Rewriting the Dutch Water Story: An Interview with Dr. Poldergeist

In September 2021, Project Poldergeist was launched, a series of animated videos that explore the complexities of life below sea level in the Netherlands and other coastal regions. The host of the series is Dr. Poldergeist. The Internet is awash with “explainer” videos that lavish praise on the Netherlands for its technological ability to thrive below sea level. But Dr. Poldergeist takes a different approach. He shows that climate adaptation is not just a question of science and engineering. It’s also a matter of culture and politics, and that’s where things can get complicated. In this fictional interview with Dr. Poldergeist, written by Professor Simon Richter (University of Pennsylvania), the creator and producer of Project Poldergeist, we learn more about how an American team of researchers and animators uses animated video to hold up a mirror to the Dutch water sector.

Dr. Poldergeist, please tell us about yourself.

Let me start by stating the obvious: I’m an animated character created by a team of researchers and animators at the University of Pennsylvania. They designed me to express novel insights about climate adaptation in the Netherlands. Now, mind you, my insights are not technical in nature. I’m not an engineer! You might think of me as a psychologist of Dutch culture. The Dutch have some powerful flood-related traumas in their background and they’re grappling with a unique and high stakes climate situation. Under that kind of pressure, you might see a variety of responses, among them a bunch of words starting with the letter D: denial, deferral, deflection, defiance and even despair. These are behaviors and states of mind that get in the way of implementing effective adaptation strategies. An outsider’s perspective can be helpful.

What makes the Dutch climate situation unique?

The Netherlands is known all over the world for its extraordinary water defense system, the famous Delta Works. They’re necessary because 26% of the Netherlands is below sea level and another 34% is vulnerable to river flooding. It’s not wrong to say that the Dutch live in the safest delta in the world. But climate change is making things very complicated for the Netherlands. If nations don’t manage to limit global warming to 1.5°C—and that seems increasingly unlikely—accelerated sea level rise may overwhelm their capacity to reinforce their dikes and dunes in time. When you put these two things together, you have the Dutch paradox: The Netherlands is both very safe and very vulnerable at one and the same time. I try to shed light on the consequences of living within that paradox.

You call yourself a “psychologist of Dutch culture.” What does that mean? Are you trying to pull a Sigmund Freud on the Dutch?!

Many people don’t know that Freud was a big fan of the Netherlands. While he was in Vienna in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, he followed the story of the Afsluitdijk and the Wieringermeer and Flevoland polders in his favorite newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse, with great interest. And when he introduced his concept of the three parts of the human psyche—the id, the ego, and superego—to the public in 1932—the same year the Afsluitdijk was completed–he basically compared himself to Cornelis Lely, the Dutch politician and civil engineer responsible for the project. “The work of psychoanalysis,” he said, “is to strengthen the ego, to make it more independent of the superego, to widen its field of perception and enlarge its organization, so that it can appropriate fresh portions of the id. Where id was, there ego shall be. It is a work of culture—not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee.”

Let’s stop here for a minute. For Freud, creating polders, pumping out water, turning wetlands into dry land, all of those things the Dutch do so well, are a metaphor for what psychoanalysis does. The lower Netherlands is like the ego. Water, wetlands, and peat bogs are like the id. Freud saw the Zuiderzee Works as an admirable case of cultural labor–the project of a nation. I’m sure he would have thought the same thing about the Delta Works: Droge voeten (dry feet) for the human soul. However, to take up another of Freud’s insights, all that hydrological pumping and all those defenses that have been erected to protect the collective Dutch ego result in the equivalent of what he calls repression. In other words, you tuck away problems and contradictions without confronting them. But, as Freud well knew, repressed material has a tendency to resurface and to haunt the ego or, in our case, the nation that expelled the water and created the defenses. This is what he calls “the return of the repressed.” Subsidence, biodiversity loss, siltation, the nitrogen crisis, drought, and accelerated sea level rise—this is what the return of the repressed looks like for the Dutch.

After that explanation, you can probably understand why I’m called Dr. Poldergeist. I’m animated by the spirit or the ghost of the Dutch polder. And, like my German cousin the Poltergeist, I’m mischievous and aim to cause a little trouble. But, as the American civil rights leader, John Lewis, used to say, there is such a thing as “good trouble, necessary trouble.” I hope that the trouble I cause is good trouble. 

Okay, now things are falling into place. For instance, in your first video, “How much of the Netherlands is below sea level?”, you actually invite the Netherlands “to lie down on Dr. Poldergeist’s couch.” That’s more than a little outrageous!

