Sigmund Freud and the Enclosure Dam of the Mind: A new Dr. Poldergeist video

In March 2024, Project Poldergeist released its sixth video: “Why was Sigmund Freud interested in the Afsluitdijk”, an animated psychogram of the Netherlands. A psychogram is a visual representation that captures the distinct qualities of a person, or in this case, a national culture. Although we’re generally cautious about privileging the “nation” over other categories or imagining that national culture can be anything but heterogenous, in this case it makes sense. So many aspects of Dutch society contribute to the maintenance of a widely shared water story as a matter of national pride. And while that water story amounts to a celebration of a system that still seems to be working well in 2024, our psychogram wouldn’t be complete without bringing the repressed portion of the story into view as well.

While many in the Netherlands and Europe have been singing along to “Europapa”, Joost Klein’s awkwardly exuberant gabber tribute to his dead parents and a precariously poised Europe—right up to the point of his disqualification and beyond—a different song has been running through my head. Do you remember Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t no mountain high enough”? In my version, the melody is the same, but the words are slightly different.

Ain’t no sea level high enough

Ain’t no polder deep enough

Ain’t no river wide enough

We’ll keep feet dry for you, babe!

As in the original song, this is a bold promise. It’s a promise that was renewed in early March by the Dutch Minister of Infrastructure and Water, when Rijkswaterstaat published the results of studies that evaluate the viability of three climate adaptation approaches to dealing with 5 meters of sea level rise. “We see that there are possibilities to cope with even an extreme sea level rise of five meters. We also see that these will have substantial consequences for the configuration of the Netherlands.” As newspaper headlines outbid each other in rendering the promise in ever more absolute terms, the cautionary note in the second sentence fell to the wayside. It was the headline in the popular, rightwing Dutch Newspaper De Telegraaf that reminded me of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s song: “Geen zee te hoog.” Or, to paraphrase in the language of Marvin and Tammi, “Ain’t no sea high enough.”

It’s hard to overestimate the Dutch longing for just such a reassuring message. Since 2008, when the Second Delta Commission unsuccessfully attempted to set the upper bound for sea level rise at 1,30m by 2100, there has been a tacit consensus that any consideration about the Dutch capacity to manage conditions beyond 1m with existing strategies was not welcome. Thanks to the contributions of Dutch experts to the Sixth Assessment of the IPCC and their translation into Dutch terms of reference by the KNMI (Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute), the pressure to address the fact that scientists could not rule out 2 meters of sea level rise by 2100 and 5 meters by 2150 mounted. In 2019 the consensus collapsed. That’s why the Delta Commissioner and the Ministry of Infrastructure  and Water established the Kennisprogramma Zeespiegelstijging (Sea Level Rise Knowledge Programme) to “investigate the potential impacts of sea level rise on our country and explore measures to prepare for the consequences”. At the time, this seemed like a breakthrough. Finally, the Dutch water management world would take stock of the alarming news from Antarctica and Greenland. And perhaps they would realize that there are limits to their ability to defend against sea level rise with technology. 

We should have known better. So much is possible technologically, at least on paper. If you’re willing to discount environmental impacts, loss of biodiversity, the effects of possible political instability, mounting budgets, and deep uncertainty, but especially the time factor—the multiple decades required to implement these technological fixes and the chance that sea level rise and other impacts will outpace slow progress—then the Netherlands can indeed be physically protected from sea level rise. It seems inevitable therefore that the main conclusion drawn from the studies was, as the headline in the NRC Handelsblad put it, that “The Netherlands will remain ‘safe and livable’ even with five meters of sea level rise”. Sure, there’s fine print about side effects, but who’s going to read it, if the medicine goes down easy. And with that, and until climate change shows them radically otherwise, the Dutch relapse into the complacency they’ve grown accustomed to and enjoyed since the completion of the Delta Works. Everything is under control.

From the perspective of the Poldergeist team, it sometimes seems that the Dutch maintain two systems of dikes, barriers, and other defenses. One is physical and keeps their feet dry. And the other is mental and prevents potential anxieties and concerns about sea level rise from spilling over into the pleasant routines of everyday life. In the video, we call this the “mental Afsluitdijk”, referring to the iconic Dutch Enclosure Dam.

To make this video, our team of six student artists joined co-director Joshua Mosley and me for a four-week study trip to the Netherlands. We established our base in a converted 19th century farmhouse in Haastrecht, near the city of Gouda, well below sea level. We did much of our local travel by bicycle. The students were in awe of the splendid bicycle infrastructure. They enjoyed eating ice cream on the town square in Gouda and watching the world go by. Their overall experience convinced them that the Dutch really have achieved a remarkable and pleasant quality of life. As our video says, “It’s fun to be Dutch! Admit it, you’d move here, too, if you could!” This captures the sentiment on the “inside” of the mental Afsluitdijk, there where an illusion of timeless safety is maintained.

On the “outside”, however, where inadmissible thoughts and unwelcome science are found, things take on a different appearance. In the video we call attention to the fact that the ice sheet in Antarctica is melting faster than expected. This is part of a cluster of alarming news: mean ocean temperature has been setting daily records for more than a year; ocean circulation systems such as AMOC are slowing down; in the last decade, sea level rise along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the USA has risen around 16cm. We also mention that the World Economic Forum regards the possible failure of climate adaptation measures as the #1 risk to the Netherlands. This is a reminder that outside of the Netherlands it may be more difficult to control the narrative. The mental Afsluitdijk allows people to live comfortably within these contradictions.

