What is it about walking that sometimes makes people seem so moralistic? The vistas? The cadence? The feeling of superiority that people who exercise are often overwhelmed by? Or is it simply the fact that walking is one of the few forms of exercise that leaves practitioners with both breathing space and time to muse for hours on end and chat about how well they’re doing?
Last Saturday it was my esteemed colleague columnist and scientist Peter Kuipers Munneke who flew out of the bend while walking. He describes how he looks at the Netherlands between hope and fear during his long-distance walks (no, not just a block in the neighborhood). The beautiful natural areas he had encountered gave hope, with rich flora and fauna. Fear were the industrial estates, the roads, the ‘gaps between the nature reserves’. On his walk from Den Bosch to Steenwijk, the view was regularly spoiled by farms with their “extremely boring, poisonous green billiard cloths made of protein-rich grass as animal feed”.
Then you, as a farmer, think that you have survived everything. The nitrogen storm, the battles about biodiversity, soil erosion, animal friendliness, calves with the mother, bees in the field margins and the reduction of ammonia, particulate matter, CO2 and residual waste. It now appears that you are spoiling the view of Randstad residents who discovered the long-distance walk during corona.
Kuipers Munneke probably means well when he writes that we “desperately need” the farmers, but it is a long way past. Farmers are about the only population group about which you can say ‘less, less, less’ with impunity. The Netherlands is fully committed to reducing livestock numbers.
The reality is that it is now rather decadent to complain about your view. In the Netherlands there is currently an acute lack of space for the things that no one wants, but which we all think we should. We still have to build some houses, we still have to get rid of a few thousand asylum seekers. And I think there was still a need for some extra windmills and solar panels. I recently heard a tip that if you are looking for space for one of these cases, the chances of success are greatest in a neighborhood with as few lawyers per square kilometer as possible. The more empowered and emancipated, the more columns are written about spoiled views.
Preferably at the neighbors, or even better, preferably not in the Netherlands at all. It is striking that you see variants of that nationalism, or localism, the small-scale thinking behind the dikes, in the far right and the far left, in progressive and conservative communities. The anti-Europe, anti-globalisation, anti-immigration ‘reception in the region’ philosophy is ultimately not very different from the ‘do it somewhere else’ thinking that is common in the environmental movement. The Netherlands is a large industrial exporting country. We produce fertilizer and steel and chip machines. Entire population movements run through Schiphol. We have chemistry and biotechnology and hyper-efficient agriculture and many more destructive polluting activities for European or global production.
And whenever we downsize, bully it, or make life impossible because it spoils our air, our view, or our enjoyment of living and walking, that means it continues elsewhere. The demand for steel and fertilizer is only increasing. We are reducing livestock in the Netherlands, but meat, dairy and egg consumption is only increasing. It is done worse elsewhere, more inefficiently, less animal-friendly and more polluting.
We can wipe our land clean. The Netherlands can become a beautifully clean, green, wadden-like island that easily achieves any climate target. Five star views in contiguous nature areas from north to south and from east to west, where it is wonderful to walk. And then look at all those dirty other countries, shaking their heads, how badly they take care of their livestock, how high the emissions and energy consumption.
Maybe it’s good if the hikers keep that in mind. We don’t have much use for cosmetic greenery.
Rosanne Hertzberger is a microbiologist.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 23 October 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of October 23, 2021
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