Saturday, 12 April 2014

Planning for the next Sandy: no relative suffering would be socialist

The river Waal at Nijmegen, The Netherlands. The original river is to the left, which was a bottleneck and extra dangerous due to the curve. This problem has been resolved by a bypass (right), which has made part of the old dike into an island. In this way the river got more space and flood risks are reduced.

The New York Times Magazine has a beautiful article on a Dutch water manager, Henk Ovink. He enrolled with Shaun Donovan, the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, serving in the cabinet of President Barack Obama to make the USA fit for the next Sandy.

The Dutch approach to water management is very different and looks for inexpensive regional collaborative solutions. Whereas the Americans prefer expensive local isolated solutions, because solutions that would help everyone would be "socialist".

I do not know about socialism, but the American solution sure reminds one of the relative suffering mechanism, I recently proposed to understand the climate "debate" in the post: "Do climate dissenters like climate change?"

Relative suffering is an evolutionary mechanism where you do not optimize your own absolute fitness, but rather how well you and your kin are doing relative to outsiders. It can be an evolutionary stable strategy suffer more yourself, as long as others suffer more.

Some excerpts from the article.

The funniest quote is:
Beyond that, Ovink feared that politics might undermine any chance to encourage new thinking about water management. “When I mentioned climate change to one official,” he said, “she almost hit me.”
The irrational response to climate change of some Americans is really unbelievable. Is there a smiley for someone shacking his head?
For all the unexpected support Ovink and his ideas have received, some observers still maintain skepticism about how much change can be effected here, and how fast. “When I heard about Room for the River, and that Dutch farmers said, ‘O.K., we’ll allow our fields to be flooded in order to protect the city,’ I thought, you’re going to have a harder time with that kind of thing in the U.S.,” said Armando Carbonell, a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. (My link)
I wonder whether Carbonell realises that the farmer will naturally be compensated for his "socialist" behaviour. In that case the behaviour would be economically rational as it would maximise wealth. Sounds like being a good capitalist is socialist in the USA.

A prime example of the American resistance to regional thinking is New York City’s response to Sandy: a 438-page report packed with 250 recommendations, which would achieve many of the goals that Ovink champions. But the report said little about cooperating with the wider tristate region. In an ideal Henk Ovink world, it would have been written in close consultation with neighboring jurisdictions. As it was, the city’s report, as well as one issued by New York State, “express this fantasy that New Jersey doesn’t exist, not to mention Connecticut,” said Eric Klinenberg, director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, a research center that works closely with Ovink.
This reminds me of the English dredging fetish during this winter's floods in the south of England. Dredging the river next to your village will reduce water levels for your village, but will speed up water flow and make the peak river level for the next village worse. That village would be forced to dredge even deeper to save itself, hurting the next village. Relative suffering madness. Assigning non-populated regions to be flooded to shave off the peak flow would help everyone, but would require collaboration and I guess that makes it "socialist".
Samuel Carter, an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation, underscored that the very concept of regional planning is still a work in progress in the U.S. “A lot of people feel that it goes against the American character,” he said. Ovink experiences that pushback on a regular basis. He told me that not long ago he was in New Jersey talking with residents hit by Sandy who were raising their houses on stilts. He laid out for them a future situation in which, rather than have each homeowner undertake such difficult and expensive work, the community would embrace measures to protect an entire region from flooding. The response, he said, was, “That would be a socialistic approach.”

Related reading

How to Think Like the Dutch in a Post-Sandy World
The New York Time Magazine article. Very informative on the situation in the US and The Netherlands and beautifully written.
Do climate dissenters like climate change?
In this post I introduce the evolutionary mechanism of relative suffering to explain irrational behavior in the climate "debate"
Conservatives Who Give a Damn. Who Knew?
Some conservatives have noticed that renewable energy is compatible with conservative values. The new green tea party is scaring the hell out of the Koch Brothers.
Gingrich on Climate – The 2007 Version
If you would explain a Martian the conservative ideology, this is how the Martians would expect conservatives to respond to climate change, instead of betraying their own values in comments at WUWT and Co.
Facts won’t beat the climate deniers – using their tactics will
Climate ostriches do not have real facts, but produce a lot of noise. Forget the Moncktonites. Ignore them as much as possible. Forget the facts, everyone knows they are solid. We need more noise.

Photo credits: Room for the Rivier. Ruimte voor de Rivier.


  1. Dear Victor,
    See link for an improved description of the photo.

    The original river is the curve to the left. This bottleneck has been resolved by a bypass (right).
    The dike has been replaced 350 meters to the left (Nord)

    Pieter Zijlstra

  2. Dear Pieter, thanks for catching my error. The caption has been corrected.
    I wanted to write left, but somehow wrote right. My brain is often a bit too flexible when it comes to opposites.

  3. I really want to comment on this Victor but don't really have anything sensible to say other than I think the Dutch approach to water management is wonderful and I love the photo of Henk Ovink in the NYTimes article. The collaborative approach sounds so obvious too that it's hard to understand why anyone would not follow it.

  4. :o) I guess this post is one for Stoats-rule. If you do not say anything that can be nit picked on, you do not get much comments (relative to readers). It is surprisingly well reader, I was afraid the title would be too incomprehensible.

  5. I think it means Victor that your arguments are so sound that no-one could possibly disagree with what you've written. :-)

  6. Dear Rachel and Victor,

    you probably have noticed already that The Netherlands does have a Delta Programme Commissioner. An official who has to streamline all social, technical and security aspects. Communication is paramount. See the following Sub programme overview for regions and sections of dikes. A wonderfull resource of ideas.

    And we are exporting our knowledge and try to make money out of it. :-)

  7. As I remember it the debate in England this winter was about dredging lowland waterways, at or below sea-level, to increase their volume not their flow. Most of the discussion about upstream management seems to have been about restoring wetland and slowing flow.

    That's not to say that a lot of numbskulls weren't just shouting "Dredging!" so that they had something to shout. The issue was also tied up with resentment of prioritisation for wildlife living along river banks rather than keeping the banks clear.


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