Nature Outlook 2010-2040

Final symposium Nature Outlook 2010-2040

PBL director Maarten Hajer presents a copy of the Nature outlook 2010-2040 to Henk Bleker, State Secretary for nature
PBL director Maarten Hajer presents a copy of the Nature outlook 2010-2040 to Henk Bleker, State Secretary for nature

Without context the facts are meaningless

by Mireille de Heer

“It is a great pleasure and cause for celebration to be able to present the results of the Nature Outlook 2010–2040 today.’ These were the opening words spoken by director Maarten Hajer of the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency at the final symposium of the Nature Outlook on 26 January 2012 . Earlier in the day, Maarten Hajer had also spoken of celebration; this time, referring to nature itself. In an interview with the Dutch newspaper Trouw he said: ‘Nature itself is a celebration, so why don’t we do that: celebrate it?’ An engaging and illuminating afternoon about the need for a new context for nature and the landscape.

Providing tools for innovation in nature policy: that was the purpose of the Nature Outlook 2010–2040. To arrive at these recommendations, scientists at the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency examined the future of nature and the landscape from four entirely different perspectives. ‘Nature Perspectives’ not conceived by the researchers themselves but gathered from within society during numerous workshops with a large variety of stakeholders. It became clear that to some people the word nature means a wilderness with many species, while to others nature is a place to be enjoyed, or represents a variety of ecosystems from which we can sustainably harvest, or that provide species that do something for us, such as pollinating crops. And then there is the group of people, by no means the smallest, who think of nature as something that provides a nice backdrop to their place of residence or employment.

PBL was able to draw a number of solid conclusions from this exercise. ‘The concept of the National Ecological Network (EHS) is still very useful’, said director Maarten Hajer in his presentation. ‘And the more robust such a network is, the more room there will be for combined use. Think of a tree: the stronger the trunk, the greater its crown can be. And what that combined use will be, people will have to decide for themselves. Is it not those little parcels of nature in our own region which mean so much to us? To be able to save nature we also need to consider its function; for example, by using natural areas for storage of water surpluses, as took place in Groningen only this month .’ Finally, Hajer argued that we will also have to accept that in some situations nature will be subordinate to other functions. Often not an easy choice, but being able to live and work in green surroundings is something which could definitely improve our international competitive position, according to Maarten Hajer.

The Nature Outlook has to be communicated and understood on regional levels

The words of Maarten Hajer were well received by State Secretary Henk Bleker, who was there to be presented with the new Nature Outlook. ‘The Nature Outlook has to be communicated and understood in the regions’, according to the State Secretary. ‘As an ordinary member of the public I feel at one with nature, it is where I belong. The landscape expresses our cultural history and economic traditions. Who other than the people of a region could or should be responsible for conserving those particular landscapes and the nature areas?’ An accusing remark from the floor (voiced by Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) director Johan van der Gronden) that he was only cutting public spending, did not appear to cut any ice with Henk Bleker. ‘The strength of this policy is that it creates possibilities for people as well as businesses.’”

Idealism has become officialdom

Writer and journalist Bas Heijne subscribed to the need to generate renewed public interest in nature and the landscape. In his audio column, he observed that the nature conservation organisations, such as those in the cultural sector, no longer serve what is perceived to be the general interest. ‘Nature’ has been reduced to an absurdist collection of notions, according to the writer, which mainly frustrates ordinary people. Hardly surprising therefore that cynics have gained the upper hand and the environmental movement has been forced onto the defensive. Why would anyone still care about nature? Who would be inspired by the plethora of rules which are intended to make the Netherlands ‘ready for otters’? ‘The nature movement should whine a bit less’, was Bas Heijne’s answer when asked from the floor how the cynicism could be overcome.

