The abolition of the dividend tax

The plan of the Rutte III cabinet to abolish the dividend tax is continuously receiving negative attention in the media. The cabinet couldn’t deliver convincing evidence that the plan would have a positive effect on job creation. The plan also tears a hole of 2 billion in the budget.

Recently there was news that abolition of the dividend tax seemed to be necessary for legal reasons. Currently the Dutch dividend tax only affects foreign investors because Dutch investors can deduct the dividend tax from their tax return. Denmark had the same rule, but was sued by foreign investors. The European Court of Justice found in favor of the foreign investors because it considered the policy discriminatory. If the Dutch state would lose in a similar court case it would mean that foreign investors would be allowed submit a request for a tax refund as well. Because the Netherlands Tax and Customs Administration would not be able to deal with such a change, it would de facto necessitate abolishment of the the dividend tax. I don’t understand however why plan B – no tax refund for Dutch and foreign investors – is not possible.

I suspect the politicians of the VVD (the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, which is the largest party in the Rutte III) launched the plan because the lobby of the multinationals whispered it in their ears. According to the news item the legal argument may have been the real reason for Rutte III. It wouldn’t have been communicated openly because public servants had advised not to mention the legal aspect. It would have weakened the legal position of the Dutch state. Did Rutte III really create a smoke screen? Often the simple explanation is the better one: the VVD politicians are not political masterminds but the pawns of the multinationals. The lobby for this plan goes back for years and the legal dimension only entered the spotlight very recently.

Whatever the true reason may be, in principle no one likes discrimination? Certainly not if we are discriminated, as with the German road toll plan. This plan entails that foreigners pay tolls for the use of German highways, while Germans get a refund on their road tax for the tolls they pay. At the end of last year the Dutch state decided to join other EU member states in a legal case against Germany at the European Court of Justice. Is it not consistent then to deal with the dividend tax as well?

In the end, what really matters for me is if the abolition of the dividend tax is honestly compensated by higher taxes on capital and profit (specifically including corporate tax on the profits of companies). We will have to wait for the upcoming government budget later this month, but it does seem to go that way. The plan would be to cancel the intended reduction of the highest corporate tax to 21%. Instead, it would be reduced to 22% to compensate for the loss of the dividend tax.

The problem is that the highest tariff of the corporate tax currently is 25% and used to be 46%. The Netherlands allows itself to be dragged into a race to the bottom for tax competition along with other states. The idea is that corporate taxes should constantly be reduced because companies might relocate to other states where taxes are lower. Consider some statistics. The tax burden (total revenue of taxes as a percentage of the gross domestic product) has risen from 37,2% in 1995 to 38,5% in 2017. The revenue of the corporate tax as percentage of the gross domestic product rose from 2,87% in 1995 to 2,90% in 2017.

The tax burden evidently rose while the share of the corporate tax remained virtually unchanged. This small change is more grave in reality. The Netherlands Bureau of Policy Analysis (CPB) can partially explain the leveled revenues of the corporate tax with two causes. On the one hand the lowered tariffs were compensated by a broader tax base, caused by less room for tax deductions, depreciation and such. On the other hand there is a shift in the legal entity used by companies, for example from sole proprietorship to the private limited company (plc). A business using the sole proprietorship entity pays income tax and a plc pays corporate tax. Because corporate tax is lower, it is attractive to convert the sole proprietorship legal entity to a plc. The consequence is that revenues from the income tax take a hit.

The above is of course only a part of the answer because we only discussed corporate tax. Unfortunately I can’t find any good historical statistics on the division of the tax burden between companies and households. I have a strong suspicion that these would show that the share contributed by companies has decreased while the share contributed by households has increased. Lowering the corporate tax tariffs slightly less sharply is not going to solve the problem.

The tobacco smoking ban at street-level

On 3 August it was announced that the municipality of Rotterdam has plans to impose a ban on tobacco smoking for several streets. The Erasmus Medical Center, the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences and the Erasmiaans Gymnasium launched this initiative to protect public health. To guarantee that there will be no smoking in front of their entrances, there would effectively be a smoking ban on three streets near their buildings. Apparently other municipalities are also eager to designate non-smoking zones in their Algemene Plaatselijke Verordening (APV, a local ordinance in Dutch law).

