The choice of my topic for this week causes some problems for the English version. It is about a topic with a heading that is derived from the Dutch substantive ‘polder’. A ‘polder’ is a piece of land that has been reclaimed from the water and is protected by dikes (also often spelled as ‘dykes’), since the land lies below sea level. The Dutch have taken the word ‘polder’ and have created a verb ‘polderen’—to polder—that refers to a model of decision making that, in spite of a plurality of opinions, wants to arrive at a consensus-based decision.
It is a concept that appeals to me. Partly, this may be a matter of emotion. I am fond of the polder, of this mostly (but not exclusively) Dutch method of ‘making’ land where once there was only water. I grew up in a village, some 35 kilometers north of Amsterdam, that was built on a strip of land between four lakes. Between the thirteenth and the seventeenth century these lakes were turned into polders. Since five years I live in a town that is built on the bottom of a much newer polder, the Flevopolder. Only half a century ago it was part of a large body of water, the Zuiderzee (or, since 1932, called IJsselmeer after a dike closed this lake off from the sea).
Many people find polders rather boring. Everything is flat, often there is not much to see or to experience, they say. You have to be satisfied with a simple system of straight canals and narrow roads. And the wind is always blowing stronger than elsewhere. But others, like me, love the polder. They love the fact that you can always see in the distance; they love the greenness and the open space; the beautiful skies and the windmills (to the extent that these have survived the centuries). Polders are often unique landscapes that have much to offer. The Beemsterpolder (one of the four polders near the village where I lived as a child) is now recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
How the verb ‘to polder’ came to be used in the way it is used today, is not totally clear. The best explanation I have been able to find is that the making of a ‘polder’ in past centuries required a far reaching degree of cooperation of various stake holders with very differing interests. Making a polder and making the new land suitable for agriculture and for habitation, required huge amounts of planning, many different skills, years of hard labor of a great many people, and enormous amounts of capital. The makers of a polder were truly required ‘to polder’ together.
The recent agreements between the Dutch social partners and the government that led to a comprehensive long-term agreement, is a good example of the poldering-model that time and again had brought satisfying results.
However, there are quite a few people in Dutch society that frown upon this ‘poldering’; they feel it is a sign of weakness to have lengthy discussions about a particular issue with the final result that there is a colorless compromise, in which no one party sees all its wishes fulfilled. If you are negotiating, they say, you must persist until you have reached one hundred percent of your goal. You must stand for the things you believe in and not be content with vague compromises. True, if parties negotiate, they cannot all win. Unavoidably, there will be winners and losers. That may be tough, but, in any case, the results are clear-cut.
Undoubtedly, there are occasions when you have to fight for your convictions, when you will have to say ‘no’ to every form of compromise—whatever be the cost. I believe, however, that in most cases it is much better to follow a process of give and take in an attempt to find solutions. This is true in the political area, especially in a country like the Netherlands, where none of the political parties can hope to reach a majority position. I admire politicians who are willing to work with others—including their political opponents, and want to strive for what is most feasible. In many instances this also applies to a faith community. Far from every decision has to do with unchanging biblical principles. Most often factors as culture, history and personal preference play a major role. The process of ‘poldering’ seems to be, in many cases, a truly Christian way to remove barriers and create cooperation.
In summary: It makes me feel good when I drive through a ‘polder’, and it has often given me great pleasure when in my work in the church I have seen the positive results of ‘poldering’.