Henk Bleker shakes hands with Bas Heijne

Henk Bleker shakes hands with Bas Heijne

The best and the brightest

You could hear a pin drop during the presentation of Louise Gunning, chairwoman of the Health Council of the Netherlands (Gezondheidsraad). ‘If you were working in the realm of nature how would you tackle it?’ was the question PBL put to her. She had her answer ready. ‘My concerns in my present job are not the ever-increasing cost of healthcare or the ageing population. My main focus is on how to get the best and the brightest to work in healthcare. And I do that by enticing them. Isn’t healthcare the sector with the greatest technological advances? Will we ever have enough healthcare and is it therefore not the main driver of our economy? Doesn’t working in healthcare give the greatest emotional satisfaction that any young person could ask for? And isn’t it the most interesting sector to manage, with the most personable managers?’
Summarising a famous quotation attributed to Antoine Saint-Exupéry, Louise Gunning’s belief is that ‘If you want to build a ship you don’t give people tools, but a longing for the sea. I wish you managers who know how to conjure up the image of the sea.’
From the floor, a member of the Drenthe Provincial Executive, Rein Munniksma, recognised the need for a new context. ‘Before Henk Bleker’s time, in every Drenthe village we had a figurative kitchen table, where people could come together to create a vital countryside. The State Secretary’s interventions have been such that the kitchen table has now gone, and we miss it. We need new inspiration to lift ourselves out of this sombre mood.’ Worldwide Fund for Nature director Johan van der Gronden felt that the time is ripe. ‘The publication of the Nature Outlook is an excellent moment to regroup.’

Pictures of speakers Louise Gunning, Diederik van Hoogstraten and Toine Poppelaars

Speakers Louise Gunning, Diederik van Hoogstraten and Toine Poppelaars

Discover each other’s world!

‘I am amazed by the intensity that I experience here. How hard you have to fight!” Diederik van Hoogstraten, director of Ballast Nedam Sustainability Services is not envious of the nature sector. He is the second guest speaker who has been asked to reflect on the developments in nature in relation to his own sector. He complimented PBL on the decision to invite other sectors to learn more about each others world. No, the construction sector does not look as far ahead as PBL, not to 2040. It thinks and works in the present time. But this does not make the opportunities any less interesting.
‘For years development was too easy. And because of that we made mistakes, too; seeing nature as an obstacle, for example. Profound changes in our sector are now compelling us to broaden our view, which is what brings me here. In project development we need to move more towards system thinking in which all the elements are considered as a whole to do justice to the identity of an area. An example is our project on the tunnel for the A2 in Maastricht. We won that contract with a narrative about people.’

Systems thinking on a piece of the earth

System thinking means considering an area as a whole.

The arguments put forward by Diederik van Hoogstraten clearly appealed to the floor. But ecologists are not inclined to trust a builder. Marco Glastra, director of Utrechts Landschap, gave the redevelopment of the Soesterberg air base as an example of how local pressure groups and businesses can work together under the leadership of local government – ‘Bleker proof’, and still within the framework set by the authorities. That such cooperation is not always straightforward is something Monique van der Dungen of Groningen Seaports is well aware of. ‘In the development of the Eemshaven it was the legal constraint of nature and environmental legislation which in the end forced the ecologists and industrialists to come to the table.’
Speakers Diederik van Hoogstraten, Louise Gunning and PBL director Maarten Hajer joined forces at the front of the room. Combining healthcare, construction, and the environment seemed to them to be a good idea. ‘Building residential areas with a focus on health will bring more health benefits than any amount of health campaigning could do’, Louise Gunning expected. Diederik van Hoogstraten joined in: ‘If we can allocate societal costs and benefits to the projects, then “it will fly”!’

Being right and proved right

And then it happened, right there on the spot: the clash between fact and perception. The third guest speaker, Toine Poppelaars, dyke reeve of the Scheldestromen regional water board, explained how he manages to integrate nature into his operations and into his thinking. But he also pointed out the conflicts between nature and safety, nature and recreation, nature and the economy. He asserted that the discussion surrounding the Hedwigepolder was not with people but about them. This provoked strong reactions from the floor. After all, there was a publically accepted agreement with respect to the dismantling of the polder! Dissatisfaction had been mobilised for the sake of electoral gain! Chairman of the day, Martijn de Greve, alluded to the debate with a rhetorical question: ‘Will nature conservationists really win the argument on the Hedwigepolder by turning to the courts?’
Provincial Executive representative Rein Munniksma offered a different approach. ‘We asked the best and brightest to sit down with us to think about the water issue in Drenthe and Groningen. We challenged farmers and nature conservationists to reduce their wishes by 20% in order to achieve the other 80%. They all joined in. Three years later the project was completed and last January our feet remained dry. But in order to achieve all that, communication had a vital role.’


‘Without context the facts are meaningless.’ Maarten Hajer could not have put it more succinctly. He got his celebration, with a varied group of speakers and guests who shared, challenged and encouraged – sharpening their wits while learning from each other. Looking for a new strategy to conserve and develop nature. To find a context which is supported by knowledge and facts but still rooted in personal experience.

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Slideshow of pictures from The Final Symposium on Nature Outlook 2010-2040


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The Nature Outlook is a statutory product of the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency with cooperation from Wageningen UR.