Going Dutch

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Tuesday 31 August 1999

environmental management demands two things: environment-friendly technology and environment-friendly behaviour; in other words, technological change and behavioural change. In fact, behavioural change lies at the heart of environmental management because even technological change is not possible without behavioural change. For example, environment-friendly technologies may actually be much more expensive than environmentally-damaging technologies, which means people must be prepared to pay for technological systems which are less damaging.

The Netherlands is probably the world's leading country in terms of environmental planning and management. At the very beginning, Dutch officials had realised the importance of behavioural change and public support for their environmental plans. Therefore, an important part of the Dutch environmental policy in the early 1980s was sending out environmental messages through the mass media which involved commissioning of tv commercials that used Dutch celebrities to convince their fellow countrypeople what they can do to protect the environment. The message was simple and clear: "A better environment begins with you". The attempt was to get people to 'internalise' the environmental message, which then became useful for the next stage, when people were themselves asked to undertake environmentally-friendly activity like separating their household waste. The campaign was quite successful.

But the late 1990s now see a different scenario. The Dutch people no longer consider environment on the top of their social concerns. Although they do believe that environment will be the biggest problem the future world will face, crime, social security and jobs takes precedence over environmental issues in domestic concerns. This is because many people feel the environment is being pretty well-managed, and, secondly, environment-friendly behaviour has become quite common in many ways. For example, putting empty bottles in the bottle bank has now become almost second nature to the Dutch.

This poses a major challenge for the environment-friendly Dutch government. There are numerous environmental problems that still need to be solved. Global warming is one, air quality another. Depleting groundwater resources is a third. And so on. All this will require further technological and behavioural change. Dealing with air quality and global warming means dealing with the vexing problems of car ownership and air travel.

Today, says a Dutch communication experts, the country has to get into a serious public debate. Then only will people weigh and support the trade-offs involved in environment-friendly action. They must know what the issue is, how it can be solved, and why they need to support those solutions. For instance, a high speed rail link was built between the port of Rotterdam and Germany. In order to save the countryside, parts of the link are to be built underground. Once the Dutch people understood the issues, the society was prepared to pay the higher costs involved. Similarly, the government must explain to the people when it introduces energy taxes to control global warming.

The Dutch government today faces a major challenge. Incremental technological change has not worked as much as is needed. Now, in many areas, the Dutch society must either move towards a quantum leap in technology, fuel cell cars, for example, to improve air quality and control global warming or move from eco-efficient solutions to 'sufficiency' solutions. All this will require considerable behavioural change and public support. If the environmentally-friendly Dutch succeed in taking their environment-friendliness to this level, they will probably show the way to the rest of the world. Maybe even those who are hankering after a Western lifestyle in developing countries.

The Dutch continue to search for solutions. Maybe the answer lies in attractive pricing policies which provide a great impetus for technological change. According to Harold van Biemen, head of the Dutch environment ministry's policy communications division, says that the government's efforts are being combined with marketing strategies at the store level. For example, insulating material which helps to reduce energy use is now being provided at a lower price. "The government has made an agreement with the entire sector and individual chains are ensuring the environment-friendly products are available. I think campaigns of this kind are highly promising," says van Bieman. The government is also considering energy performance labels for homes.

But simply placing bans on environment-unfriendly products from abroad will create serious economic dislocations. Having got the Thai to produce tapioca for their pigs, the Dutch cannot simply ban Thai tapioca imports because its production leads to environment-friendly products. The Dutch will have to support the Thai to produce tapioca in an environment-friendly way. But this means more expensive tapioca and the Dutch must be prepared to pay.

Clearly, environmental planning and policy-making in the 21st century is going to get more and more complex. But at least the Dutch are raising a lot of good questions .

-- Anil Agarwal

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