The Netherlands and innovation have been synonymous for centuries, after all, when you create the actual land your country uses and have managed to keep it dry for hundreds of years, it creates quite a reputation. In recent years the Netherlands have also positioned themselves as a leader in sustainability. The Netherlands ranks 11th out of 165 countries in the United Nations Sustainable Development Report which rates and measures countries based on 17 criteria deemed to make a country sustainable. (Image 1) To put the 11th place ranking in perspective, the United Kingdom is 17th, the United States is 32nd and China is 57th. The Netherlands has met the “No Poverty” development goal but still has a ways to go to complete goals such as “Climate Action” and “Life Below Water” but they are still making strides to a more sustainable world and they are very good at creating innovative solutions to problems. The Netherlands has plans to make a “fish river” in the afsluitdijk to allow fish to reach their spawning grounds and a new court ruling against the Netherland’s largest company ordering them to cut carbon emissions faster than proposed, is hope that the Netherlands is well on their way to meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals. They have also pioneered vertical agriculture, created the best bike infrastructure in the world and even created the first modern stock market way back in the 17th century.
What fuels all this innovation? The classic adage is that necessity breeds innovation but the truth is that security breeds innovation. When people aren’t consumed with where their next meal is coming from or stressed about the burdens of child care, healthcare, and paying the bills it frees up space to be more creative and to focus their energy in solving larger problems, helping others and being a better neighbor. Northern Europe, including the Netherlands, have spent decades adopting and amending social policies that continue to allow their citizens freedom from abject poverty and more importantly- freedom from the fear of poverty.
The mini documentary, “Dancing with Horned Ladies” follows 4th generation dairy farmer Jan Dirk van de Voort and his family as they transitioned their dairy farm to be organic. They don’t vaccinate their cows or give them antibiotics. They don’t use pesticides and they use herbs that grow in their fields to treat their cows’ ailments. But for the van de Voorts to change how they take care of their cows and run their farm they had to take a risk. According to the documentary, only 3% of dairy farms in the Netherlands are organic. An all-natural farm is not the norm- even in the Netherlands. By many measures the van de Voorts risk has been a success. They say their cows are happier and healthier, their cheese and milk taste better, and financially, they’re doing better than average. It is easy to see their example and want to emulate their success on the other side of the pond. While there is no doubt that the United States has talented and dedicated farmers who would thrive with an organic, all natural farm, it’s just not as easy for American farmers to take such a risk.
The barriers to organic farming in the US and in the Netherlands are pretty similar. To operate an organic farm you need new equipment which is expensive and can’t be shared as easily as regular farm equipment because organic farms will likely be further away from each other. Organic farmers still have to find a way to deal with weeds and pests and disease so there is a steep learning curve. From a financial aspect, to be a certified organic farm your farm has to be chemical-free for three years, that’s three years of operating an organic farm without the possibility of labeling and increased prices to show for it and then the certification itself is expensive. What makes it easier to do so in the Netherlands is that farmers there have more security. They have access to child care and a child tax credit so if their farm suffers in the beginning, ensuring their children are taken care of is less of a burden than in the US. Additionally, the Netherlands offers a Maternity Benefit Scheme for the Self-Employed– this helps farmers, who are usually self-employed, and their partners by providing benefit payments for 10-16 weeks after a new baby is born. The United States has nothing of the kind. Lastly, the Netherlands has a system of national healthcare. While it is not a single payer system like a lot of other European countries, it does ensure that every Dutch resident has access to healthcare- including emergency care, for an affordable price. The average deductible in the Netherlands is just under $400 while the average deductible in the United States is more than $1000. These social programs don’t help farmers with the costs associated with going organic or help them find other framers to teach them organic farming techniques but they do provide security. Knowing that your family is cared for no matter what- illness, pregnancy, or injury truly does help people take risks and in turn helps folks be more passionate in their work and innovate to help us all.
In Aaron Hurst’s book, “The Purpose Economy”, Hurst argues that people’s need for self-expression and self-purpose is shifting corporate behavior and creating new opportunities “so people can make a difference- not just a living”. The van de Voort family is a great example of a couple who wanted to make a difference and there are people with similar goals all over the world. To meet the UN’s sustainable development goals there needs to be more purpose driven people. People who care more about how they do something than how much money it makes them. In his book, Hurst gives examples of folks who left their corporate jobs to start tech start-ups or fund non-profits but there is a general theme to all of the stories- security. In one example Hurt tells the story of Kristine Ashe and her family. Kristine’s large family was spread out across the county so in order to bring them all together Kristine decided to buy a vineyard and invite her family to come work at the vineyard. Kristine’s purpose was to bring her family closer together, physically and emotionally and she succeeded, she found her purpose, but how many people can just buy a vineyard because they miss their family?
This kind of privilege is evident in most of Hurst’s examples- another woman, named Kate, had a nice job as NASCAR and quit it to start a non-profit for kids who had lost a loved one, called Kate’s Club. A worthy cause for sure, but most Americans aren’t in a position to quit their jobs and pursue their dreams- their purpose. If the United States had social policies more akin to the Netherlands, there would be more of a safety net so people felt comfortable jumping head first into creating something better for all of us.
It’s easy to see other counties instituting more sustainable policies and infrastructure and look at America and think, “What’s stopping us? Why can’t we do that”. We can- but not without social security nets in place. For the United States to meet the UN’s sustainable development goals the government needs to meet people’s security needs first, before they expect people to start solving the countries problems. There is a common phrase that goes, “What if the cure for cancer is locked in the mind of a child who lacks access to education.” Well, what if the scientific breakthrough to stop climate change is locked in the mind of a mother who doesn’t fulfill her dream of starting her own research firm because her kids can’t lose access to healthcare? What if? Let’s start meeting people’s basic needs, ensuring security, and see what they come up with!
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