The world is a “polder” – a parable for sustainability today


One of the things that I have been thinking about a lot is the question “what is it that really and most effectively drives sustainable change”? After many years in the sustainability business my list has actually boiled down to four major drivers: legislation (let’s face it), competition, cost advantages and – maybe most important – education. There are definitely more, but these seem to be the most effective and high level ones (please let me know if you think differently).

While legal compliance, competition and cost advantage are quite well-known and managed in the corporate world, the overall and most important driver for me is actually education, meaning awareness about the interconnectivity of many sustainability problem areas and the ability of people and organizations to reflect on what their own impact is and how a certain history, religion, regional or company culture is influencing behaviour.

If I could recommend books to start education and raising awareness about sustainability, Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed” (Penguin Books) would be amongst the top 3. He looks into the past and what emerges is a fundamental pattern of environmental catastrophe which still exists today, globally and at higher level. In the last chapter Jared Diamond analyzes today’s political and market interconnectivity and develops a fragile picture of the world and concludes that the risk we face is of a worldwide decline.

As somebody living in the Netherlands I was especially touched by a picture painted by Diamond that explains “the world as a polder”: 1/5th of the Dutch landmass is reclaimed from the sea, is up to 22 ft. below sea level and a complicated drainage system is pumping water back out into a river or the North Sea. This is why the Netherlands had so many windmills in the past (replaced today to steam, diesel or electric pumps). He quotes one Dutch friend who said: “You have to be able to get along with your enemy, because he may be the person operating the neighbouring 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 levels. If the dikes and pumps fail, we’ll all drown together”.

Diamond concludes that most of the needed technology to not drown together already exists. But what is crucial is to also make the right choices towards long-term planning, and willingness to reconsider core values. He finishes his book by saying: “Thus, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples. That’s an opportunity that no past society enjoyed to such a degree”.

So, let’s learn from the past, understand the value of transparency and make a real difference! Educating sustainability and finding the right parables to make people understand what is at stake is probably the biggest challenge we need to solve. 99% of the people of this planet still don’t have a clue.