Letter Home From the Edge 2: Amsterdam - Sex, drugs, tourists, fear and rising sea levels
I write to you now, having spent the last few days in Amsterdam, and it has been, to say the very least, intense. I find myself incredibly alone and yet at the same time caught up in the heady, mesmeric dance that the city seems to bring. I walk uncomfortably through Amsterdam’s red light district. I eat Asian food, a red apple too shiny to be real. I step into the historic Church of St. Nicholas and rock back and forth for three hours.
I find that the certainty that had filled me in deciding to do the trip a year ago has suddenly slipped away. I feel like a fraud, like what I have put in front of me is too much, too hard to face. I think ‘you’re not brave enough’. I think ‘you’re going to get ill again’. Yet I know it is these same fearful thoughts that made me ill in the first place and prevented me from acting fully against climate change. So I watch them rise up in me. So I attempt to let them go.
One thing I do feel is important to remain uncertain about however is how I’m going to write these letters. Because right now, I can’t honestly say how I’m going to respond to what I’ll experience. And I think if I try to define too early on how they will look, they will suffer. What I don’t think the purpose of these letters will be however is reportage. After all, it’s the distance that our media creates from climate change that is part of the problem. So what I hope to offer you instead is the stories I find, the conversations that I’m having and my personal account of what I’m witnessing. Hopefully in doing this what will emerge will be a deeper and more interconnected account of the challenges we face, and any solutions and insights that might arise. So like the potential discomfort we’re stepping into, please do sit with me in this uncertainty, and hopefully something useful and purposeful will arise!
So here we go. Diving straight into Amsterdam…
I think, more than anything, what my time in Amsterdam has shown me is how fear drives people, in relation to climate change and towards themselves. Both in a positive and negative way. The Dutch have long lived on and surrounded by water, with the canals and waterways that spool through the country serving as a constant reminder of both the ever looming presence of the sea and the nation’s ability, time and time again to bring it into order. And what I find most insightful about the Dutch’s approach to water management is how, instead of attempting to work against nature they try, wherever possible, to work with it. They see water not as something to be walled up but something to be accepted, something to give room to. They see it not as hypothetical or a drag on their economy but as an opportunity.
So often, what drives fear of climate change is the narrative of human separation from the natural world. We see nature not as a part of ourselves but apart from us and so it becomes, like anything alien, a threat. And so we treat it psychologically as we treat all threats. We either attempt to fight it or ignore it in the hope that it will simply go away. But nature is coming. The Dutch know this and with their long history of seeing water as an existential fact of life, are able to be pro-active in finding solutions. They build lakes, garages, parks, plazas, put aside areas of wetland, devise their settlements in a way that should their initial defence systems fail, flood water from the Rhine will be allowed into the land that has been afforded to it. One such example of this is Eendragtspolder, an area of reclaimed fields and canals that is twenty metres below sea level. It acts as both as an area for recreation (The Rowing World Championships were held here in 2016) and as an overflow reservoir for overflow from the Rhine, which due to climate change is expected to now flood once every ten years.
Yet while there are countless other projects like this all over the Netherlands, the confidence and the bravado of ‘We are the dutch. Managing water is our national identity’ is not always reflected in the people I speak to. And the more I talk to people, the more I learn that there is a generational difference in responses. Most older people I talk to are confident if not a little blasé about the Dutch’s ability to curb rising sea levels. ‘We’ve heard this all of our lives’, ‘The bigger threat to this city is all the tourists’ are typical responses. While most younger people I talked to were more worried, with many making pre-emptive contingency plans. ‘I’m moving to my mother’s place where there is higher land in ten years’ one man tells me. ‘I’m moving abroad in two years’ says another.
During these conversations, two questions or rather thoughts have begun to arise. The first question is whether, through being proactive towards an immediate threat, it becomes harder to acknowledge the bigger picture? It felt almost like what the Dutch were saying was ‘If we manage to keep the sea out, then we’ll be alright.’ But of course, climate change doesn’t work like that, it’s more interconnected, more amorphous. And I wonder if believing you are making progress against one threat can both prevent you from being proactive with other threats and also from treating climate change as an interconnected, global crisis.
Secondly, they also got me thinking about the relationship between how people, especially tourists use the city and our at best muted response to climate change? I’d initially felt dismissive towards the man who told me how tourists were a bigger problem than climate change to the city, after all I fall into this camp. But while he cited how visitors ‘don’t know how to ride bikes’ as the main problem, I wonder if there is something deeper at play here, a connection that needs to be teased out. And I’ve been struggling to write this part of the letter most because it is the point at which I hold most fear of being judged, of saying something out of turn.
What I wish to talk to you about here is how we willfully run away from the self and how the avoidance of our own darkness leads to unconscious patterns of behaviour that prevent us from facing fear. I mentioned earlier that Amsterdam has taught me about how people face fear, and walking through the city’s red light district this has been apparent. Granted, not all drug taking and the use of prostitution is driven by fear, but I would argue that a good deal is. In that it is driven by the need to escape from the fear of our present reality, from loneliness and a lack of connection, the hardship and stress of modern life. Instead of choosing to act to change our life situation we avoid it, push it away to be dealt with later.
Of course, from time to time we all need this. I used to have alcohol and cigarettes. I now have meditation and daily medicated doses of chocolate. But I think what Amsterdam provides me with is an analogy for how western culture deals with life problems and how these same patterns prevent positive action towards climate change. There is always something on hand to take us away from facing reality. Always something to distract us, to allow us to look away. I offer this to you for now more as a point of reflection rather than in any attempt to find solution. After all, the whole point of these letters isn’t to get preachy but to offer thoughts, start conversations, make connections between things. And it is at this moment where I have to return to how my body has begun to translate how the city feels, how I at least experience it. I’m acutely aware of how my inner emotional experience reflects my perception of place but I don’t just think it’s my grief for having left home that I’m feeling here. It feels like there’s something else at play in the city. Something lacking. Some form of emptiness.
What came through most overwhelmingly as I sat, rocking back and forth in the Church of St Nicholas, attempting to face my current life situation head on is this. How, if we are to tackle climate change effectively, we must first find a way of holding all its potential darkness to the light, of not always escaping ourselves and sitting with how it could potentially impact our own lives. Only in doing this will we be able to take pre-emptive action to prevent these fears from becoming real.
And while we can’t say yet whether the Dutch’s proactive approach will be enough, it certainly provides two lessons. How, if you begin to face your fears head on, you can begin to find solutions that aren’t reactionary but are innovative, that are implementable. How if climate change is to be tackled effectively we must work with nature, not seeing it as apart from us, but as a part of us, which if you stand on the edge of the sea, feel the cold wind on your face, your skin, you feel deep down, must be true.
Yours from Amsterdam,