Speech for the opening of

A Canon of Change

Spoken word counts


By the Minister of

Modesty Ada Novák

January 29, 2100

The Ministry of Modesty proudly presents the exhibition A canon of change: how the Dutch delta reached 2100. In an unprecedented show, curatorial teams from various societal groups present their perspective on the recent history of our delta and pitch icons that they think characterize this best.

A wholly unprecedented show? Not quite. Eighty-eight years ago, in 2012, the then Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment presented the first Canon of Spatial Planning. The Netherlands is not just a manmade country, but an extremely “well-made country", the jury boasted. The canon was somewhat of a motley crew consisting of the European hamster, squatters and the village of Houten, as well as the then famous Dutch Delta Works, the protection (sic!) against the North Sea that was developed after the great flood of 1953.

About these Delta Works, the canon text contained the following foreseeing sentences: “We placed our trust in a highly technological approach. (…) However, the sustainability of these delta works is under question; the rise of the sea water level (due the climate change) forces us to consider modifying these works” (Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, 2012, p.64).

If only.

In the twenties, thirties, and forties our entire country became one gigantic Delta Work: dikes along vital rivers were raised, all estuaries closed off, new sea barriers raised together with the construction of islands protecting the coastline. Neither trouble nor expense were spared. The land that had been reclaimed after such a heroic struggle had to be protected at all costs. Conquering the water had defined the Dutch identity for centuries.

Even the Third World War (2029-2032) could not break the pride and trust in the wit and engineering skills that had helped the Dutch for such a long time to keep the water out. Billions of euros and millions of careers were spent on the national necessity of keeping dry feet. The proverb of the province of Sealand – where most of the original Delta Works were erected – had now become relevant for the whole country.Luctor et Emergo. I struggle and emerge.

Paradigm lost
While the cracks in this triumphant epistemology had already been visible in the late forties and fifties, it was only after flood Mia in 2065 that the 'protection paradigm' was annihilated. Rapidly rising sea levels combined with spring tide and a storm over the North Sea sufficed to create a flood with devastating impact. One thing was clear: the maxim to protect the Randstad at all costs could no longer be maintained. Inhabitants of Holland fled to the land east of Amersfoort, causing an internal refugee crisis. Large, wooden ‘emergency flats’ were erected in the eastern parts of the country to house internally displaced persons.

The first reaction to flood Mia was incredulity. Dutch Delta dwellers simply could not believe what had happened. They had been overwhelmed by the ‘water wall’, blindsided by an event at odds with everything they had ever believed in.

Later sociologists came with up with more subtle explanations. They emphasized that the edifice of the Delta society had been crumbling in the decades before – among other things, because of decade-long neglect of infrastructural works. Flood Mia was only the last ‘push’, the proverbial last drop, not the root cause of the catastrophe. How could a country have been so vain as to actually welcome travellers at its airport with a sign that proudly proclaimed to be more than 4 metres below sea level?

Coming to grips with blindness
Many theories have been developed as to why the Dutch failed to foresee the future, or at least act upon it, when all the signs were so clear. The most popular and conceptually sound argument was developed by the ecological sociologist Senna Reinders in her book Beyond the gargantuan gaze (2071). Reinders maintained that the Dutch 'polder model' should be understood as an interplay between its two distinct meanings: in terms of the political and the biophysical. For centuries delta dwellers collaborated and aimed for consensus across social and religious divides (‘polderen’) to keep dry feet and claim land for farms and dwellings.

However, as Reinders posits, this also created a culture that was blind for ‘otherness’. The Dutch gaze was geared towards technical solutions and optimizing the interests of the middle-class. Collaboration and accommodating (or co-opting) opposing positions, not antagonism was wat made our democracy work. Deviant opinions with dire consequences were hardly considered. After all, the Dutch needed to keep it gezellig.

As such it could happen that the obvious and urgent was missed. Focusing on the mechanics of the human society, the delta inhabitants failed to see the wood for the trees. Those who pointed to the future dangers met Cassandra’s tragic fate: their predictions were correct, but hardly taken seriously. Already in 2021, Marjolijn Haasnoot warned for the potentially disastrous consequences of 1.5 meter of sea level rise until 2100. Indeed: the present. Following Haasnoot’s outcry a serious ‘knowledge program’ was erected – but this never shook society awake as it should have. Waking up would take another 44 years, and a catastrophe.

Between hubris and modesty
Reinders' argument went further, however. The gist of her brick-like book is about trying to come to grips with why we failed to see what was written all over: that we must listen to nature in everything we do. Importantly, it is not just the ‘poldermodel’ and its tendency to technofix and hide deviant opinions. No, it was also a global sense of pride, that we, humans, were the protagonists on planet earth.

"We now live in the Anthropocene" geologists declared in the 1990s. It was of course exactly the other way around: "The Anthropocene lives in us". Nature has its own will and its own insurmountable powers, ranging from Rhine Salmons to European hamsters, from floods-that-we-give-names-to to viruses that bypass vaccines like the Nazis did in the Second World War with the Maginot Line.

The science of spatial planning - or, with a nice, old-fashioned Dutch word, the science of ‘planologie’ - is a case in point. In the past, a so-called ‘planoloog’ would (De Casseres 1929): ‘combine, analyse, and synthesise, and ‘conjure’ from the amalgam of facts and figures the planning project, that determines where many people will live, where walk, where work, where play and where they will be brought, when they have gone the way of all flesh.’

The spatial planner of the twentieth century was, in other words, an almost God-like being. Later, the struggle for limited space became increasingly contentious. Critical voices feared that the Dutch landscape was in the process of being ‘verrommeld’, literally ‘being thrashed’. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see why: how could the Dutch landscape have defended itself, when it lacked a political voice?    

All this can only lead to one conclusion: we have never been modest. Only now we're starting to realise, or better re-realise, that we live in an era of great humbling.

A canon of change
To institutionalise this more humble and equitable relation to nature, the Ministry of Modesty was founded in 2073. In its early days, the Ministry was mostly concerned with 'dehubrification', effectively removing the policy debris that still contained the remnants of the Dutch dream, the Delta that would conquer the sea. Later, outreach programmes started. Beginning at schools, and now in the heart of the societal debate: through a museum. The very first exhibition is entitled: A canon of change: how the Dutch delta reached 2100.

A canon of change sounds like a contradiction in terms. After all, a canon is often treated as a kind of monument, a solidified set of rules, a golden standard to look up to. How to solidify change? The riddle is solved if you realise that one of the possible origins of the word canon is kanna, reed. This seems especially fitting for our country. Not only does the reed grow near water, it also moves in the changing winds. As we all know, in the past century, we have had to cope with extraordinary changes. The Third World War. The disbanding of the EU. Flood Mia.

 We are modestly proud to say, and to show in this exhibition, that we were able to bend in the winds of change and, despite heavy losses, did not break in the storm. We still change our surroundings, but not without first reflecting long and hard on what might be lost because of those changes. Vice versa, we accept that our surroundings change us, and that those changes might cause us to lose the things we hold dear. Because we now know that there is no environment. We consist of plants and of people, of rivers and streams, of wolfs, birds and insects. Luctor et natabo. I struggle and will float.

The Museum for the Future is a project created by the Urban Futures Studio