I raised an eyebrow. Wahid Palash, a Bangladeshi phd student, explained to me how he could better predict when river Ganges might flood. Strikingly, he used only information from the inflow point into Bangladesh. Frowning I ask him why he doesn’t just use the information on river Ganges from upstream neighbour India? Surely the Indians must have information on the amount of water in their part of the river? His answer: “Sure they do. But I’ll be graduated before they share that with Bangladesh.”
The type of flooding in Bangladesh that Wahid tries to predict.
Startled I realise I have to add a privilege to my list1: the privilege of living in a country that has friendly relations with its neighbours for such a long time that my personal actions are never judged as suspicious on geopolitical terms. If I call a colleague in Germany and ask for information on the flow of the Rhine, such as I needed for a paper during my phd, they will just send it: no problem.
“The European project” may have been sold to voters as “good for economy / your wallet”, the founders had an additional idea. Peace builds trust. Trust builds friendship. Friends don’t fight. For me sixty years of peace and collaboration with the Germans means that I trust them. Or rather: that we have come to a point where I do not first and foremost see them as Germans, but as individual humans: some to trust, some not. Just as the Dutch people among whom I live. But when a Bangladeshi student calls the Indians, the first thing they see is not a fellow human looking for information for his research, but a foreigner looking for valuable national information.
The student looks at me: “any other question on my research?”2. He noticed that I had drifted off. I look at him, his poster, and the rest of the enormous poster hall of the AGU Fall Meeting. Twenty-four-thousand geoscientists were together for a week in San Francisco to share their latest research. The fall meeting is usually a merry place. We are happy to see each other again and thankful for the privilege of working in science. This year the mood was a little more tense. With the american president-elect appointing climate skeptic as head of the EPA and threatening to shut down the Earth Science Division of NASA, many American geoscientists fear for their job. The Brexit vote in the UK means uncertainty for many researchers working in the UK. If they’re foreign: can they stay? If they’re British: will EU funds still be available in the future?
We mostly hear the economic arguments for international collaboration: “It is good for the GDP” versus “the immigrants will steal your job”. When it looks sour for our wallets or our jobs, we turn inwards: close the borders, build a wall. What we hardly hear is the benefit of being friends with our neighbours. That the Dutch are able to call the Germans and ask what the Rhine at Koblenz is doing and get an honest answer. That answer allows us to know multiple days ahead wether we have to evacuate parts of the Netherlands due to flooding, in stead of only one day ahead. In case of floods, that difference saves lives. These lives are not saved in Bangladesh.
So when we ask for peace this christmas, let's not do because it is good for our wallets3, but ask for peace because in times of peace, we get a chance to know each other as fellow humans, instead of as “the other”. Fellow humans that help each other when needed. Fellow humans that share information, because it is the right thing to do. Fellow humans that share one, tiny, speck of dustin an uncaring universe. Let’s ask for a peaceful time in which we get to know each other and become friends.
Happy new year, see you in 2017.
PS for Dutchies: I choose this topic to talk about on NPO Radio1 last monday, you can listen to it here:
1 white, hetero, cis, male, affluent, highly educated, employed (tenured even), born in a country with social security and global healthcare, the list is long.
2 I saw his poster because Kate Brauman dragged me along. Kate had signed up as judge for the Outstanding Student Presenter Award (OSPA). Signing up for OSPA as a judge is a great way to discover research that otherwise might not be on your radar!
3 If your wallet feels empty, or got emptier because of hard times: I totally get you would ask for measures to save your income, your livelihood. Just please do not throw away the baby with the bathwater: ask your politicians to be both protective of your livelihood as well as good friends with your neighbouring countries. A good income will mean nothing when your house is flooded, or worse, war brakes out over stupid political slights.