This was our debut video and we wanted to establish my function, which we call “peering beneath the surface,” and provide a convincing illustration of the kind of psychological and cultural phenomenon we thought we could illuminate. In our research, we noticed that Dutch people, even Dutch officials, tend to exaggerate how much of the Netherlands is below sea level. The numbers we encountered were all over the map, from one third on the low end to eighty percent on the high end. We got the feeling that people just gave a number that felt right to them—it was, in other words, an expression of how vulnerable or invincible they felt, or both at the same time! You can easily dismiss this—and several engineers tried to Dutch-splain the discrepancies away for me—but that would just repeat the repression. Given the Dutch situation, it’s not surprising that something is going on and it’s worth bringing it to the surface.

And how about your second video? Do you bring something to the surface there as well?

Indeed, we do. This one is called “Is the Netherlands too deep to fail?” You may be aware that there is a housing shortage in the Netherlands. The government wants to see close to a million new homes built by 2030. SWECO, a major European architecture and design firm, analyzed existing plans and determined that 820,000 homes would be built below sea level or in vulnerable areas. Flashpoints for this are the “Fifth Village” in the Zuidplas Polder (at close to 7 meters below sea level, the Netherlands’ lowest elevation), and homes to be built in the floodplains of the Nederrijn River in Arnhem. To an outsider, this seems crazy. Why wouldn’t you place a moratorium on building in the riskiest areas and incentivize building at higher elevations in the East? Deltares and the Delta Commissioner issued express warnings about the danger of “lock-ins” that limit options for adaptation. You know you’re in psychologically interesting territory when people resort to spectacular forms of denial. In the presence of the Minister of Public Housing and Spatial Planning, the local dike reeve said, “We’re not only going to build the Fifth Village in the lowest spot in the country, we will make it the showcase climate village of the Netherlands.” In our video we wonder if the reason the Dutch continue to invest heavily in risky areas has to do with an unspoken belief that the government will protect those investments at any price. By building up those areas even more, you increase the likelihood that the government won’t let them drown, literally and figuratively. We call this the “too-deep-to-fail” strategy.

I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but you seem very critical of the Dutch. Someone might even suspect that you don’t like them. Is that true?

Oh no, not at all! I’m really very fond of the Dutch. The Netherlands is a unique and remarkable nation. When I visit the majestic Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier, I get emotional. I can’t help it. You sense the relentless force of the water rushing in and out of the estuary. You know the extreme conditions under which the engineers had to build this technological marvel with minute precision. You honor the intention to keep the estuary open in order to preserve habitat and livelihoods—even if it didn’t quite work out. And you reflect on the fact that this structure and others like it protect millions of people. How can you not appreciate the culture that brought this piece of infrastructure into being?

Let me mention something else that may surprise you. Nijmegen is one of my favorite places in the world. Why? Because of the Room for the Waal River project. Pulling back the dikes, extending the floodplain, providing residents with new forms of recreational river access—this shows that the Dutch can find new ways to live with water. When the peak discharge of the Rhine is gracefully accommodated within the city, and pedestrian bridges, foot paths, meadows and fields submerge according to plan—I just can’t get over it. This is a brilliant manifestation of design intelligence that is not at cross purposes with the environment.

But that’s my point. So much of the Netherlands is at odds with the environment. And climate change makes that a dangerous proposition. There are numerous Dutch climate adaptation experts, geologists, landscape architects and urban designers, ecologists, engineers, and activists who know this. They’re trying very hard to tell the public and the government that the Netherlands needs to modify its approach, and they’ve had some success, but not enough. The purpose of the Poldergeist videos is to support them in that process. We do that through culture. To be more specific, what we’re trying to do is to “re-write the Dutch water story.” It’s not surprising that some people who are really attached to the old water story about the Netherlands’ “eternal battle against the sea” don’t like what we’re doing.

What do you mean by “rewriting the Dutch water story”? Isn’t that just history?

That’s an important question. At one time or another, you’ve probably heard a Dutch person say, “We have water in our DNA.” This is obviously a metaphor, but there’s something to it. What they mean is that their experience with managing water has been so prolonged and so intense that it’s become second nature. Water is a major part of who they are. It’s in their cultural makeup. They feel they know water like no one else. Put all that experience and memory, trauma and triumph into narrative form and voila—that’s the Dutch water story, the epic tale of their heroic war against the sea. You know the basic components. “Long ago, these were wetlands and peat bogs. We lived on terps. We built dams on the river Rotte (Rotterdam) and the river Amstel (Amsterdam). We drained the wetlands and built dikes. Compelled by common vulnerabilities to work together, we created the earliest forms of Dutch democracy.

