The university is researching pea soup. To be precise, the University of Amsterdam and Wageningen University & Research are conducting research into the ideal soup thickness: the soup thickness that most people experience as pleasant. That is important information for Unilever, I read somewhere. And so university physicists are investigating how the experience of soup-eaters is predicted by “flowing behavior in the oral cavity.”
That’s how progress works. Manufacturers and universities determine what most people find pleasant and eventually the soup slides in more and more easily. Every day life gets better and better. You wouldn’t have to chew anything anymore, were it not for the new obstacles looming on the other side of existence. You have just reached the ideal soup thickness or the climate is warming, the sea level is rising and viruses are seizing their chance.
Solving the new world problems is more complicated than tackling soup: there is more at stake, the questions seem more urgent. “Healthcare is like a pressure cooker that is boiling,” said the CEO of health insurer VGZ this weekend. Fidelity. And there’s more to chew on, because every solution creates new problems. The experts warn against complexity and point out the need for multiple transitions. Everything is connected with everything. No wonder citizens are getting restless.
It does not help that solving the problems, such as the climate problem, is outsourced to the market. Venture investors invest record amount in Dutch climate start-ups, headlines It Financial Newspaper this week. Such a new growth market is an unwilling discussion partner: who can you turn to with your own experiences and preferences?
On the site of broadcaster Human says professor of energy transition Martien Visser that the government is shifting its own responsibility through the privatization of wind farms. It is often no longer clear to local residents who the local interlocutor is. “Because who actually made which decision: the province, the city council or the project developer? As a result, citizens are already protesting when search areas threaten to be designated. You can’t get there early enough.”
Visser makes this objection in response to the documentary Headwind – the Sorrow of the Peat Colonies by Kees Flanders. The documentary follows citizens who interfere with the location of the windmills in their neighbourhood. The battle derails, the local residents send threatening letters, one of them is in detention for months and they eventually lose out.
The citizens in the Veenkoloniën were involved in the plans too late, there is everyone agrees afterwards. And the burdens and benefits must be better distributed in the future. But I think there’s an even more fundamental lesson to be learned from the episode. Because not only have the wind farms been privatized: to the extent that the government still has some responsibility, promises from local administrators are drowned out by decisions from above.
Local administrators seem to understand that citizens use a legal remedy to move a mill. But at a higher level, reference is made to global climate agreements and obligations, because of the importance of all humanity in new energy. Thus every local wish is trumped by an appeal to a global crisis and a consequent moral claim that is self-evident and against which no remedy is available.
It comes down to a rather-wiedes argument. Yes, says the government, under normal circumstances you are right with your appeal or objection, but now the planet is perishing and it is rather weed that saving humanity comes first. If they are reasonable, citizens will have to give in after hearing this argument.
This rather-weeded argument is undeniably strong, and it’s being used successfully in the pandemic as well. Yes, says the government, you are right with your reference to the right to self-determination, but we are sick now and it is quite silly that you are getting vaccinated. The sicker humanity and planet are, the more reasonable the argument sounds. Emergency breaks the law: as a litigant you don’t have a leg to stand on.
Given the multitude of related problems in the world, it may not seem the greatest problem that morality threatens to supplant justice. Because of the climate and the pandemic, it is tempting to tinker with the law: after all, you can have few objections to humanity’s moral survival claim. No, indeed, there is nothing to argue against. But that’s the downside of it.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 9, 2021
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