I polder, you polder (How the geology of the country shaped to mindset of the Dutch)

Written by – Willem van Hoorn

In the introduction of the previous edition of this blog, I mentioned how low the Netherlands are. The name itself indeed already indicates that, as it means nothing other than ‘the Low Countries’. We didn’t look any further at it then, but today we will. We will look a bit at the geology of the Netherlands, and, maybe to your surprise, discover what the sociologists have derived from that same geology about some character traits of the Dutch.

As the geologists put it in their jargon: “the Netherlands are mostly composed of deltaic, coastal and eolian derived sediments during the Pleistocene glacial and interglacial periods. Fairly all of the west Netherlands is composed of the Rhine-Meuse river estuary, but human intervention greatly modified the natural processes at work”. Meaning to say, in more common language, that the larger part of the country consists of sand and clay that was washed away from higher-up in the European continent and deposited here by rivers. And in order for that deposition to take place, you had to be at, or slightly below the water level. By the way: that ‘greatly modified by human intervention’ part is exactly what the Dutch mean when they boast: “God created the world, and after he did so, the Dutch created the Netherlands”.

Height map of the Netherlands

If you look at a map of the Netherlands depicting height, you will see that anything bluish or greenish, roughly half of the country, is below sea level, or only so little above it that any storm surge could inundate it.

And that is another way of saying: keeping our feet dry has been the greatest national effort, essentially since people live here! And, despite the occasional blooper or unforeseen powerful storm, we have become very good at that over the centuries. Starting with little elevations of land, then small dams and dikes, then moving on to polders (ever bigger pieces of land, reclaimed by enclosing them with a dike and pumping out the water with the traditional windmills, and recently with big diesel engines), to the massive Delta Works that we have today. Some of these works are considered to be among the engineering marvels of the world!

Now, where do the sociologists come in? Well, if you imagine going a couple of hundreds of years back in time, meaning to say: before we had modern machines: all this massive amount of work had to be done by hand, and some animal power, and the windmills obviously. In other words: the efforts involved were so big, that no individual farmer could achieve it on his own. We simply had to work together. To put it strongly: the choice the people in this country had: either you work together, or you drown. And these centuries of forced cooperation is what the sociologist see as the driving force between this very strong tendency of the Dutch to talk and have meetings about almost everything. And behind this strong urge for consensus that the Dutch display.

That strive for consensus has even made it into a verb in this country: ‘polderen’. This translates as ‘to polder’, or ‘to take a polder approach’. And it means so much as: negotiate things and talk things over just as long as it takes for each and everyone involved to feel that their opinion has been heard and considered (*).

So, this was a nice example of how the geology of a country can shape the culture and the mindset of its inhabitants.


(*) There is a current day joke about this: “Have you heard they discovered a Dutch variant of the corona virus? It seems to be considerably less infectious that other variants. Before they decide to attack a person, the virus particles go through seemingly endless negotiations among themselves!”


Willem van Hoorn works as a Policy Advisor Internationalization at Eindhoven University of Technology. He has been leading several projects and initiatives in the Brainport region to achieve integration and internationalization. When he’s not reading or writing, Willem is often brainstorming for innovative ideas, connecting with others, or bicycling towards the coast.

He is and exceptional Dutch Culture Expert and Storyteller!

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