7.31.2006

polder

I just finished reading Collapse. It took a while, because a novel I had requested at the library came in, and I put down one book to read the other. But I went back to finish Collapse, and here's my three-word review: Read this book.

Make that five words: Read this book, right away.

It scared the hell out of me, and made me glad I don't have children. (I'm always glad I don't have children; this was an extra boost.) But I have many people I love, and I care about the world around me, so not being a parent is not much compensation.

It's not that I doubt humans' ability to change the world, and to make bold choices for our own survival. What I don't see is the political will. Too many people who control resources and can make decisions that affect whole nations are mired in short-term thinking, concerned only with their own power and profit, and . That's what scares me.

Jared Diamond is now two-for-two with me, and I still recommend Guns, Germs and Steel to everyone who'll listen. My only criticism of Collapse is that I would have liked more on what we can do, in our own lifetimes, to help build a more sustainable world. Those suggestions are hidden under "further reading," and could have been expanded. If it would mean slightly less detail in the historical part, it would have been a good trade-off.

Next up: a book by a friend of wmtc!

A word about the title of this post. I'll let Jared Diamond explain it himself.
A good example of a society minimizing such clashes of interest is the Netherlands, whose citizens have perhaps the world's highest level of environmental awareness and of membership in environmental organizations. I never understood why, until on a recent trip to the Netherlands I posed the question to three of my Dutch friends while driving through their country-side. Their answer was one that I shall never forget:

"Just look around you here. All of this farmland that you see lies below sea level. One-fifth of the total area of the Netherlands is below sea level, as much as 22 feet below, because it used to be shallow bays, and we reclaimed it from the sea by surrounding the bays with dikes and then gradually pumping out the water. We have a saying, 'God created the Earth, but we Dutch created the Netherlands.' These reclaimed lands are called 'polders': We began draining them nearly a thousand years ago. Today, we still have to keep pumping out the water that gradually seeps in. That's what our wind-mills used to be for, to drive the pumps to pump out the polders. Now we use steam, diesel, and electric pumps instead. In each polder there are lines of pumps, starting with those farthest from the sea, pumping the water in sequence until the last pump finally pumps it out into a river or the ocean. In the Netherlands, we have another expression, 'You have to be able to get along with your enemy, because he may be the person operating the neigh-boring pump in your polder.'

And we're all down in the polders together. It's not the case that rich people live safely up on tops of the dikes while poor people live down in the polder bottoms below sea level. If the dikes and pumps fail, we'll all drown together. When a big storm and high tides swept inland over Zeeland Province on February 1, 1953, nearly 2,000 Dutch people, both rich and poor, drowned. We swore that we would never let that happen again, and the whole country paid for an extremely expensive set of tide barriers. If global warming causes polar ice melting and a world rise in sea level, the consequences will be more severe for the Netherlands than for any other country in the world, because so much of our land is already under sea level. That's why we Dutch are so aware of our environment. We've learned through our history that we're all living in the same polder, and that our survival depends on each other's survival."

That acknowledged interdependence of all segments of Dutch society contrasts with current trends in the United States, where wealthy people increasingly seek to insulate themselves from the rest of society, aspire to create their own separate virtual polders, use their own money to buy services for themselves privately, and vote against taxes that would extend those amenities as public services to everyone else. Those private amenities include living inside gated walled communities, relying on private security guards rather than on the police, sending one's children to well-funded private schools with small classes rather than to the underfunded crowded public schools, purchasing private health insurance or medical care, drinking bottled water instead of municipal water, and (in Southern California) paying to drive on toll roads competing with the jammed public freeways. Underlying such privatization is a misguided belief that the elite can remain unaffected by the problems of society around them: the attitude of those Greenland Norse chiefs who found that they had merely bought themselves the privilege of being the last to starve.

5 comments:

James said...

One-fifth of the total area of the Netherlands is below sea level, as much as 22 feet below

BTW, just by coincidence: if the great Antarctic ice shelves were to collapse, it's estimated that they'd raise the world's sea level by about 20 feet.

So imagine the devastation caused by loosing 1/5 of the Netherlands, but applied around the world.

Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee (referring to humans, the other two being the pongo and bonobo chimnps) is also supposed to be very good, though it was Guns, Germs, and Steel that was his break-out.

Douglas Adams had a great line in Last Chance To See, his book about rare and extinct animal species:

It's tempting to think that these losses have left us "sadder but wiser". But when I saw how little has changed, I'm forced to conclude that we are merely "sadder but better informed".

Marcy said...

I tried reading Gun, Germs, and Steel, but it was so thick. :-) I kept renewing it, but finally just returned it to the library. I need to get my own copies of his work, b/c I have to be in a particular mood to read serious stuff like that.

I did, however, read Why Is Sex Fun?, which is probably his shortest book. Interesting explanation of human menopause.

L-girl said...

I need to get my own copies of his work, b/c I have to be in a particular mood to read serious stuff like that.

I always have to own non-fiction, too - I can never read it from the library.

GG&S did require a lot of concentration - but it's well worth it. As a suggestion, don't get hung up on the numbers and statistics for each section. Sometimes the introduction, explanation and conclusion of a chapter is enough - the statistical info can bog you down if you're not used to it. That's what I found, anyway.

I did read Why Is Sex Fun - I forgot about that.

James said...

I always have to own non-fiction, too - I can never read it from the library.

I'm like that, too. I can't stand borrowing books, music, or videos. As a result, I have far more books, CDs, and DVDs than I've read, listened to, or watched. I get it from my father, who took to marking his record collections with special stickers when he's listened to them, so he'll know to pick a different one next time he wants to listen. (That was for Classical music and opera, where you can have 10 or even 20 different versions of a single work, as well.)

GG&S and Collapse are the sort of books I enjoy reading most. Informative, insightful, and well-written. Right now I'm wrapping up A Short History Of Nearly Everything, which is also great. I'll be posting about that soon, I hope.

L-girl said...

I always have to own non-fiction, too - I can never read it from the library.

I'm like that, too. I can't stand borrowing books, music, or videos.


Oh, I love libraries. I was only referring to non-fiction that I really want to savour and concentrate on. I read lots of fiction from the library, as well as non-fiction that I just want to sample, but don't think I'll read the whole book.

If I love the book after I've read it from the library, I'll often buy it. Of course, I love to buy books, too... :)