It’s not even a stereotype — the Dutch are practically born on a bicycle. I received my first two-wheeled friend as a birthday present when I was just three years old, and I have never looked back. From age ten onwards, I cycled to school and everywhere else on my own, and when I was a student, I used to spend one and a half hours every day cycling to my university campus in Utrecht. I only learned that cycling is not such an obvious choice as a mode of transport once I started travelling to other countries, and that hard truth particularly hit home when I moved to Malta seven years ago. Cycling changed from lifestyle to a research interest.
Plant-based diets are going mainstream all over the world.Cassi Camillerisheds light on the local vegan movement and how reducing our meat consumption can benefit us all.
Some label the rise of plant-based living as evidence of ‘trend culture’. And they’re not all wrong. Traditional media bombards us with countless headlines on the topic’s pros and cons. Hard-hitting advocacy films like Cowspiracy and Forks over Knives expose the horrors of the meat industry. Social media influencers share their experiences with the diet, turning it into lifestyle content. And now the market is following suit with vegan and veggie lines and options popping up everywhere.
In 2016, an Ipsos MORI survey for the Vegan Society identified that 3.25% of adults in the UK never eat meat in any form as part of their diet, equating to roughly 540,000 people. Vegan January—commonly known as Veganuary—is growing in popularity. This year, a record-breaking 250,310 people from 190 countries registered for the month-long vegan pledge. And Malta is no exception.
While the official number of people following a plant-based or vegan diet are unavailable, interest is clear. Facebook pages Vegan Malta and Vegan Malta Eats have a combined following of over 16,500 people.
The reasons behind people’s decision to take up veganism are various, however three main motivators keep being cited: health benefits, ethics, and environmental concerns. For vegan business woman Rebecca Camilleri the process was natural and gradual. ‘There was no real intention behind it for me. But after a couple of months of following this diet, I noticed that my energy levels were better than before, and this encouraged me to learn more on how I needed to eat in order to nourish my body with the right nutrients to sustain my active lifestyle.’
Researcher and nutritionist Prof. Suzanne Piscopo (Department of Health, Physical Education, and Consumer Studies, University of Malta) confirms that ‘moving towards a primarily plant-based diet is recommended by organisations such as the World Health Organization and the World Cancer Research Fund, for health and climate change reasons.’
Oxford academic Dr Marco Springmann has attempted to model what a vegan planet would look like, and the results are staggering. According to his calculations, should the world’s population switch to a vegan diet by the year 2050, the global economy would save $1.1 trillion in healthcare costs. We would also save $0.5 trillion in environmental costs, all while slashing greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds.
Despite all this, veganism has earned itself quite a few enemies along the way. The vitriol thrown back and forth across both camps is shocking. Relatively recently, UK supermarket chain Waitrose came under scrutiny after magazine editor William Sitwell responded to plant-based food article ideas from writer Selene Nelson with a dark counter offer—a series on ‘killing vegans’. Sitwell was since forced to resign. Nelson posited that the hostility stems from ‘a refusal to recognise the suffering of animals. Mocking vegans is easier than listening to them.’
Abigail Higgins from American news and opinion website Vox agrees that guilt plays a role in the hatred aimed towards veganism, but also proposes that the whole movement ‘represents a threat to the status quo, and cultural changes make people anxious.’ This notion is based on research on intergroup threats and attitudes by US researchers Walter G. Stephan and Cookie White Stephan.
It however remains a reality that some of the loudest voices in veganism in the past have been militant. Some have invoked hatred and threats towards those that they perceive not to be sufficiently aggressive in promoting the cause. Piscopo calls for a respectful discussion.
‘Food is not only about sustenance and pleasure, but has symbolic, emotional, and identity value. Take meat for example. Some associate it with masculinity and virility. Others link it to food security as meat was a food which was scarce during their childhood. Some others equate it with conviviality as meat dishes are often consumed during happy family occasions. What is important is that we do not try to impose our beliefs, thoughts, and lifestyle on anyone.’
The way forward is a ‘live and let live’ approach, according to Rebecca Galea. When her journey started she had people ‘staring strangely at [her] food’. Even her family didn’t take her seriously. ‘They were very sceptical as their knowledge on veganism was very limited at the time,’ she remembers. Now, seeing the effect the switch has made to Rebecca’s life, her positive choices are naturally impacting theirs. ‘Everyone is free to make their choice,’ she says. Embodying the philosophy of leading by example, Rebecca has even set up her own business making delicious vegan nut butters, spreads, and more, to great success. ‘The more vegan options are available [in Malta], the more people will be attracted to learning and accepting the benefits of veganism. This might also lead to them following a vegan lifestyle!’
