Thursday, July 1, 2010
A special type of insantiy
height="300" border="0" alt="White Road">
If you ever visit Neeltje-Jans or the Rotterdam port, you'll see two of the biggest man-made structures ever conceived to keep water out of the Netherlands. Which is kind of important, considering that 2/3 of the country (not the entire coutnry) is at least 1/2 meter below sea level--and sinking.
I forget how many billions of guilders it cost to build those structures, exactly--I think it was something like 80 billion. Special boats were designed specifically to lay the concrete pylons in Neeltje-Jans, and the ball bearings on Rotterdam's Measlantkering had to be forged in the Czech Republic, because presumably only the Soviets would need to make something that big out of metal.
The most incredible thing about all of these projects, including the sealing off of the IJsselmeer, is that everybody agreed (for the most part) that they were worth the money. But more interestingly is the human response: people who were born post-1953 get a look in their eyes when they talk about the water works--a look that says, "Yes, I'm proud of our little country". It's about as much nationalism as is permitted these days, the Dutch soccer team notwithstanding.
But the ability to get the entire nation involved in one colossal building project--without resorting to torture/propaganda of the sort used in China or the former USSR--also speaks for a special kind of insanity. It's like there's this collective hive mind that every otherwise-perfectly-sane Dutch person can tap into. You see this at Jan Smit concerts, on Queen's Day, and whenever a group of people decide it's time to clean up after a meal (all of a sudden everybody just gets up and starts putting things away). It's the sort of thing an American would find a bit unnerving at first. It's also the reason why there will never be a bicycling infrastructure in the US that even begins to approach the sort of setup that the Netherlands has.
Never mind that Americans can't even get past the question of "Should", as in "Should there be bike lanes?" The type of collective thinking--that, no matter where you go in Holland, you will see the same symbols used, the same types of traffic lights, the same laws apply--required to get together the infrastructure to begin conceiving of how bike lanes should work, never mind building them, is something that simply could not be managed in the US. It works in the Netherlands because a) it's a small country and b) everybody rides bikes. In the US, though, the pipe dream is still one house, white picket fence, two cars. Even assisted housing and food stamp programs won't ask people to give up their cars. It's not implausible that the oil companies are willing to subsidize food costs if it keeps up their revenue.