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Each week we take a look with EV specialist and Innovation Origins columnist Auke Hoekstra at what caught his eye on topical issues or what he runs into where the preservation of our planet is concerned. This week Auke explains why he wouldn’t like to be in the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s shoes.

(Please note: from next week on, this column will appear every other week. Which means that an article will not be featured next week).

Just before the dial tone switches to voicemail Auke picks up the phone: “I was just fiddling with my earphones. How am I doing? I’ve noticed that I’m becoming a bit uneasy about the whole situation. It’s the talk of the town.”

Just as data makes scientists make climate models for predicting how the earth will be decimated, scientists also make predictive models for the corona crisis. “In climate science, you have the RCP 8.5 scenario. Which is actually the doomsday scenario for our planet. The scenario is possible in theory. But only if we really didn’t do anything about global warming and if we are still driving around on oil and burning six times as much coal at the end of the century as we do now. But we are doing something about global warming and electric cars and renewable energy are constantly dropping below the price of oil and coal. So, that doomsday scenario, well that’s not going to happen. These doomsday scenarios are there to wake people up, but they’re actually overly exaggerated.”

Auke also sees this reflected in the corona models: “If nothing is done against the virus there could be 40 million victims! That’s feasible, but why assume that we’re not going to do anything? Of course we’re going to take measures!”

Don’t base policy on doomsday scenarios

In his view, that’s why it is much more interesting to look at which interventions have the most effect in terms of reducing the number of infections or deaths. “We’re all doing something. We wash our hands more often, keep our distance, don’t go to visit our elders anymore. Testing capacity is also being stepped up. The question then is, what will all these extra measures achieve? When will we have enough hospital beds? These models are much more realistic. You have to base your policy on them. Now you see lots of politicians yelling: “There are far fewer deaths than in the doomsday scenarios – so we are doing great! Well, compared to those doomsday scenarios every politician is doing great. But that really doesn’t mean anything. Therefore, working with doomsday scenarios is really quite warped.”

Although even with realistic scenarios Auke would still not like to be in the shoes of the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (or any other European leader for that matter). “The images you see coming out of the hospitals in Italy and Spain are horrific. I wouldn’t be surprised if you, as a nurse in a hospital like that, start suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). But on the other hand, you also end up with a huge amount of economic damage. Companies that collapse, people who lose their jobs and can no longer pay their rent. We protect some vulnerable groups in society, but it is inevitable that we will harm other vulnerable people this way. So, how far should we go with our measures?”

One gigantic trolley problem

“Are you familiar with the trolley problem? In this philosophical thought experiment, by throwing one fat person in front of the tram, you can save five others. Basically, this situation is one gigantic trolley problem. Do you toss elderly people in front of a train and create herd immunity instead? Or do you go for a complete lockdown to protect them? The dead have to go somewhere. You tell me. Not choosing is not an option. It’s almost impossible to deal with any of that.”

Two sides of the story

Auke tries to put things into perspective as much as possible, but that often costs him dearly in these kinds of discussions on Twitter. “These scenarios (both climate and Covid-19) are assuming huge amounts of fatalities, but people often forget that these scenarios often assume the worst. When I bring this up they then act as if I am personally throwing elderly people under a train. And what is happening in Italy is appalling. I understand that. I really do. But on the other hand, there are a lot of negative consequences where a complete lockdown is concerned. Think of people who commit suicide because they’re so isolated or people who go bankrupt and then have lifelong debts. If you don’t show those two sides of the story, you won’t be able to make good decisions.”

That’s why Auke thinks it is important to limit suffering as much as possible with each choice you make. He has been practising this himself ever since he was fourteen years old when he started to wonder about the meaning of life. “I found out that life has no meaning, but that you can give it meaning. That may sound very philosophical. Except the bottom line is that happiness is good and pain is not. Death tolls reflect badly on that and at the moment we’re only looking at COVID-19 deaths. As far as I am concerned, the guiding principle should be to limit suffering as much as possible and not to lose sight of happiness.

Climate causes unbelievable misery

When it comes to climate, it’s actually the other way around, just like disease or terrorism. Often the dead can’t be clearly identified in most of these cases. Climate refugees, starvation due to drought or rain, victims of fires or storms … climate causes unbelievable misery. But the dead are frequently not immediately identifiable: you can’t photograph them, they don’t have a name and they don’t even appear in the statistics. Worse still: in the future or across the border, many of these climate victims will lose their lives and most people feel less connected to any of that. As such, we’re throwing them under the tram without a second thought.”

Auke starts speaking more slowly as he weighs up his words: “So, I sometimes wonder how far we should go when it comes to protecting elderly people who already have an underlying ailment and perhaps only have a few months left to live. While, on the other hand, a lot of economic suffering is now occurring where people are losing their jobs, are being evicted from their homes, or are going bankrupt and ending up with lifelong debts. And we will also have less money to protect climate victims. So, I really don’t want to throw vulnerable elderly people under a tram, but I don’t want to throw other people there either.”