With that, and sharing valid, up-to-date research-based information, as Piscopo suggests, it seems there is no stopping this ‘trend’. And who would want to when veganism can lead to a lower carbon footprint and better health for everyone?
When our wardrobes are bursting, when cars take over our streets, when stuffing our fridges and eating out trumps reading, theatre, cinema—how does that impact us? Cassi Camilleri writes.
Marie Kondo’s epic trajectory began in 2014 with a little book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Available in over 41 regions and countries, she sold over five million copies. Now she’s on Netflix, reaching millions more with Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, all the while becoming the most badass / kawaii meme the world has ever seen.
At this point, Kondo has almost single-handedly made decluttering a global trend. But there is more to this movement than getting rid of junk.
Kondo’s approach is about making the time to actually look at the items we own and purposefully ask whether they serve a true function in our life—whether they give us ‘joy.’ In a world where ‘more is more’ and hundreds of ads scream at us daily, creating neuroses while simultaneously providing the avalanche of products to fix them, the attitude is sadly novel.
Taking time to appreciate our possessions is not something we do often. And this is not entirely our fault. Doing so could see us labelled as ‘materialistic.’ But this brings up the question of what that word actually means.
Here, Millburn is referring to quality instead of quantity. One reliable well-made pair of jeans will last you longer than five cheap ones. The result? You generate less waste. You spend less money.
In Malta, we produce 248,784 tonnes of garbage annually, according to the material flow analysis conducted by researcher Margaret Camilleri Fenech. That’s equivalent to eight houses made entirely of garbage. Think of the pollution generated by waste when transporting and treating it, or the greenhouse gases emitted when it decomposes, or the space it needs. With our countryside disappearing at alarming rates, wasting the remaining space on waste feels sinful.
But let’s just pretend that this whole environmental thing is being blown out of proportion by a tribe of hippy die-hards. What about us? How do our spending choices affect our quality of life? How do our habits impact our pockets?
In 2015, the National Statistics Office (NSO) reports, total annual expenditure of Maltese private households amounted to an average of €22,346 per household. Suffice to say, this is a considerable number given that the average wage that same year was somewhere around €16,500, according to online platform Trading Economics. What’s more important, however, is how the money was spent.
A close look at the NSO’s report revealed that the majority of funds went towards food and transport, commanding 34% of all spending. On average, households spent €4,417 on food in 2015. Fuel for cars alone amounted to a yearly bill of €1184.50. We also spent an annual average of €720 on clothing, €1000 on our phones and internet services, and a whopping €1,749 on eating out.
On the flipside, education accounted for only 2.4% of household spending, €624 yearly, making this category second to last on the priority list. Yes, this can be partly attributed to free education in Malta; however, in households without dependent children, we can also see that only €36 were spent on books that were not textbooks over the entire year. Another NSO survey (with Arts Council Malta and the Valletta 2018 Foundation) found that 55% of the population didn’t read a single book in 2016. That same study looked at the experiences we fill our time with, finding that less than half of us (42%) went to the cinema even once that year, while only a third (31%) visited an art gallery or experienced theatre (32%).
Looking at these figures, it seems our priorities are dominated by cars, internet services and restaurants. Yet isn’t that ironic when a quick scroll through Facebook reveals so many complaints about unprecedented levels of traffic, narcissism, laziness, and a lack of critical thinking?
What is powerful about this, though, is the realisation that we can change it instantly. Instead of going to the fancy new restaurant in Valletta this weekend as we always do, we could choose to cook a nice meal at home for friends then sit down with a good read. We could switch out the Sunday drive with a run in the rural parts of our island. And question yourself: Do I really need that new €15 sweater when I have another 20 that look just like it sitting in my wardrobe? Or do I want to put that money towards a family weekend away?
All this might sound minor, even ridiculous. But making deliberate choices about how and where we spend our hard-earned resources has a profound impact. Asking whether a particular purchase will ‘bring joy’ can spark answers that surprise us. And those answers may well trigger a ripple effect on our lives as a whole.
