Friday, January 4, 2013

The Netherlands and High Water

After Hurricane Sandy so easily sent New York Harbor rolling up so many streets in Manhattan and Jersey City, it was a bit of a shock to see the capital city of Amsterdam vivisected every two bocks by canals. If the Dutch had built their New Amsterdam like the old one, there would be nothing left today of the Big Apple.

Of course, the Netherlands have had their super storms. In the Saint Peters Flood of 1651, 26 years after they founded New York City, 15,000 Dutch people are estimated to have been drowned. Our Dutch hotel clerk, and our breakfast chef, Yost, told us that there was a terrible flood in the 1950s that killed scores of people in Holland. After that, they decided they weren’t going to take it anymore.

He was referring to the North Sea Flood of January 1953, which killed 1,850 people and tens of thousands of animals, and destroyed 4,500 buildings. It was the result of a high Spring tide and a massive windstorm that swept across Europe into the North Sea. The sea swell was 18.4ft (compare that to the nine feet we were worried would hit Jersey City during Sandy).

The response was to build a massive flood defense system in the estuaries of all the major rivers leading into the Netherlands. (In another Dutch connection, the Hudson River at New York City is not a river but an estuary.) It’s called the Delta Works, and it was not finished until 1998.

According to Yost, problem solved. Now he said, when there is a flood in America like Katrina or Sandy, Dutch engineers go over to consult.

Here is an article on Dutch ideas for NYC post-Sandy:

Of course, Yost said, before the high-priced engineers fly over, they send this little guy:

But as others have pointed out, and as the little Dutch Boy well knows, you stop water from coming in one place, it will go someplace else, and probably not the direction its coming from.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Harnessing the Limitations of Things

Ben Sollee is a cellist/singer-songwriter from Kentucky. Today in his World CafĂ© interview he described the “superhuman pace” of his former tour schedule, multiple flights per week across the country.

“I found myself spending a lot more time in-between places than actually in them,” he said. He described the unsettling feeling a lot of frequent flyers have of waking up and not remembering where he was.

After seeing a commercial on Current TV for a cargo bike company called Xtracycle, Sollee decided to slow down his tour schedule by bicycling to his gigs.

His first trip was from Lexington, Kentucky to the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, and he hasn’t looked back since. He described the new connections he is able to make with the communities he passes through on the road. You might argue that he spends even more time “in-between places” than before because of the time it takes to get there under pedal power, but it is really the opposite. When you are pedaling through a town, stopping to get water, or eat, or just say hello, a ‘wherever you go, there you are’ mentality sets in. It’s hard to have that in an airport, squeezed into economy seating, or even on a tour bus.

Sollee is an activist, especially on mountain-top removal, but he was quick to point out that he doesn’t bike to his shows for the environment. “It’s not about being Green… or even sustainable, but rather to use the limitations of the bicycles to slow us down so we could really be in these communities.”

Sollee’s approach is to harness the limitations of the world to serve our needs (and learn how not to be frustrated by the slowness).

I think the way to foster mass appeal for sustainable, “green” living is to push the emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits of slowing down on the individuals themselves. This may be more effective that trying to get people to care about big abstract consequences of climate change.

What are the ways we can choose slow, low-impact technology alternatives in our daily lives?... Perhaps the first question we should ask ourselves is what aspect of our daily lives do we even want to slow down?

Check out the whole interview and songs here: