Thursday, October 01, 2015

Between hope and fear

Somehow the stars aligned at the very last moment and so I found myself at the annual Springtij Forum on the isle of Terschelling last weekend. Springtij means springtide in Dutch. Since its first edition in 2010, Springtij has evolved into the most iconic sustainability gathering in The Netherlands. Each year, close to 400 professionals pushing for a sustainable and resilient society come to the island to make new connections and discuss the latest in food and agriculture, nature and biodiversity, circular economy, finance, leadership, and climate and energy. It is at Springtij where one can witness the foundational elements of a better future come together. This year, I was the 'marconist' for the climate and energy track, assisting 'navigator' Jan Paul van Soest in streamlining the sessions. We set out to curate for constructive dialogue among natural opponents, believing that to be our best and only bet for bringing the energy transition up to speed and scale.

At the end of three loaded days, the navigators for each track reported back to the plenary through a spoken column delivered over the final dinner. You can find the columns here (in Dutch). I translated the one in which Jan Paul summarized the takeaways of the sessions on climate and energy. Here goes:

How to capture the harvest of the energy track in 500 words?

In these sessions, hardly a word about hardware: nothing on heat pumps, PV systems, mechanical vapor decompression; not even combined heat and power was mentioned. Everything is possible, technology is not the problem.

It was all about the software: how to deal with the tensions between nightmares and dreams, between rules and freedom, between control and markets, between competition and collaboration. It was about the human deficit to build bridges between such extremes.

We seek a common language to describe the movement that has started in recent years, and which now, at Springtij, leads to new, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit alliances and agreements.

My MarkOnist and I recorded intriguing metaphors, attempts to express in images what cannot be articulated:
  • The coach traveling south: the energy transition is inevitable, the direction roughly known, and it would be great if everybody were on board, but no endless discussions about the destination, please. The south, that’s enough for now. In case a few people get held up in Paris later this year: tant pis.
  • The trapeze: dare to let go of the old bar, the existing system, trusting that the new bar will arrive in time: innovations, coalitions, actions. 
  • A hodgepodge of nightmares and dreams. Society is in utter confusion about its future, a confusion in which the transition bus has to chart its course.
  • Gas fired patio heaters, which arouse irritation when burning, but cause us to be cold in the barn when off. So to the sun we turned.
  • Finally, the nicest one, inexplicable to those not present, and maybe even to those who were: a crystal coffin for the grandchildren in which a princess waiting to be kissed awake. After a few glasses of wine it may dawn upon you.

These metaphors represent the phase the transition caravan has reached by now: everyone shares the sense of urgency, everyone seeks the south, and is looking for travel buddies, for, according to an African saying, if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.

So, if we want to travel beyond Paris, we have to go together.
And to go beyond we want.

Or do we?

For Springtigers*, too, inconvenient truths persist.
We discussed the changing climate, but had to conclude that no more than a handful of people is willing to communicate the message of 3 to 4 ºC warming. After all, that’s something people just won’t get a load of.

I, for one, was among the handful, and so I’ve decided to give up.
Alright, one last time: I cherish all bottom-up initiatives, energy coöperatives, start-ups, brilliant innovations, and so on; Obama and the Pope are doing what they can; but the harsh reality of all things on the table is 3.5 ºC warming by century’s end. As magnificent as they are, dreams do not get a pass on the laws of physics if they are to be realized.
I will repeat this a few more times in the coming months, but that will be it.

And so we were making our way between hope and despair.

That will only succeed if we consider both, and, speaking with Klaas van Egmond, if we make new connections: connections between the self and the other, between the mind and matter.
Thát is what happened in the Springtij energy track: the making of new connections, from which trust can spring.
Then it showed how valuable it is to bring along the next generation to Springtij, in this case my daughter Heleen, here for the fifth time, who wonderfully captured what we’ve realized in one sentence:

“Faith fills the void between hope and fear.”

Jan Paul van Soest,  ‘Navigator’ Energy
in collaboration with Mark Olsthoorn, ‘MarkOnist’

* Refers to participants at the Springtij Forum

Monday, September 07, 2015


Aiguebelette, ag-buh-let, the name of the lake is as elegant and delicate as the sport of rowing, the world championships of which were held on its waters last week. At only an hour's drive from Grenoble, my wife and I went to watch the finals on their last day.
I remember the lake as dark and cold from a bike ride along its shores on a damp, grey morning in autumn, so I didn't expected much of the place. The difference couldn't have been starker. When we came around the bend and caught our first glimpse of the lake, it expanded before us as a brightly sparkling carpet of a thousand shades of blue. On one side, steep cliffs of the Chartreuse mountains towered over it, on the other, rolling hills with patches of trees, meadows and chalets.
On google maps, we had picked our designated viewing site, on the lake's eastern shore where the shoreline came closest to the race track that was laid out in eight dead straight parallel lanes spanning two kilometers between the little village of Aiguebelette-le-Lac and the lake's northern tip.
A grass strip at the end of a line of parked cars, between the road and the steep bank leading down to the water 10-15 m, we judged just wide enough to park ours. A few places down, another parked car was making an odd angle with the horizon, one wheel dangling in the air. As we walked over to lend a hand, we saw one guy hanging in the upper most door opening like a wind surfer, trying to level the vehicle with his weight. Men had gathered under its nose to push it back onto the road. It worked, the car was saved, and we could turn our attention to the world class sports that were going on on the lake.
We came well prepared, with binoculars, hot water, instant coffee, tea and all. So we walked along the road a bit to find a spot to savour our preparedness with a good view of the starting area. There were plenty excellent spots, but they were all on private properties, which covered pretty much all the narrow land between the road and the lake. Proprietors don't like rowing, because we saw none. Just gates, and hospitable signs commanding us to stay out. In between: tall, leafy trees blocking the view. And so we ended up in the village, on the narrow stretch of shoreline where access wasn't for-customers-only. It was a peaceful place, nice view on the lake, families picnicking, little castle on the hill across. So we took out the thermos. Rowing, though, took place on the part of the lake that was out of sight. We almost forgot about it.
When we woke from our snooze, we quickly headed back up the road toward the narrow break in those view-blocking trees close to the starting line. We shouted in support of the Dutch women's eight. They finished last. A little later, we shouted for the Dutch men's eight. They passed us in last position, and, watching the finish through our binoculars, we were convinced they failed, too. But they actually came in third, we discovered! Well done, lads. To be watched in replay at home.
In the men's single final, a strange fellow in lane six confused us lakeshore spectators. "It's a French guy, he's got the bleu-blanc-rouge on his blades," one guy said. "But he wears a red top, unlike the other French," said another. The fellow turned out to be a Cuban, a possibility too unlikely to bet on for us high on the banks. Although he came in last, his was the coolest of composures of the six finalists; he rowed like it was just the lovely Sunday afternoon at the lake that it was. At ag-buh-let.
In the Cuban's wake, the course was dismantled and the floating bill boards towed to shore, to be redeployed wherever the circus' next landing site. And Rio next year. A world away from Aiguebelette, where no trace is left, and certainly no concrete ones, if a local action group of lakeshore residents got its way, except for the promised economic impulse for local shop holders.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Mende 1995

July 14, 2015

It is exactly twenty years ago today, that I first visited the Tour de France. On 'quatorze juillet,' the French national holiday. It was only the second day of a three week cycling tour through the Languedoc and Provence region with my friend Pieter, which we had carefully planned for months, leaning over maps to find the most beautiful roads. The day before, the Oad Cycletours coach had dropped us off with our bikes on the outskirts of the town of Millau. The sudden brightness of the southern sun after the long ride through the night from Amsterdam was a shock to the eyes. Happy, though, we were to finally get off the smelly bus and head off into the spectacular Gorges du Tarn for the first leg of our journey, from Millau to Saint-Énimie. We had pitched our tent by the river Tarn and woke up to a splendid morning, freshened by the nightly thunderstorms. This day, we would leave tent and panniers and go watch the Tour de France stage, near the finish in Mende.
We left camp early enough not to risk being late at our carefully selected spot, right atop the final climb of the day, a steep ramp leading up from the town of Mende to the plateau above, which harbored the regional airport where the finish line was drawn across the very center of the runway. It was exactly the same finale as of the 14th stage of this year's Tour. Via the Causse de Sauveterre and a painfully steep back entrance to the plateau, Pieter and I arrived at our designated spot three and a half hours before the passage of the peloton. No time to get bored, though. A crowd of spectators had already built. With our fellow fans, we tried to spot celebrities behind the tainted windows of the official cars that passed ahead of the race and listened in on race coverage coming from noisy shortwave radio receivers or RV television sets. Finally, the sound of a helicopter announcing the first of the riders. It swelled. Honking cars and motorbikes crested the hill. Spectators leaned over the barrier in anticipation. We positioned ourselves a little higher on the grassy bank next to the road, camera at hand. The energy built up in the air and sent adrenaline through my veins. We saw Laurent Jalabert and his green jersey pass in front. The French fans were going wild. Jalabert had been on the attack all day and was going to secure the stage win for the French on their national holiday. Few things seem more important. A couple minutes later, the main bunch with the GC contenders at the front. Pantani first, followed by Indurain, Riis, Zülle and Rominger, with dutch favorite Erik Breukink a few seconds behind.
I would say this victory, in a hilly stage wearing the sprinter's jersey, marked the tansformation of Jalabert from sprinter to allround champion. He would go on to win the polka dot jersey for king of the mountains twice, in 2001 and 2002. We now know it was the heyday of EPO use in the peloton. Jalabert's main directeurs sportifs, Manolo Saiz and Bjarne Riis, have been revealed as leading actors in the dark drug saga. Jaja himself is now a Tour de France commentator for French television. He has never come clean about his past, never confessed to doping, never claimed the opposite. He was among those tested positive for EPO in 2004 in an experimental test of 1998 samples, results of which were revealed only in 2013, four days prior to that year's Tour. Jalabert maintained he never tested positive during his career and dismissed the results as improper evidence. French TV cosmetically suspended Jaja only to have him return in 2014. Even today, he shows no inclination to admit or testify. His silence is unfortunate and undermines his credibility as a commentator. A great cyclist like Jaja could do a lot of good to the sport by opening up about the past, explaining what happened, whether he doped or not. The French cycling fans may be quick to link the impressive performances of Chris Froome and his team to doping, but seem to care little about the likes of Jalabert, champion in EPO-fuelled races, commenting on today's performances. So I don't think a confession or testimony will hurt him. And it tells me that fans care less about doping than about their chauvinist urges being satisfied.
The revelations about the ubiquity of EPO, blood doping, et cetera, hasn't tempered my interest in the sport one bit. On the one hand, there's always hope that cycling can clean up its act, that the love of the sport beats the pressure to win at all cost. The argument that spectators demand a constant breaking of records is ridiculous. The excitement is not in average speeds and absolute climbing times. Statistics show that the peloton has slowed down in recent years, and the crowds along the roads are no less. However, calls for cultural change - from doping by default to fair play - go together with surveillance and repression taking on ridiculous forms. Trust enforced with tools of distrust. A 1984-world in the making. On the other hand, the stream of revelations over the past years about the organized use of doping read like a detective novel. Both developments I find interesting to follow. We see a judicial system being bricolaged together as we go along. However, I can do very well without unfounded accusations and speculations about exceptional performances being drug-fueled. I would agree with Michael Rasmussen that the "did you dope?" question is a gratuitous one to ask an active rider, because, free after Upton Sinclair, how could a rider confess to doping, when his job depends upon him not confessing? I don't have the solution; as long as winning counts, there's an incentive to cheat. But I hope that parents will be able to let their little kids pursue their childhood dreams of one day wearing that yellow jersey on the Champs Élysées with peace of mind, and may that thought motivate cyclists and others involved to ban drugs from the sport.
Back at our camp site by the river Tarn, Pieter and I cooked our ravioli. We loaded up on carbo hydrates for next day's stage as the Bastille day fireworks lit the sky above the village. Miguel Indurain would go on to win his last of five Tours as we rode for weeks through a lavender scented Van Gogh painting along remnants of Roman times, fueled by crispy baguettes, blueberry jam and an ever shining sun.

Saint-Etienne - Mende, Tour de France 1995

Tuesday, May 05, 2015


On the flight to Amsterdam, I sat next to Lena. A little girl not even three years old, I think. With her curly white locks of hair she reminded me of a close childhood friend, though without the round wire rim glasses. Lena was watching 'Jungle Book' on an ipad. A classic, one of the first movies I ever saw. The sound was off, but that didn't matter to her. At times she would poke me excitedly and shout "elephant!" as five elephants gaily marched across the screen in single file. Lena's mother, meanwhile, took care of another, even younger child. Upon touchdown in Amsterdam, Lena stood up in her chair. Together we looked outside, in silence. First we watched a blue jumbo jet being towed. Then the deep orange sun setting. As we were watching, I felt the weight on my arm gradually increase until the kid also put her head to rest on my shoulder. Friends.

A conversation at the station

I had just finished my pint of milk when a man approached me on my bench in Geneva airport train station.
- 'Can I ask you a question?,' he asked.
- 'Sure', I replied.
He held forward a leaflet and pointed at the three lines at the bottom.
- 'Do you think the future will be better, equal or worse than today?'
- 'Better,' I chose, which instantly made me feel better, too.
- 'You're a positive man.'
- 'Maybe so. And what about you, what do you think?'
The man took a seat next to me. This was going to take a while.
- 'I, too, believe that the future will be better. Because', he said, now pointing at the lines at the top of the page, 'God has promised to end all suffering. Do you think God can make the world better?'
- 'Well, I think there are many people who are inspired by their faith in God to do great things for the world,' I said, to stay on the positive side of the coin.
- 'So you believe in God?'
- 'No.'
- 'But if you look at the world, the ingenuity of life, don't you think there must have been a Creator who designed it all?'
- 'To the contrary, sir.'
I remembered having had this same conversation in college one day, and continued:
- 'For me the ingenuity of nature is a reason not to belief in the creation story.'
- 'Then how has it all come about?'
- 'By chance, to a large extent. Would we do it all over again, it would turn out quite different, I think.'
- 'You think that we humans are here by chance. So life is useless then?'
- 'Good question. But useless to whom? To me, my family and some others, my life can be quite useful, I think. The planet, nature, the universe, I doubt they care much.'
- 'Well, I believe the Bible tells the truth. I see that you're a scientific man,' he said, pointing at the book on my lap. 'You've heard about the big bang, I presume?'
I knodded. This could be an interesting question: what if we could do the big bang over again, could the laws of nature turn out different? If not, why not? What if there does exist a theory of everything, that can be captured in "one simple, elegant equation" that is the source code of the universe. Then, fundamentally, the world may be a lot simpler than it looks and it becomes imaginable that some other being wrote that line of code to create this self-learning artificially intelligent app called universe that brought forth the stars, the planets and life as we know it. Would parallel universes, other apps, be the logical next step? I'm afraid I get sidetracked.
- 'Of course,' the man continued, 'God did not create the world in six days, that is impossible. One shouldn't take the creation story so literally. Those six days were in fact six very long periods of time.  He pulled out a purple leaflet. 'Can I offer you this article? It's written by renowned scientists who explain why the Bible tells the truth. You know, science is proving the Bible right, through archeological studies and all.'
That's a bold strategy: throwing in scientists to convince a science oriented person of those things  in the Bible that science did not find evidence for.
- 'The Bible,' he said, 'answers the three key questions: who am I, where do I come from, and where do I go.'
The first I thought was the most interesting to throw back.
- 'Well, If I may ask, who are you?' I asked.
- 'Me? I believe that God created man in his own image. I am a human being, a son of my father, a grandson of my grandfather, and so on, all the way back to the first man and woman who God created.'
- 'Yes, that's where you come from, but who are you?' I tried again.
- 'I'm a man, the son of....' and so on, he repeated.
This wouldn't go anywhere, but the idea that man was created in God's own image I found a comforting thought. It could mean that nothing human is strange to God; that he, too, is a mixed bag of paradoxes.
- 'My faith in God gives my life a purpose,' the man said.
- 'That's great,' I replied, 'because those who do not have a religion have to find their own purpose, which is not always easy.'
- 'Why do you need a purpose if you don't believe?'
- 'Don't you need a reason to come out of bed every morning? To go to work, study, find meaning in the things you do?'
- 'You go to school and to work because you need to live, of course.'
That static, constrained view on every day life surprised me. I don't believe that that is why he came to this train station on a Thursday night to talk about God and the Bible to strangers like me.
- 'You know,' said the man, 'the world as it is, with all its misery, is not what God had had in mind. No, what God had envisaged was a lush garden where humans would live eternally. And look what we've made of it! Something went terribly wrong in the beginning. And now we're exploiting our natural resources and so on.'
I told him that that is what I was working on: sustainable use of natural resources. That in my view this habit of exploitation is not inevitable. There are ways to use natural resources sustainably. He said he was aware of some initiative here and there, but could not imagine these ever getting the scale needed to improve the fate of life on earth.
- 'Isn't that why Jesus drove the traders from the temple?' I asked, entering into his world of biblical stories. He was surprised:
- 'Ah, you do know something about the Bible!'
Then he started to explain in details of that story: that Jesus had driven the traders from the temple because they exploited the poor worshippers who came from too afar by selling them animals for sacrificial offering for high prices because their road was too long to bring their own.
I though it was an excellent parable to teach that the market place should never be the ultimate end and requires bounds to deliver both private and social value. The man had just explained that I shouldn't take the Bible too literally on the creation story, but now I was taking heed of that suggestion he refused my extended hand. I tried to build another bridge.
- 'You know, your vision of a lush garden and eternal life is not so different from mine. The very goal of sustainable development, which is where I find purpose, is a healthy planet that is tended by humanity in a way that it can sustain a life in dignity and good health for all members of current and future generations. The lush garden is the emerald planet; eternal life is that of the species rather than the individual (until the next big asteroid comes around or the sun runs out of fuel etc.). The Bible is a wise book, if you don't take it too literally. As for me, I choose to believe that humans, who, as you say, are God's own image, are capable of bringing closer that vision. I like a Antoine De Saint-Exupéry quote that's in the book in my lap, which says: "As for the future, your task is not to foresee but to enable it." That's why to your first question I replied the future will be better.'
It was time to catch my bus to Grenoble. I told the man that I'd enjoyed talking to him and that, in the end, we have more in common than I thought. Nonetheless, the divide is too fundamental to bridge in one conversation. In his philosophy the vision can only become reality in the afterlife, not on earth, and thus depends on the suffering on earth to continue. And so there is little point in trying to solve the wrongs in the world through human law and governance; the best we can do is to find comfort by submitting to God. In my view, there is no afterlife and the only place the vision could become reality is on earth. Therefore, I have no choice but to be optimistic.
The copy of The Watchtower, which the man hesitantly offered as we parted, I suggested he keep.