When windmill technology was introduced, we scaled up. We drained lakes and converted them into fertile polders: the Beemster, the Purmer, and many more. Sure, there were occasional tragic floods that we preserved in song and image, with wildly exaggerated victim tallies. The St Elisabeth Flood of 1421, they say, took the lives of more than 100, 000. But we always bounced back—that’s our legendary resilience. After the flood of 1916, the Dutch found the resolve to build the Afsluitdijk, converting the Zuiderzee into the freshwater Lake Ijssel and adding the vast polders that impressed Sigmund Freud. Fossil-fueled pumps instead of windmills made that possible. The Flood of 1953 punctured our sense of invincibility. More than 1800 died and it could have been much worse. It was the Dutch Katrina, except we learned from it. The Delta Works went a long way toward restoring our self-confidence and earned us renewed respect in the world. The old saying attributed to Rene Descartes, who lived in the Netherlands from 1628-49, is still on people’s tongues today: God created the World, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.” There you have it, the Dutch water story in a nutshell. 

I don’t really see what’s wrong with that. Doesn’t every country have its national myth? Why would you want to rewrite that? And by the way, you still haven’t explained what that means!

Sorry. I got a little side-tracked. And I still need to unpack a bit more before I can explain what I mean by “rewriting the water story”. There are two problems with the way the Dutch water story operates today. I call them polder complacency and polder arrogance. The former concerns the internal, domestic workings of the Netherlands. The latter is international. Let’s start with polder complacency. The latest chapters of the Dutch water story–the Delta Works and Room for the River–end pretty triumphantly. The river flooding that took place in West Germany, Belgium, and Limburg in the summer of 2021 caused some consternation, but the major take-away was the success of the Dutch flood protection measures in comparison to the tragic failures in Germany and Belgium. There has been no loss of life due to flooding in the Netherlands since 1953 and that’s saying something! The result is a kind of complacency, on the part of the public and the government, and even, though in a different way, on the part of engineers. The success of the water defense systems has lulled people into a false sense of security. But that’s not what bothers the engineers. In an article published in June 2022 with the reassuring title, “The Water is Coming, But Don’t Be Afraid,” a spokesman for the technocratic position claims that the Netherlands can take on sea level rise of 10 meters. What he worries about is people who suggest that technology has limits and that it may be necessary to move to higher ground. If investors get rattled, he argues, they may withdraw capital from the low-lying parts of the Netherlands and that–not any flooding event or inability to keep pace with sea level rise–would make the system precarious. From his perspective complacency is a good thing. Our videos, by contrast, aim to trouble polder complacency because it gets in the way of taking steps now to prepare for and mitigate against the uncertainties and extremes that lie ahead. 

So much for the domestic situation. The Dutch water story operates differently abroad. Wherever governmental and private sector interests are busy drumming up opportunities for the Dutch water sector–whether in the United States, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Colombia, the Philippines, Vietnam or elsewhere–people tell versions of the Dutch water story. Their self-branding efforts have been so successful that every flooding disaster and every climate change threat provides free PR for the Dutch. Just look at the headlines: “Holland has solved this problem. Why can’t the US?” or “The Dutch have solutions to rising seas. The world is watching.” Domestic vulnerability and divided opinion at home are forgotten. Instead, the international Dutch water sector basks in the reputation it has strategically cultivated. A smug, self-satisfied attitude sets in. We havesolved the problems. We have the solutions. Listen to us. (And buy our wares.) In its crassest form, the government openly concedes that climate change is a business opportunity for the Netherlands. This is what I call polder arrogance. It gets the Dutch in trouble and hinders their ability to achieve foreign policy goals.

The videos of Project Poldergeist address polder complacency and polder arrogance by proposing polder humility as an alternative. We do this by “rewriting the water story” in a less heroic mode. In other words, we alter the narrative and introduce new metaphors. Let me give you an example. In “Is the Netherlands too deep to fail,” we rewrite the story of the eternal war against water as a tale of gambling: “The Dutch have been gambling with the sea for centuries!” We fully expect resistance from Dutch viewers because gambling is less dignified and heroic, but if the narrative coheres and offers an equally compelling construction of the facts, then we’ve succeeded in opening up space for critical reflection. “What role does risk play in our calculations? Does climate change increase risk? Are we placing wild bets? Should we be more prudent?” 

Or take another example, the metaphor of the drained swimming pool in “How much of the Netherlands is below sea level?” You sometimes hear people comparing the polders to a bathtub. We take it a step further. Swimming pools are meant to be full of water. The rivers that would love to do just that instead are like hoses suspended above the pool. The Dutch water machine, as one engineer calls the Netherlands, is dedicated to keeping the swimming pool drained. When you put it that way, it’s kind of crazy, isn’t it? 

I can give you a third example from one of the videos currently in production. This one is called “How will the Netherlands defend itself against climate change?” We assess the four adaptation pathways developed by Deltares from the perspective of biodiversity, which, as you may know, is in a desperate state due to a combination of factors including industrial agriculture and keeping the water table low. In this video we accept the premise of the war against water, but we extend the scope. Their war against water goes hand in hand with a clandestine war against nature. In other words, those heroics on the water front have caused a lot of collateral damage. 

