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Wealth and Technology Can Overcome Nature’s Wrath

Blog Post | Environment & Pollution

Wealth and Technology Can Overcome Nature’s Wrath

Like the Dutch war against the waves, fortifying against the climate is a technical challenge that requires engineering and adaptation.

Summary: The Dutch, who have faced the rising sea for centuries, provide a remarkable demonstration of how wealth and technology can counterbalance nature’s fury. This article explores the Dutch experience with flooding, highlighting how their economic prosperity and technological advancements have enabled them to create resilient landscapes. From carefully engineered water management systems to innovative flood prevention measures, the Dutch exemplify the power of human ingenuity in overcoming the challenges posed by natural disasters.

The rising sea could become a problem for many, but for the Dutch, it is merely an old and well-known enemy. Trapped between some of Europe’s largest rivers and the violent North Sea waves, the people living in the Netherlands prevent floods for a living – literally.

Holland is a flat, low-lying country on the edge of a stormy sea. To make matters worse, between 20 and 40 percent of its land area is at, or below, sea level. Yet, as the Dutch have shown for centuries, it is possible to live below the water level with appropriate water management and technology.

The Dutch have played an outsized role in the history of the world – in foreign trade, economic growth, and financial development. Their tolerant ethics may have kicked off the Great Enrichment, thus producing the world’s first modern economy. The Dutch also invented central banking and perfected the art of public debt and securities markets. Most impressively, they accomplished all that while under constant siege from the ocean.

The water level on Dutch shores has increased steadily for over 3,000 years (and even more rapidly for 7,000 years before that). In other words, long before the Industrial Revolution, modern capitalism, or the burning of fossil fuels, the Dutch had to adapt – a strategy reviled by purist climate change activists.

Since the twelfth century, local and regional institutions known as waterboards have operated independently of political power. Using dikes, sluices, canals, and other forms of hydraulic engineering, they “began to tame, though never to vanquish, the waterwolf,” writes William teBrake, a history professor at the University of Maine and long-time student of Dutch land history. 

Later, with advanced technology and greater wealth, the Dutch built pumps to drain flooded areas and even, in grand land reclamations, the ocean itself. In modern times, they raised protective barriers to seal off the hinterlands from storm surges.

The threat from water grew worse over time as humans tried to eke out a living from the land. Cutting and burning peat and draining swamps undermined the land’s support and made it drop further below sea level. This process, known as subsidence, sunk the land up to 2 centimeters per year in the late-Middle Ages. That’s five times the rate at which sea levels currently rise around the world and more than twice what the IPCC projects as the worst-case scenario for the rest of this century.

Still, the Dutch prevailed. Somewhere between A.D. 1600 and A.D. 1800, the protective measures made possible by Holland’s growing wealth and improving technology began to pull ahead in the race with the ocean. “The Netherlands has learned to live with the fact that sea-level rise is ongoing and accepts that associated impacts are a continuous issue,” writes Mark van Koningsveld and co-authors in a 2008 article about the Dutch and sea-level rise. “Future problems of climate change and sea-level rise are part of this evolution rather than something fundamentally new.”

The more modern and elaborate protective barriers and sluices, like those in the Delta Works or the Zuiderzee Works, sometimes draw ire because they were constructed only after massive storms destroyed many lives (1953) and property (1916). That is true but also somewhat unremarkable: throughout the thousand-year-plus history of settlement in the Low Countries, it always took extraordinary events for people to spend scarce labor, capital, and material to ensure and refine their survival. Learning how to manage water and protect low-lying lands from the ocean was a trial-and-error process.

If climate change today turns out to increase those water-related risks, the Dutch are rich and technologically savvy enough to supplement their already extensive water protection systems – not unlike what you do with your home or car insurance when your circumstances change. Besides, it’s much cheaper to reinforce a structure than to reverse centuries of carbon emissions.

Of course, it cost a lot of money to build the engineering wonders that currently keep the Netherlands safe from the ocean, but at 0.4 percent of the central government’s annual expenditure, the maintenance of the vast water protection system is likely cheaper than what it was the past.

