freely, support of economistic policies should end. But it seems that more is required to break through.

One reason is that the worsening distribution of income and wealth does not disturb the economic community in general. Distribution is not an issue with which mainstream economic theory is directly concerned. That theory aims at increasing total consumption. If most of that goes to the rich, no matter. Hence many economists can shrug off the growing gap between rich and poor as unimportant. On the other hand, economists do assume that economic growth, especially increased consumption, adds to human well-being. Without that assumption, everything collapses. A frontal attack on this assumption should be more difficult for economists, along with those who implement economistic policies, to ignore.

If consumption is by definition the satisfaction of human desires, then satisfying more desires surely contributes to human well-being. We can quibble even with this. Some desires are for goods that are in fact self-destructive. But I will not press this point. Let us assume that as more people are able to do more of the things they want to do and buy more of the things they want to possess, they are better off. However, this must be qualified.

The contradictory nature of economic and social progress is identified in the signs of regression in our society. We are experiencing a deteriorating quality of life for our people, a decrease in average living standards, a deteriorating demographic situation and decreasing birth rate, a continuous fall in morality, education and culture of society as a whole, and a weakening of the country as a whole and its international position.

Although growth has undeniably been a positive force in so many areas over the last years, the side effects, mainly the debt time bomb, inequality and the environment have largely been often ignored. With debt piles at worrying levels and demography suggesting more debt is likely, a country without sustainable growth invites a financial crisis of epic proportions. If we cannot grow our way out of the increasing debt burden, our economic system will turn vulnerable. Sustainable growth is therefore essential. To achieve the living standards people have collectively been demanding, the government and individuals are accumulating more and more debt. This has particularly been the case over the last few years.

Financial crises, as painful as they are, can be fixed over time, and their impact might not be cumulative. However, damage to the environment is more likely to be irreversible if a tipping point is reached. In the eyes of many Maltese, such a point is close if not already passed. There are also newer health challenges arising with increases in economic growth. Our health system currently faces complex challenges due to new pressures such as an ageing population, an increase in the occurrence of chronic illnesses and intensive use of health technologies which, while essential, are also expensive.

Increased pollution can obviously be cited as another downside of economic growth. The rate at which natural resources, land, water and air, are being degraded in our country is alarming. The health of many is also threatened by factors such as air pollution, waterborne disease and exposure to harmful chemicals. Coupled with this there is the downside of technological progress. It is promoting a sedentary lifestyle, wasting the best social skills and causing a loss of empathy.

It is a strange world we are living in, where progress without assimilation is no progress, but regress in disguise.


Dr Mark Said

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