There is a certain response one gets when speaking out about environmental matters, as I have started to do these days, specifically, on the issue of development outside development zones. It seems anyone who voices an opinion on these matters – the Żonqor university proposal primarily, but also the shooting range in Mosta, further schools being built on ODZ land, among others – is met with the same reply: why now?

In other words, our motivations for having chosen to speak at this very point, and not at some earlier time, are being questioned. The implication is, of course, that they are less than pure; perhaps we are Nationalist voters who protest against everything this government proposes.

If we are academics, then we must be afraid of the competition a new university will bring; if we’re ‘northerners’ we must be trying to keep the south stuck in the middle ages.

Allow me to list some of the numerous times environment NGOs have been active on the issue of development outside development zones.

Examples that spring to mind are the successful campaigns against the proposed golf courses in Rabat and Xagħra l-Ħamra, against the urbanisation of Ħondoq ir-Rummien and the six-year campaign to protect Ramla l-Ħamra from development. Many individuals and representatives from the various environment NGOs involved now form part of the newly-nascent Front Ħarsien ODZ, a citizens’ movement that welcomes support from all sectors of society.

I have just started to speak out now. I was not involved in any of the campaigns mentioned above and cannot give any justification for this.

Moreover, there is nothing I can say which will persuade readers that my motivation for speaking out now is purely to save the last remaining countryside on the island.

What I would like to show is how misguided the critique is in the first place.

History and contemporary moral sensibility brings out exactly what is wrong with the appeal to tradition

We keep hearing accusations that some people are speaking about the issue now because they have some other reason for doing so.

Therefore, we hear their actions and claims should not be considered further.

Now consider this argument applied to the American abolitionists, say Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, who both spoke against slavery, despite being slave owners themselves.

This is not so far-fetched; both Franklin and Jefferson were criticised for their less than pure motivations. The extent of their actual contribution has been questioned too.

The critique would run as follows: slavery has existed for centuries in the new world, so why challenge it now?

These people must have ulterior motives – political reasons – to oppose slavery and, therefore, we needn’t take their claims seriously. At the time, some argued precisely in that way. They appealed to the tradition of slavery, citing the Bible, to justify its continuation.

History and contemporary moral sensibility brings out exactly what is wrong with the appeal to tradition. Just because a certain tradition has existed for a long time is no reason for it to go on existing and today we accept it is a good thing that Jefferson and Franklin spoke out against slavery when they did, no matter what their ulterior reasons may have been.

Unfortunately, people who should know better still make use of the appeal to tradition to justify dubious practices. We find a clear example of it, for instance, in Mepa’s own report, which explicitly states it “does not delve into the merits of the principle of locating an educational institution outside the development zone on the assumption that numerous other such developments had already been considered and allowed outside the development zone”.

In other words, since we have already built on ODZ, we can continue to do so.

Admittedly, this issue of whether or not to build on ODZ might not seem as morally important as that of slavery.

But if we apply the argument to another example we can see that even in trivial matters it misses the point entirely.

Suppose someone has been pricking you with a needle for the past five minutes. Imagine, for the sake of argument that you’ve been able to put up with it so far.

You eventually ask him to stop and the response you receive is: why have you spoken up about this now? Why did you not tell me to stop four minutes ago?

No matter what you think my motivations may be for asking you to stop, the issue is that I want you to stop.

To ignore my request simply because I didn’t ask you to do so before is unfair, to say the least.

Some of us have decided to speak up now. We have had enough of being pricked.

We believe there should not be any further development on ODZ and we do not buy into the excuse that these are ‘educational’ projects that cannot be located anywhere else.

There is no reason to go on building on ODZ land, not when it is rumoured that extant school facilities are scheduled to be vacated, when fortresses are begging to be restored and disused quarries are waiting to be filled.

Not with one third of all buildings on the island lying disused.

If, like me, you decide to speak out, and people ask why now, you might simply answer: it’s about time.

Colette Sciberras is a part-time lecturer in philosophy at the University of Malta and a teacher of philosophy.

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