On the Ground Again: Flourishing Below Sea Level…for Now

Much of Holland is below sea level. Will the dikes hold? The Dutch have held back the North Sea for hundreds of years. They are the world’s experts on dike and canal building and pumping seawater. But they may be facing a whole new situation in the years to come.

Traveling through the Netherlands one recent spring, I could not find a hill over a couple of hundred feet high, and that was rare. Holland is very flat, much of the land is below sea level. If the dykes were to fail, the country would return to the marshes and estuaries so much of it had been before it was “reclaimed.” In the 13th century, windmills had begun to drain areas below sea level for farming.

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Areas of Holland Below Sea Level are in Blue to the right of ‘s-Gravenhage

We were staying in a house we rented via Airbnb in Haarlem at the corner of Martin Luther King Lan and Schweitzer Lan. I would sit at a desk by the window looking down on that corner from the second floor. With my laptop and coffee, I wrote and watched the early morning traffic. It was Spring. Almost as many people were riding bicycles to work or school as were driving the typical small fuel-efficient European cars.

Because the tulips were in bloom, it had been impossible to find a rental in Amsterdam. Haarlem actually turned out to be just as convenient, an easy train ride to central Amsterdam for the museums, canal-side cafés and old-world sights. Both cities were fascinating. Despite several European trips I never get over the massive number of ancient buildings in Europe, all made of hand-shaped stone. Sadly, it also reminds me of the historic buildings demolished by Trumpist wrecking balls in New York City.

We caught a local bus to the famous Keukenhof, touted rightly as the “most beautiful spring garden in the world.” The Keukenhof is an exquisite 32-hectare garden with every variety of tulip, countless other flowers, trees imaginable. Massive tulip fields and bicycle paths availed themselves nearby. We walked through a tiny fraction of the Keukenhof before renting bicycles to ride along the canals and among the tulip fields nearby. It was delightful.

One day we rented a car so we could drive to Petten, NL, to see the ancestral town from which my wife’s family had immigrated to “The New World” on the Mayflower. Petten is right on the coast of the North Sea, behind a huge dike built of sand and planted with grasses. It appeared to have been recently renovated since the grass clumps on the dike were all new and planted in neat rows.

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Dike or Sand Sea-wall and Beach at Petten, North Holland, facing the North Sea.

On arriving in Petten, we noticed that the whole town seemed rather new. Construction was still ongoing on a large staircase over the dike to the beach. Of course, we climbed it and went down to the broad beach. I was surprised to see the construction of what appeared to be a large restraint on the beach, built on piers about 15 feet high, with lots of big windows facing the sea. Everything in Petten from the beach to the town seemed new compared to other towns in Holland that had existed for centuries.

We asked some folks in one of the stores in town why everything was so new. As it turned out, Petten had been lost to storm surges twice in history, then destroyed by the Germans in World War II. I wondered how long it would be until the current global sea rise would destroy Patten. Despite its accomplishments in holding back the North Sea in past centuries, Holland will have never experienced the degree of sea rise predicted for this century as a result of global warming and glacier and polar ice cap melt.

Clearly, the Dutch are a resourceful people with a long history of resilience. They seem both very well organized and among the happiest people on the planet. Things are ‘expensive,’ at least from an American traveler’s perspective. But the Dutch are able to afford their rather advanced lives. I did not see a homeless person on the entire trip. Modern windmills and bicycles are everywhere. The Dutch seem to be adapting to climate change as well as anyone. But as the world fails to adequately reduce carbon emissions to mitigate extreme temperature rise, they too are in for some high tides and tough times.

On the Rails Again: Euro Trains are No Amtrak

Another in the series of occasional rants by the Mad Jubilado.

Over two hundred kilometers per hour? That’s more than 124 mph! Well, we seemed to be going pretty fast.  It was no Shinkansen (the Japanese “Bullet Train”) rocketing the 330 miles from Tocho-Mai Station in Tokyo to Kyoto between 150 and 200 mph. In the U.S., the contrast is striking.  Amtrak passenger trains dare not go over about 65 mph, and with good reason. The European trains are quiet, fast, and comfortable.

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Dutch Tulips

In Tokyo, trains routinely pull up to the platform and stop exactly as scheduled, to the second, after their high-speed runs. Departure times are equally precise. In Europe, they are very close. In the U.S., well, things are different. Here, passenger trains have been relegated to a second-class status, behind the more profitable freight trains. They are not particularly comfortable, fast, or on time. Moving all that coal, oil, and Chinese manufactured consumer goods imported by U.S. corporations, gets first billing. Gotta sell that junk to Americans who have lost their well-paid manufacturing jobs and now work as Walmart greeters or fast food cashiers. That is the priority, not public transportation.

Like so much here, public transportation systems have been ‘privatized,’ leaving the public interest behind. The railroads were created to help stimulate western expansion. The federal government gave wide swaths of land to railroad companies to encourage their development. Huge profits were made not only on the rails themselves but in the many land deals that followed. Private corporate exploitation of the commonwealth continues apace, with little challenge.

Now, the railroad companies act like it is their God-given right to exploit those properties in their own interest, the public be damned. Contrary to the corporate “free market” ideology, most of the magnificent technological developments of the industrial era were subsidized by the public purse. The prime beneficiaries have been the private corporations that took advantage of government largess. Any public benefit was secondary, though there have been many. Unlike Europe, where public infrastructure is valued and maintained, here it is all about the next subsidy or tax break for the corporations and super-rich, to be paid for by squeezing public infrastructure and services ever more tightly as the national debt grows.

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On the Rails to Haarlem

The speed, smooth ride, and quiet on the electric European rail lines got my attention. I don’t remember a more comfortable train ride anywhere else. Then I saw the flat panel display on the forward bulkhead in the rather new passenger car. It displayed the speed in kilometers per hour and the time of arrival at the next station. We were on the TGV, the Euro Rail line, heading from Lyon, France to Haarlem, Netherlands.

The French countryside is a beautiful green in springtime. The tulips are in bloom all across the flat lowlands of Holland. What color! The mix of architecture in passing towns and cities, ranging from medieval to modern, is a bit dissonant in its charm. It is all so lovely to watch through the large windows of our passing train. It is almost as if nothing has changed in the world…but it has.

If there is to be a solution to the converging crises of climate chaos, poverty, resource wars, failed agriculture, mass starvation and forced migrations, it must include transforming public infrastructure to create low-carbon forms of transportation, powered by solar and wind-generated electricity and human energy. Trains, trams, and bicycles must become an essential element of a new life strategy, if we let it. The U.S. is so far behind. We wallow in political fights over false narratives while the planet burns. Making significant progress on issues like public transportation will require a political revolution.