Actually I’m surprised that smoking in public is still allowed. I suspect electoral motives are playing a role here. Because there are so many smokers, a ban on smoking could cost votes for the political parties who enact such a ban. Perhaps the fact that smoking is on a slow decline in the Netherlands is the reason that we are seeing more action on this issue today.

It’s strange that smoking is dealt with so weakly in comparison with other drugs. Take cannabis, a drug which poses a health risk roughly equal to or lower than tobacco. Smoking cannabis in public is already banned in most municipalities, who also use the APV for this. Or psilocybin mushrooms, mushrooms with a psychedelic effect. Even though these are not addictive and are barely harmful for public health, they were banned completely in 2008. By comparison tobacco is a mass murderer which faces almost no constraints.

We should distinguish between how damaging a drug can be for public space in theory and in practice. In an ideal situation we aren’t troubled by tobacco smokers who smoke at a good distance from other people. In practice however I see that many smokers on the bus stations and platforms of Utrecht Centraal don’t keep that distance. They smoke close to other groups of people waiting for the train or bus, who still receive second-hand smoke.

Many smokers also throw their cigarette butts on the street because cleaning up is too much work for them. The excuse is probably that they can’t throw a cigarette which isn’t extinguished in the litter bin. When I recently seated myself on a bench in a park in The Hague during my lunch break, I noticed the ground around the bench was littered with cigarette butts. It looked like they had accumulated there over some days or weeks. Apart from that smoking in public always gives a bad example to children.

This ambition to ban smoking in public comes late, but is very welcome. I do hope that we can institute a nationwide ban on smoking in public instead of having to wait for every individual municipality in our country to take action. There is no reason why smoking should be banned in some streets in Rotterdam while it would still be allowed on the Grote Marktstraat in The Hague.

Because a complete smoking ban might play into the hands of illegal production and criminals, I don’t wouldn’t advocate a complete smoking ban. I would treat tobacco roughly equal to cannabis, assuming that cannabis production will probably be legalized in the near future. So only legal sale in coffee shops (so no tobacco sale in super markets and such!) and use banned in public.

Why an apology for slavery should not be made

On 30 June the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, called on the Dutch government to make a formal apology for the Dutch slave trade. De Dutch state had expressed its regret for the slave trade before, but it never came to an apology out of fear for possible legal responsibility. There are several reason why I think a formal apology is not a good idea.

At the very least I think it is ironic that just Aboutaleb with his Berber origin calls for an apology. The Barbary pirates from North Africa undertook slave raids to Europe from the 16th to 19th century to enslave Europeans. Where is his call to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to formally apologize to the European countries for their slave trade? Of course Europeans have traded far more slaves than the Berbers, but that is not the point. It’s just an interesting question, not an appeal to hypocrisy towards Aboutaleb.

Europeans nowadays don’t demand an apology from North African countries for their slave trade from the past. Indigenous Dutch people nowadays don’t demand an apology from Spain because their distant ancestors were killed during the Eighty Years’ War due to the actions of the Spanish Empire. The Spanish Empire never compensated the United Provinces for the damage. Apparently these people do realise that you shouldn’t keep pulling on the distant past.

There are of course other situations possible were an apology is appropriate. The most important criterium should be if the people who demand the apology actually suffered from the acts for which an apology is asked. The killings perpetrated by Dutch soldiers in the Indonesian village Rawagede and in South Sulawesi in 1946 and 1947 are a good example. The widows of the men who were killed at that time were compensated for the damage and received an official apology.

It should be noted that the Dutch politicians who were responsible for the violent suppression of the Indonesian War of Independence are no longer alive. An apology loses value if it is not made by those who were responsible for the misdeeds. In this case the responsibility is more abstract because the apology is made on behalf of the Dutch state as a legal entity. This does not affect the necessity of the apology however.

Compare this with the situation of the slave trade by the Dutch. Among the people who demand an apology from the Dutch state, there is no one who has suffered from slavery and they did not have parents who have been slaves. In which way were they damaged by the slavery? How will an apology make them sleep easier at night? I can’t help but think that these people want an apology so that they can hold the Dutch government responsible in the court of law and then demand financial compensation through lawsuits.

