That our society is not doing well in terms of sustainability is well known. But how did we end up in that situation? To answer that question, the researchers took a close look at the period from 1850 to 2010, led by the number of kilotons of the most important raw materials used by the Netherlands annually: food, fossil fuels and building materials. The choice of kilotons (1 kiloton is 1 million kg) instead of euros or guilders (the former Dutch currency) was a very conscious one, says research leader Harry Lintsen, Professor of the History of Technology at Eindhoven University of Technology. “The weight is a much better indicator of the impact you have on the Earth,” he explains.
200 billion kilograms
That impact has increased enormously, according to the figures that researchers have managed to extract. The three million inhabitants in the Netherlands of 1850 consumed just ten thousand kilotons together; more than half of which was food. 160 years later, in 2010, Dutch consumption had increased 37 times: 362,000 kilotons. The lion’s share was fossil fuels. The 16 million people living in the Netherlands in 2010 burned no less than 200,000 kilotons of fuel in that year, or 200 billion kilograms.
In 1850, overconsumption was not yet an issue. What was high on the agenda was ‘pauperism’. 21 percent of the Dutch lived in bitter poverty in 1850, and this was seen as one of the key social problems. Europe-wide this number was even higher, at 36 percent. “There were two ways to solve this,” says Lintsen. “Redistribution of incomes, or raising the entire revenue structure, so that everyone would get more.” The choice was the latter, helped by economic growth.
Around 1950 the goal was achieved: almost everyone in the Netherlands had access to sufficient food, healthcare and housing. It is illustrative that muscle as a source of energy fell below 1 percent for the first time in that year. A remarkable finding in the book is that the poverty was eradicated without a significant jump in consumption. Lintsen: “The bottleneck in the consumption diagram, the starting point of overconsumption, is around 1960. But then the poverty problem had already been solved! You could say that the quality of life and sustainability around that year were most in balance.”
That conclusion seems to be confirmed by another remarkable graph in the book. Lintsen and his fellow researchers also identified 24 indicators for the period 1850-2010 that determine prosperity in a broad sense, such as life expectancy, quality of food and housing, income inequality and air quality. The sum of these 24 indicators is set against the income, the Dutch gross domestic product per person. The income trend follows the broad prosperity trend in the first hundred years after 1850 at just a short distance. But around 1960 income juts out above prosperity. The Dutch earn and consume more and more, but their lives have not really improved since then.
The only sustainable road that the Netherlands and the rest of the world can now take is, according to Lintsen and his colleagues, the transition to a fully circular economy, in which as many raw materials as possible are reused. Lintsen: “The Netherlands is extremely rich in raw materials, but it is all in garbage bags. Or in the soil. For example, the Dutch soil contains plenty of phosphate, which has come through years of fertilization.”
One point of concern for the researchers is the increased dependence that the Netherlands has on foreign countries. “In 1850, 13 percent of the raw materials came from abroad. Now that is about 60 percent. For fossil fuels that percentage is even 69 and for grains 80”, says Lintsen. In order to become more self-sufficient the Netherlands invested during the first half of the last century in blast furnaces, coal mines and land reclamation, which was focused on agriculture. “With reason, because the Netherlands was more often cut off from importing raw materials during its history. But that seems to have been forgotten by everyone since the liberalization wave that began in the late 20th century.”
The research was made possible thanks to a subsidy from the NWO financier of science. In addition to Harry Lintsen, engineering historian Frank Veraart (TU Eindhoven), professor of Quantification of Sustainability Jan-Pieter Smits (TU Eindhoven, CBS) and professor of Systems Innovations (University of Amsterdam) worked on the book.
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