The focus of the new video is on land subsidence. When sea level rise is accelerating, it doesn’t help if low-lying regions are subsiding at the same time. This has been a perennial problem for the Netherlands for just as long as they’ve been creating polders and using pumps to keep them dry. Many seem unaware that parts of the Netherlands that are now as low as 7 meters below sea level were at or even above sea level several centuries ago.

Cities, towns, and meadows built on drained peatbogs will continue to subside for as long as the water table is kept artificially low for the sake of industrial agriculture. Homeowners and municipal governments would often be better off if the water table were higher. They wouldn’t have to continually raise streets, shore up foundations, add soil to elevate their yard, reinforce tilting buildings, and reconnect gas lines and sewage pipes. The city of Gouda, close to our base, has become the poster child of land subsidence. We honored the city with a drawing of the Turfmarkt Canal where lily pads creep onto the street.

In the process of doing the research for the video, we spoke to many scientists and experts. We learned that soil composition is crucial for understanding the fate of the built environment. The more recently created mega-polders of Flevoland are based on the clay of the old seabed. Built on clay first exposed in the middle of the twentieth century, the cities of Almere and Lelystad are also subsiding as the clay dries out and compacts. In many parts of the Netherlands, dealing with subsidence is an ongoing expense for municipalities, ministries, and homeowners, whose property values may plummet or who may be saddled with the high cost of stabilizing their homes.

In general, the only way to stop subsidence in the Netherlands is to raise the water table, to allow more water into a system designed to expel it, and to reform land use. In 2022, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water released an advisory letter called Water en Bodem Sturend (Water and Soil as Governing Principles) which points in that direction. But the stalemate with angry farmers about nitrogen pollution and the election outcome indicate that implementation cannot be taken for granted. It’s another case of knowing what to do and not being able to do it.

As we learned from Dutch climate adaptation experts and other scientists, the dikes of the mind are a serious liability for prudent, long-term planning. Many interests and desires coalesce to keep them strong. To call these psychological defenses into question constructively is, well, a matter of psychology. Of cultural psychology, to be precise. And that is why we turned to Sigmund Freud. Not, and I really need to emphasize this, because we think psychoanalysis is the answer. What our research uncovered is that Freud was watching from Vienna as work on the Afsluitdijk progressed. He was extremely interested in the draining of the Zuiderzee and the creation of new land. He was, to put it in contemporary terms, a big fan of Dutch water management ingenuity. He saw a parallel to his own efforts to help his clients strengthen their ability to live pleasantly amidst conflicting demands that came from deep reservoirs of irrational desire and the scolding demands from outside institutions and systems. All of this we confirmed with our archival research

But our video goes a step further. In a way, Freud and the Netherlands are in the same boat—or bathtub. If we focus on the “administrative capacity” of the Dutch ego—all the systems that collectively sustain Dutch quality of life—we see that it operates nicely within the confines of the physical and mental defenses that currently protect it from sea level rise and unwelcome climate news. But that same ego, like the land it administers, is subsiding, not despite, but because of the systems that sustain it. That insight underlies the Dutch psychogram we have created.

In the course of time, literally hundreds of villages and towns have sunk into the sea. Many are still sinking.

In some parts of the Netherlands, hard won polders such as the Noordwaardpolder and Hedwige-Prosperpolder have been opened to river and sea to give water more room or to reconnect with the natural sediment flows and their land-building properties. We end our video with a drawing of Rommerswael beneath the sea, which was, until it submerged in the eighteenth century, the third largest town in Zeeland. Thanks to efforts spearheaded by Walter Jonkers, Rommerswael will be remembered. Its submerged presence is part of the newly approved UNESCO Geopark Schelde Delta.

Assurances that there “ain’t no sea level high enough” do a lot to reinforce the Afsluitdijk of the mind and some think keeping the technological faith is essential to preserving the Netherlands. Based on our consultations with Dutch climate adaptation experts, physical geographers, and cultural heritage specialists, we think it’s important to open the mental dikes to the urgencies of climate change and the necessity of thinking beyond the limits of technology. If the misfortune of Joost Klein and “Europapa” teaches us anything (and without prejudice regarding the investigation), it is that the unforeseen can trip up national pride in the blink of an eye. We fervently hope that the Netherlands and other coastal countries will find ways to deal with subsidence and to adapt to and accommodate sea level rise and other climate change impacts for the long term. Dr. Poldergeist and Dr. Freud will be watching.



Cite this blog post
Simon Richter (2024, May 21). Sigmund Freud and the Enclosure Dam of the Mind: A new Dr. Poldergeist video. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/11ove

Simon Richter

Simon Richter is the Class of 1965 Endowed Term Professor of German and Dutch Literature and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania. He specializes in cultural aspects of water management and adaptation to sea level rise, with a focus on the Netherlands, Indonesia, and the United States. As an environmental humanist, Richter engages in activities that blur distinctions between traditional scholarship, urban design, and environmental activism. He was instrumental in establishing the Penn 1.5 Minute Climate Lectures and Climate Week at Penn. With Fine Arts Prof. Joshua Mosley, Richter directs the Penn Animation as Research Lab, which produces the popular Project Poldergeist series of videos about climate adaptation in the Netherlands.

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