Even though millions of people in the Netherlands live under the waterline, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever be seriously harmed by a gradual rise in sea levels. But what about larger storms – a problem that the IPCC expects to worsen? Could bigger than anticipated storms overwhelm Holland’s coastal defenses? Luckily, the IPCC report on the oceans from 2019 projects wave heights to decrease in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea – even under the worst RCP8.5 scenario.

So, can the Dutch relax? Not quite. Their long battle against the ocean to their West and North, and the continental rivers to their East and South, may never end. Water doesn’t rest, but neither do the Dutch, who regularly expand, improve, and comprehensively re-assess their Delta program. If it turns out that climate change is worse than what today’s experts predict, the Dutch can adjust.

Fortifying our societies against the climate is a constant challenge. But like the Dutch war against the waves, fortification against nature’s whims is a technical problem that requires engineering and adaptation, not fearmongering.

World Bank | Water Use

The GCC’s Journey Towards Water Security

“Thanks to innovation driven by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, notably advancements in membrane technologies and energy efficiency, the price of desalinated water has plummeted from US$5.00 per cubic meter in the 1980s to as low as US$0.40-0.50 in recent projects. This is making desalination increasingly affordable for countries worldwide.

Beyond desalination, the GCC countries are implementing diversified water management strategies to manage water demand. One of the most important areas is the reduction of ‘non-revenue water’ (NRW) — physical and commercial losses of water.”

From World Bank.

BBC | Water Use

How Our Drinking Water Could Come from Thin Air

“Friesen, an associate professor of materials science at Arizona State University, has developed a solar-powered hydropanel that can absorb water vapour at high volumes when exposed to sunlight. 

It is a modern-day twist on an approach been used for centuries to pull water from the atmosphere, such as using trees or nets to ‘catch’ fog in Peru, a practice that dates back to the 1500s and is still being used today.

Amid the flashy transparent televisions and electric vehicles at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January, there were a few start-ups claiming to have new ways of exploiting this ancient, and often overlooked source of clean drinking water. And with the help of artificial intelligence, they’re finding ways of pulling even more water out of the air.”

From BBC.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.



Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce


Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats




Other comebacks



Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation


Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing


Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources



Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development


Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment



Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s


Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases



Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations



    Artificial intelligence



    Construction and manufacturing


    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles


    Other innovations


    AI in science


    Chemistry and materials






      Blog Post | Water Use

      Desalinating Water Is Becoming “Absurdly Cheap”

      Elon Musk schools Bill Maher.

      Bill Maher recently interviewed Elon Musk. When Maher claimed that we are running out of water, Musk replied that “Earth is 70 percent water.” Maher shot back that “you can’t drink that.” Musk calmly replied that desalination is “absurdly cheap.”

      How cheap is cheap? Energy Monitor notes that “globally, around 1% of the world’s drinking water is desalinated, but in Israel, that figure is around 25%.” Israel’s desalinated water comes from five desalination plants. The Sorek B plant has a capacity to desalinate 52.8 billion gallons a year and is contracted to produce water for $0.41 per cubic meter. There are around 264 gallons per cubic meter, so this puts the cost at about a penny per 6.4 gallons.

      One hundred percent of the municipal water supply in the United Arab Emirates is desalinated. Dubai bloomed out of the desert with desalination technology. There are some 186 desalination facilities under construction or at the pre-construction phase around the world.

      According to the website Filtration and Separation, in 2012, the cost to desalinate was $0.75 per cubic meter. In 2012, the average U.S. unskilled labor hourly wage was $10.97. In 2022, it had increased to $15.72. That puts the time price at about 4.14 minutes in 2012 and 1.56 minutes in 2022.

      Put differently, in 2022 we were getting 165 percent more gallons of clean water for the same time price as was the case in 2012. Water abundance from desalination is growing at a 10.22 percent compound annual rate, doubling in abundance every seven years. These gains happened while we added 860 million people to the planet. Population was growing at a 1.14 percent annual rate, while desalination grew almost nine times faster.

      We’re replacing salt with knowledge and turning a liability into an asset. Humans are exceptionally clever at innovating. Never underestimate our ability to adapt and thrive as long as we are free to discover valuable knowledge and share it with others in open markets.

      This article was originally published at Gale Winds on 9/4/2023.