Historical story

This is how the Netherlands became a fossil land of lazy days

Last updated:2022-07-25

The Dutch had more and more to spend and extreme poverty disappeared between 1850 and 2010. But that came with a price, because sustainability is not going well, as the book 'The vulnerable prosperity of the Netherlands' shows. That is why the authors call for a circular economy.

The period around 1960 is a turning point in the history of the Netherlands, as four scientists analyze in the book 'The vulnerable prosperity of the Netherlands'. There were enough raw materials available to make things and to heat houses, prosperity increased considerably and bitter poverty disappeared. The Dutch had decent housing and plenty to eat. “Historically, it was a kind of paradise,” says emeritus professor of technology history Harry Lintsen of Eindhoven University of Technology, one of the authors of the book.

In 'The Vulnerable Prosperity of the Netherlands', the scientists investigate the prosperity and sustainability of the Netherlands between 1850 and 2010. Lintsen:“We show that in that period the entire population, regardless of age, gender, was lifted slightly or strongly above the subsistence level. ”

That in itself is not a new insight, but the scientists also show how this happened exactly and that the increased prosperity is not yet burdening the environment too heavily. They substantiate their conclusion with many figures and graphs. They also call for the development of a circular economy. An interview with Harry Lintsen about extreme poverty, mass consumption and the current lifestyle.

Why were the sixties so special? I don't think many people would see it as a "paradise" these days. We still lost a lot of time with grubby household chores and travel was considerably slower, to name just a few things.

“If you look from now on, life back then was very solid and austere. But seen from 1850 it is indeed a paradise. Then there was extreme poverty. This was solved in the Netherlands within a hundred years. If you look at that, it's very special.”

“But there was even more to it. The dikes were improved during this time, there was public housing, so that everyone had a decent roof over their head. In addition, there was running water and a connection to the sewerage system. There were also more than enough fossil raw materials, so that there was a lot of energy to heat houses and make things. We even made a lot of money with this on the international trade market. That helped to raise the level of prosperity in the Netherlands even further.”

And it didn't seem like those fossil fuels would soon run out?

“No, and the pressure on natural capital was also limited. We use graphs to show that CO2 emissions remain below the current standard. The same goes for fertilizer and sulfur dioxide. It is a bit more difficult to estimate exactly how biodiversity was doing, because there is not enough data. But we think that it was also reasonable. For example, the bird species flourished. Although the salmon had already disappeared from the Rhine.”

What happened next?

“The economy modernized and mass consumption emerged. People were buying more and more stuff. You see more electrical appliances in the house, such as a washing machine and iron. Agriculture also changed a lot. Before the war there were many small farmers. This had a major benefit for biodiversity, as land was demarcated by hedges and bushes. A mecca for insects, birds and small mammals. After 1960 there is much more large-scale. Smallholder farmers are a thing of the past. More land is being reclaimed at the expense of nature. Hedges, ditches and bushes disappear. The European market is being thrown open and a new phase of globalization is emerging.”

“In addition, there is an advance of industry in the Netherlands. The government is focusing on this by luring petrochemical and aluminum companies to the Netherlands. And then, at this time, natural gas is also found in Groningen; that is suddenly abundant. The Netherlands became a fossil paradise and connected to the natural gas grid.”

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In the book, the authors show that prosperity increases in the 1970s and 1980s, but that this is at the expense of sustainability. Heathland areas are disappearing, smog is forming in large cities and gravel is being extracted on such a large scale in Limburg that the landscape changes significantly. There is also a response to this. Environmental associations are born, the Club of Rome is sounding the alarm about the adverse effects of economic growth on the environment. In short, the perception changes and the 'fossil loafing land' is coming to an end.

You now call in the book for a circular economy, in which the products we use can be reused over and over again, so that waste is a thing of the past. Isn't it incredibly difficult to realize this?

“Between 1850 and 1960, extreme poverty was eradicated in the Netherlands. That seemed an impossible task at the time, but it has been achieved in a hundred years. If we now take the same hundred years to set up a circular economy, it should be possible. Of course you have to work hard, but it is possible. Take the power supply. Since 1970 we have been working on energy-neutral houses, wind turbines and solar boilers. We are now fifty years later, there are all kinds of inventions and there are numerous options. We can continue to build on that. Of course, oil will also remain attractive, certainly until 2050, but we are already working on alternatives.”

How do you view the turning off of the gas tap in Groningen?

“That's great luck. Because the gas tap in Groningen is closed, the development of renewable energy is gaining momentum. That gives a necessary push in the back. Renewable energy now has the momentum. When the Housing Act was passed more than a century ago, it was decided that all houses would have access to drinking water and sewage. That was very important. Wiebes can now decide to make every house energy neutral. Subsidies must then be provided for this, but then you can decide for yourself how you do that. For example, via geothermal energy, wind turbines or solar panels on the roof. Then we can use smartgrids . everywhere construction and houses are also allowed to supply energy to the grid. When the sun shines and you have solar panels, you supply energy instead of taking it off.”

That sounds very nice, but it will still be difficult to implement. Our current electricity grid is not designed for households to be able to supply electricity back on a massive scale. This means that we have to make significant adjustments to the current electricity grid. Moreover, it has been calculated that supplying renewable energy to the grid up to thirty percent is fine, but that major problems arise above that, because the grid is not designed for that. How do we solve that then?

“I don't know the best about that. I can't work this out at that level. But you have to dare to think on a larger scale. We have been researching smartgrids. . for about ten years now Where will we be in twenty years? Then we have made great strides. In the book we make a distinction between the short and the long term. You can grab the low-hanging fruit now and other topics may be more difficult to achieve and you will only introduce them around 2050. That includes the smart grids, for example.”

I wonder about the development of smartgrids also wonder how much it costs if we have to adapt the electricity grid accordingly.

“Historically, that's the last problem we have. In 1850 we were a relatively poor country compared to today. We are very prosperous in the Netherlands at the moment. We have knowledge and money.”

How do you concretely ensure that there is a circular economy?

“The government must clearly set the boundaries. Take energy-neutral living, which I already mentioned. Suppose the government prescribes that every house must be energy neutral. Then you can decide for yourself how you do that and which technology you use. Are you going to insulate extra well in combination with solar panels or do you opt for a windmill and geothermal energy? It doesn't matter.”

“I understand that there is now panic at Economic Affairs because we are no longer extracting natural gas in Groningen. That's a bizarre situation. We knew this would happen sooner or later, right? The government is the central actor, their role is very important as a director, user and legislator and has a lot of financial resources. But a change is going to hurt anyway.”

What do you mean? Do we especially feel that in our wallets?

“No, that's not necessary at all. Take the discussion around the Oostvaardersplassen. The debate is about how we deal with nature and animals. Essentially, new standards are now being set. There are different perspectives. That has nothing to do with money, but with emotions, combativeness and other values. Such a discussion about how we deal with nature also plays an important role within the circular economy, after all, it is also about biodiversity.”

“It's also about changing your lifestyle. I know how difficult that is. I was raised to eat a piece of meat every day and because we were Catholic we ate fish on Fridays. In the 1970s we had a young family and my wife and I started cooking vegetarian. We have followed courses for this, so that you can still eat nutritiously with nuts and cheese. Yet, when the children left home, we fell back into an old pattern. There is a kind of historical captivity there. I now have debates about meat eating within the family. I tell this story to show that change is sometimes difficult. But if we look at longer periods, a lot is possible. You can see that in the development in the Netherlands between 1850 and 2010.”