Saturday, May 23, 2015

Thinking in Generations

Having just returned from a trip to the Netherlands, I can confidently say that there is much to like. The people are warm and friendly, the cafes plentiful and welcoming. Lots of museums dot Amsterdam and other cities, and the dress code is casual in just about every venue. It's a relatively safe country, although it must be said that you do take your life in your hands anytime you step off the curb and do battle with the bikes, scooters, trams, buses and cars that zip around with abandon. To be fair, there are some questionable practices: with such treats as herring and cheese, one wonders about the population's fascination with licorice, so much so that they are the world leader in consumption at about four pounds a year per head. Still, even if hash brownies and legal prostitution are your measure of forward progress, while you certainly have a different scale than mine, the country is still a most welcoming place.

But perhaps one of its most attractive qualities isn't any of these things. While I'm sure that the locals have plenty of their own "inside the beltway" spats and issues, it's refreshing to see how united a country can be on a single issue. True, that issue is their very survival in a most literal sense. But to see what they have done and what they continue to do to hold the sea at bay is not only an engineering achievement of the first order, but a demonstration of what can happen when people look beyond next month and next year, and set their sights on a time frame of generations.

It's not like they have a choice. More than a quarter of the country lies below sea level. Throughout their history, this small country, which contains the estuaries of the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt, has fought an ongoing battle with the forces of nature. More than once people and land have been flooded out by a combination of storms and tides. Think of New York and Sandy, or New Orleans and Katrina. Now expand that image to an entire country, and you begin to get the picture.

While dikes have been used almost since people settled there, it was in the last century that the process accelerated. The nearly 20 mile long Afsluitdijk dike was finished in 1932, and created a vast inland sea in the center of the country called the Ijsselmeer. More efforts followed, with new urgency coming after a disastrous flood in 1953 in the southern part of the country that killed over 1800 people and flooded over 600 square miles. Since then, miles and miles of new structures have been put in place, in some cases to protect the land that is there, while in others the goal is to try and reclaim that which the sea formerly took possession.

It sounds like something from a science fiction movie about colonizing a new planet, but the Dutch are very proud of their New Land. By first damming the water, then pumping it out, they started the slow but steady program of creating virgin ground. A look at a map shows this accelerating addition of space used for both agriculture and housing. Drive as we did through the countryside, and the locals never tire of pointing out what used to be under water that is now a field, a park, a factory, or a housing development. They never tire of it, because it's a process they never stop. They can't: to do so is surrender to a force which has no mercy.

Above the entrance to the engineering building at the University of Wyoming is chiseled "Strive On – The Control of Nature is Won, Not Given." In that light, the Dutch have asked for nothing for which they aren't willing to fight. Yes, it costs immense amounts of money and manpower. Yes, there is much debate about which plan to follow. Yes, there are those that are unhappy with changes which threaten decades old patterns of living. But sometimes you have to take the long view. It's hard, but they've done it. In this country we excel at disaster relief in so many different areas. It would be nice if we at least occasionally put the cart before the horse, learned from the Dutch, and looked at ways of avoiding disaster in the first place.


Marc Wollin of Bedford had a great time in Amsterdam. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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