Saving money will allow us to work less and free up more time for meaningful activity with the important people in our lives. Investing in ourselves and our minds will see us becoming better, more well-rounded people. Can we say the same for the momentary rush we get after dropping an obscene amount of money on a new phone manufactured under questionable ethical standards?
At the end of the day, it’s all quite simple. If we all tried to be a little bit more mindful, a little bit more careful about where our money goes, which systems we feed, and what we allow into our lives… well then we could—quite literally—change our world.
This time last year, I decided to start cycling to my office at the University of Malta. Though much of my work focuses on this kind of behavioural change, I would be lying if I said that I did it for environmental or research reasons. I did it out of sheer despair: I felt like I was wasting my life, stuck in traffic for hours on end. I will also readily admit that when I started, I was not adequately prepared: I was not fit enough for it. Nor did I have the agility and speed to compete with cars while balancing on two narrow wheels. But I somehow hung in there. And somehow, before I knew it, a whole year had gone and I had never used a car to come to university—nor ever wanted to.
One of the forces that made a real difference was ‘others’. While I’d long marveled at my friends and colleagues at universities overseas who cycled to work without much fanfare, it was finding a community of commuting cyclists here in Malta that really made a difference. Gathered as the ‘Bicycle Advocacy Group‘ on Facebook, they are a new cyclist’s best allies. They helped me find bike-friendly (and unfriendly) roads, plot routes ahead of time, and consoled me after bad incidents. They organise group rides. They advocate and educate. Groups on campus such as the Green Travel Plan people were also great. In the world of cycling, unlike that of driving, the more we are, the merrier it is!
The second major step in this journey was to make it increasingly easy for me to choose the bike over car. A car key always looks so easy to pick up. Instead, I prepared my bike, my bag, my helmet, and all my accessories by the door. I left some extra clothes and toiletries at work, ready when needed. I changed my days around to make them cycle friendly, clustering meetings, avoiding heavy loads. I also made it a point to reward myself for cycling by keeping snacks handy for energy. This probably explains why I did not lose any weight despite a whole year of pedaling.
While I’d long marveled at my friends and colleagues at universities overseas who cycled to work without much fanfare, it was finding a community of commuting cyclists here in Malta that really made a difference.
All this said, the main barrier for lots of people (and myself) is the fear of being hurt on the road. I learnt a few practical tricks that made cycling less scary. The first is that lowering risk is entirely possible. Some times are better than others for cycling. In peak traffic, cars are moving very slowly or at a complete standstill, making it somewhat safer for you to cycle! Some roads are also better than others. With time, I found out that it is possible to use country lanes or smaller urban roads for most journeys. Where traffic is unavoidable, I stick to the middle of the lane, especially if a driver cannot safely pass while leaving a meter of space. Traffic will wait behind you (often the speed limit is 30km/hr anyway). This is even more important if there’s a row of cars to your right where anyone can open a door and knock you off the bike. Thirdly, I learnt to signal large so drivers know my intent. I also learnt cycling is a mental and physical work out. You need to be completely focused and watch out for any possible danger. Where needed, I get off my bike and cross roads on foot.
While poor public infrastructure and law enforcement remain a constraint, I gradually bought things that made the cycling life easier. My first purchase was the bicycle. I started with a basic folding bike (€200 or so). I chose a folding bike to give myself a parachute in case I got too tired and needed a lift home. The climb to Gharghur from University was nothing short of exhausting. I walked most of it for the first few weeks. Then a very attractive grant was issued for e-bikes. This changed everything: you may pedal less on an e-bike but you will certainly cycle more frequently. Later, I stuck a rack and a basket to the bike. I bought a trekking backpack (which means I sweat less), a good water bottle (which also comes in handy to wash my hands), and a helmet (even though it’s not a legal obligation to wear one). I got a high visibility vest (free from several campaigns), white and red lights and reflectors (though I’m still rather scared to cycle at night), and a mirror, which helps me see cars coming from the rear without having to turn my head and risk losing my balance. I’m still angling for a good bell, better fenders, and flat tyre-changing supplies. I eventually bought a good lock—a must.
Like other positive habits, the more you do it, the more you love it. I especially love not having to look for parking, getting to places quickly and on time, and discovering new routes. I love smiling at people, feeling younger and fitter. In hindsight, and with a rather limited sample size of one, I can see that what made it work (consciously or not) was quite in line with research: a break in habit, a combination of lower barriers, and stronger motives.