All of these metaphors have great visual potential: roulette wheels, drained swimming pools, and a militarized landscape. The brilliant visualizations of the Poldergeist animators bring these metaphors to life. Seeing them is half the argument. Or more. I guess you could say we’re not only rewriting, we’re also revisualizing the Dutch water story. If we succeed, people in the water sector, in government, and the public in general will be more thoughtful about assumptions and choices that seem self-evident. 

This seems like a good place to ask you how the videos have been received?

Pretty well, so far. We released them on YouTube. That allows us to access information about viewership. We know that 68% of our viewers are in the Netherlands. And that 9.5% of them are in Amsterdam. On average, viewers in The Hague spend the most time actually watching the video. I find that encouraging! Anecdotally, we know that a few policy makers of note have seen them. I’m not ashamed to say that we made a big play to get Hugo de Jonge, the new minister of social housing and spatial planning, to watch “Too Deep.” You’ll have to watch the video to see what I mean. We have no confirmation that he has, but we’re hopeful. What I most enjoy is seeing others use the video to advance their approach to adaptation on social media. One person has been especially inventive: Sacha Stolp, the director of innovation in the department of engineering for the city of Amsterdam. When Prime Minister Rutte gave a chest-thumping version of the Dutch water story at COP26 in Glasgow, she invited him to take a seat on Dr. Poldergeist’s couch! And she used “Too Deep” as the occasion to write an open letter to Housing Minister De Jonge. I hope many others will use the video to get conversations going in meetings or workshops. That’s what they’re there for. 

Are there any other videos on the horizon?

Many! We have a fourth in production right now. It asks how the climate futures of Jakarta and the Netherlands compare. Visually, we decided to return to the swimming pool metaphor. Here’s a quote from the script: “What does Jakarta’s swimming pool look like? Right now, 40% of North Jakarta is below sea level. And the pool is expanding and getting deeper—fast. The deep end has been sinking at rates of up to 25 centimeters PER YEAR! And those thirteen rivers? They’re leaky and prone to bursting. It’s hard–incredibly hard–to keep Jakarta’s swimming pool drained.” Since we’re talking about Jakarta, we have to mention the Great Garuda Sea Wall, one of those occasions when Dutch polder arrogance kind of got out of hand. We use this story to argue that the Dutch and Indonesians and other members of the Dutch Water Partnership would benefit from being honest about their vulnerabilities and more willing to learn from each other. We consulted with Shahnoor Hasan and Bosman Batabura, two IHE PhDs, for this one. 

Can you tell us about your team and your process?

I’d be delighted to. The director and scriptwriter is Professor Simon Richter. He’s a scholar of German and Dutch culture at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s a restless kind of guy with a Dutch background. His mother was born in Hilversum and his father in what is now Jakarta, but was called Batavia when he was born. Simon is obsessed with climate adaptation and the Netherlands in particular. The artistic director is Professor Joshua Mosley. Josh teaches animation and is a distinguished animation artist. His work has been shown in museums in Europe and North America. Currently, nine Penn undergraduates are involved.  Together with Simon and Josh, teams of three work on each video. It begins with in-depth research, moves on to script-writing and story-boarding, all the way through to the completed animation. It’s a very collaborative process that intertwines research and creativity at every step. We meet with lots of experts online to make sure that we’re accurate, up-to-date, and effective in communicating our message. The willingness of top scientists at Deltares, NIOZ, Wageningen, IHE Delft and other institutions to explain the science and give their feedback has been amazing. The students love these zoom meetings with experts! It opens them up to a world of dedicated and innovative people who are passionately working to help communities adapt and thrive under adverse conditions. They’re thrilled that they can put their creativity as artists to work for a good cause. 

What’s next for Dr Poldergeist?

What we’re building is a media platform, not for our own sake, but for climate adaptation science in the broadest sense, including culture. We want to help people in the Netherlands and other low-lying areas understand their situation. We want to encourage policymakers to work with residents to develop plans for adaptation and land use that take climate change and sea level rise into account. We’ll keep using humor and animation to rewrite the Dutch water story. It’s an amazing story, more amazing now than ever before. If there are scientists, architects, designers, engineers, journalists, community organizers, activists or policymakers out there who want to contribute to the story, we’d love to share our platform. Call us! And one day–one day!–I want to meet Minister de Jonge. Because, man, those shoes! 

Thank you for spending time with us, Dr Poldergeist. 

My pleasure.



Cite this blog post
Simon Richter (2022, July 26). Rewriting the Dutch Water Story: An Interview with Dr. Poldergeist. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/os2k

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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1 Response

  1. 13/05/2024

    […] international projects, displaying a condition that became known as on the pages of this blog as “polder arrogance” – a term coined by the project’s “Professor Poldergeist” (IHE-Delft, 2022). The workshop […]

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