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Most of us have seen it before: the cartoon of a man tapping away frantically at his keyboard while his wife asks him from the bedroom if he is coming to bed. “No, I can’t,” he says. “This is important. Someone is wrong on the internet.”

© xkcd

I was reminded of this cartoon when I started to get overexcited again the past few days. It’s all about the nitrogen debate in my home country, the Netherlands. Time and again, society (through its governing coalitions) is making agreements to get rid of the overdose, and time and again, we are stepping away from them. Only to find out that the problems that needed to be fixed are further growing in weight. It’s the same this time around. Power play by a group that is undoubtedly larger than just the agricultural sector (but nevertheless can boast no form of majority in our country) will ensure that even the toughest agreements disappear like butter under the sun.

While (at least part of) the cabinet seems to want to contain the discontent by catering to the angry part of society, for me, it achieves the opposite. Their benefit of the doubt, which I gave them but has been in question for some time already, is thus very quickly lost. And don’t get me started on ‘advancing insight’ or ‘new circumstances’ because we see a recurring pattern. Tom-Jan Meeus had a nice newspaper clipping to prove precisely that last Friday:

For the non-Dutch among us: the clipping shows that the Christian Democrat party, CDA, today part of the governing coalition and showing the desire to back down from the nitrogen agreements it willingly signed just a year ago, showed the same behavior in 1993. It is an appealing example, but unfortunately only one in a long accumulation. And nitrogen may be a recurring theme, but certainly not the only one. The repeating pattern is an ABC. Scientific evidence shows that mankind must do something about [A] (read: CO2 emissions, pfas, nitrogen, acid rain, whatever). A stalwart coalition then agrees that [B] (read: we make a plan to move step by step from that undesirable situation to a desirable one). Then everyone remains silent until that actual first step is taken, which leads to violent unrest in the country because of private interests at stake. All this irrevocably results in [C] (read: we just ‘forget’ about the scientific evidence [A] and pretend that measures [B] are not as necessary as we initially thought).

And for the record: the CDA does indeed have a dark tradition to uphold in this area (just think of the turn that was made in the province of Brabant after the square in front of the provincial government building was filled with tractors for a couple of days), but the problem is really broader than just the missteps of the Christian Democrats. It involves politicians from different parties at all levels of government but also banks, multinationals, and entire industries. They all regularly have their own reasons for brushing aside the facts in favor of an alternative reality that suits them better at the time.

And each time, we hear the excuse that they knew nothing or operated with the best intentions. It takes minimal effort to find evidence of the problematic side effects of nitrogen or CO2 in old newspaper clippings. Yes, there were plenty of reports about it in 1993, but in fact, this goes for the entire post-war era. Worse, evidence that we are overburdening nature and the climate has been known and acknowledged for a hundred years already.

More clippings about the nitrogen problem in the Netherlands

It’s absolutely maddening because, in the meantime, we act as if we don’t need to care at all. Individually, we as humans may still have some brain power, but collectively we walk like lemmings towards the abyss. Better to applaud the politician who gives the angry citizens their way than his colleague who actually tries to govern based on (unpleasant or unwelcome) facts.

I managed to control myself, my wife didn’t have to call me upstairs yesterday. But I must be honest: it wasn’t easy to get this off my mind. So much knowledge we as humans have accumulated over the centuries – but just as easy, we pretend it all doesn’t exist. A collective, consciously sought-after amnesia overrules our capable individual minds.

Apparently ‘the group’ feels comfortable with that. Who wants to blame a goldfish for shitting in its own water?

About this column

In a weekly column, alternately written by Eveline van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Katleen Gabriels, PG Kroeger, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla, Willemijn Brouwer, Maarten van Andel and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous columns in this series.