Opinion Society

Rotterdam: Where the River Flows Away From the Sea

Flickr: Frans Berkelaar
Written by Vera Wilde

Two pristine white structures with the angular beauty of the Eiffel Tower and the horizontal slant of a picket fence reach out to one another from across the Rhine River. The land here is below sea-level, like about 40% of the rest of the country. The tide is turning. And so pressure has begun pushing the river back towards the North Sea five kilometers away. That means it’s time for the annual testing of the sea-fence gate — the Maeslantkering (Maeslant Storm Surge). It’s the largest robot in the world, and the storm surge that keeps Rotterdam-Hague metropolitan’s 2+ million people safe from storm surges. Civilization means working together to make people feel safe to flourish — and government works for that purpose here, where the river flows away from the sea.

Sometimes, I’m afraid civilization eats itself. It’s not just because my own research has caused me to be subjected to illegal retaliation. In Scots poet Robert Burns’ phrase, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley” — well-intentioned actions often go awry. Our efforts to build safety often undermine that very safety. This is especially true for Americans.

The micro-level, individual pathologies of seeking security — a house with a white picket fence, a stable marriage 40-50% of the time, 2.7 ideal kids, a fridge with Coke and a pantry with Oreos, a company job, a four-door car, a double-action snubby — correlate with all the usual American causes of death — depression, diabesity, heart disease, cancer, car crashes, gun violence (especially in the form of suicide). Seeking safety in this sense is the leading cause of death in the West, especially in the U.S. It’s wanting to build home that keeps us from having home in the world, trying to control outcomes that makes us lose control.

Because the people make the state, of course the same problems replicate at larger levels. So our macro-level, state-level pathologies look a lot like those micro-level, individual-level pathologies. Thus, we face a growing national security threat from growing — but backfiring — national security programs themselves. Trying to build a stable home base at the individual level is the #1 killer of Americans, and trying to keep the homeland safe from terrorism and other major crime is the #1 security risk of the American government. Perhaps, I think in less hopeful moments, this means we can’t have home.

But the Maeslantkering shows we can have nice things as a species. Artists and scientists can build things of beauty that last. Governments can build things of force that genuinely keep people safe, providing shelter that shelters civilization instead of degrading it, protection that protects instead of destroying.

By virtue of its low-lying lands — largely reclaimed from the sea in the first place — the Netherlands is an early climate change customer. The effects are manageable. As they are for the world as a whole, if we act now together to close the floodgate ahead of the storm surge by keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

About the author

Vera Wilde

Reformed Harvard Kennedy Fellow, wondering artist, wandering artist. www.wildethinks.com

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Amazingly well-written, and such a good encapsulating account of the challenges we face.

Rotterdam: Where the River Flows Away From the Sea

by Vera Wilde
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