Monday, February 09, 2015

À l’Estacade

Chataignes, noix et potiron
Les haricots selon saison
Pommes de terre, fenouil et blettes
Une aubergine et trois courgettes
Des saucisses et saucissons
S’il y en a des champignons
Quelques tranches de jambon cru
Et de l’ail car il n’y en a plus
On mange toujours de produits frais

Au bouchon des Hollandais

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Smart Grids

Today, at the Copernicus Institute symposium on "Making science work for sustainability," I quickly learned about smart grids in the smart grids parallel track. "What are smart grids?" was the question moderator Frits Verheij (DNV-GL) kicked off the day with. "A buzz word? An industrial technology push? Or the solution to saving the planet?" Eva Niesten (Utrecht University) did not have the answer. Her review of the literature concluded that there's "consensus that there's no consensus" on the definition of a smart grid. Technology patents with a smart grid label are currently exploding, Floortje Alkemade (Utrecht University) found. And business models are still predominantly theoretical. In simulations by Wilfried van Sark (Utrecht University), smart grids can provide great flexibility services. And Elwin ter Horst (Smart Grid Value4All) showed how smart grid pilot projects yield promising results in the real world but run into technological, economic and institutional barriers.
From these presentations, a picture of the smart grid as an emerging concept emerged. Exciting times! A lot of experimenting is going on, which is bound to bring forth the elements and architecture that will define the smart grids concept. In the mean time, however, Ronnie Belmans, executive director of the Global Smart Grid Federation, which was established to "bring together Smart Grid initiatives from around the world," had jumped ahead and pleaded for "standardization" and "interoperability." Would that not be a bit too fast, Mr. Belmans? Would it not kill the explorative phase smart grid development is still in, which this day so clearly showed, rushing into a lock-in in inferior technology?