The failure of GroenLinks to join the new coalition government

Jesse Klaver, political leader of GroenLinks, is blamed by VVD, CDA and D66 for the failure of the formation of a new Dutch coalition government. Negotiations failed because GroenLinks doesn’t want to make any “Turkey-deals” in the future to restrict streams of refugees from Africa. The VVD notes that governing leftist political parties elsewhere in Europe, like in Greece and Portugal, do agree with this policy. The CDA considers these deals a new European reality and thinks the desire of GroenLinks is impossible to satisfy with the rest of Europe being in favor of it.

The refugee deal with Turkey entailed that refugees ask for asylum in Turkey and are prevented from travelling to Europe to do so. Refugees (including those which reach Europe) are received by Turkey, for which the EU pays. Eventually, those who receive a refugee status (primarily Syrians) get divided over the EU member states. Klaver thinks that Turkey is not a safe country for refugees, based on the reports written by Amnesty International. He does not think Tunesia is safe, either.

Based on a reconstruction of the Volkskrant and the other parties, GroenLinks agreed to potential refugee deals on Thursday 8 June. This happened after a top diplomat explained that refugee deals can be compliant with international law. According to GroenLinks all parties should have known that Klaver would bring in new discussion points the day after. Klaver added a demand that the Netherlands should take in 5 to 25 thousand refugees a year after committing to refugee deals. This demand was later shelved, but Klaver maintained his objection to sending back refugees to African countries. When the impasse continued on Monday 12 June, the negotiations ended.

In an interview with the Volkskrant on Thursday 15 June, Jesse Klaver said negotiations could have failed over plenty of other issues. Examples he gives are the failure to meet the goals of Paris climate treaty, or the desire of the other parties to ease the bonus regulations for bankers. That last wish was apparently dropped by the others after Klaver stated he didn’t agree with it, but imagine how different the news headlines would have been if negotiations broke down over either of these two issues. Klaver wouldn’t have been blamed for ending the negotiations. Compliance with the Paris treaty would have been considered a much more legitimate policy goal than a more lenient asylum policy.

I’m very disappointed with Klaver. He gained a historical election victory and could have made GroenLinks participate in the governing coalition for the first time in our party’s history. But he squandered it. He bowed his head to the pro-refugee camp in GroenLinks and refused to compromise on the refugee deals. We know that there is huge support for such deals among other EU-member states and among the general Dutch population. Actually, given the seats the right wing parties have won and the general sentiment, there is precisely that support for containing the refugee influx.

By now the VVD, CDA and D66 parties have formed a coalition government with the ChristenUnie, a Chistian political party. At least the sound environmental policy of the ChristenUnie comes second to only GroenLinks itself. It pains me to write this, but environmentalists might have been better off voting for the ChristenUnie because that party does have courage to make compromises. GroenLinks doesn’t want to compromise or take responsibility.

Stopped as secretary of GroenLinks Zuid-Holland

In April this year I ended my tenure as the secretary of the board of GroenLinks Zuid-Holland. That is the local chapter of the Dutch Green party in South Holland province. I could have opted for another two year tenure, but I felt I had no longer had the motivation for the job.

Mostly, it was simply the desire to do something different after two years of working for the board of the provincial chapter. That’s why I’ve solicited to become a candidate for the GroenLinks branch in The Hague for the municipal council elections of 2018. Another reason is that the nature of work done by the secretary is not satisfying. It became frustrating and inefficient too often. I’ll explain this in detail here.

As the secretary I often communicated with local chapters and party members in our province. Contact data of party members, including members of local chapter boards and local politicians is all stored in the Customer Relations Management (CRM) system of GroenLinks. The secretary is the only one who has access to the CRM system.

I had to export the data on party members from the CRM to MailChimp, which is used by our chapter to send our members newsletters. Because there are constant mutations in membership, you have to perform a new export from the CRM every time you send a newsletter. If you send newsletters often, this can be quite a hassle. MailChimp is also expensive (around € 60 per month if I remember correctly) because the South Holland chapter has several thousand members who receive newsletters. If you consider that there are many more local branches in the country who use MailChimp to send newsletters, the costs start adding up. But the party bureau never considered a cheaper alternative for MailChimp for all local chapters, or at least some integration of the CRM with MailChimp.

Another issue with MailChimp is that a good template which local branches can use for their newsletters is missing. If every local chapter makes its own inferior template it doesn’t look like professional communication. At the very least the party bureau should design such a template. I’ve asked, but the answer was that everyone was busy with the election for the House of Representatives this year. But nothing happened after that election either.

It isn’t possible to filter on certain job titles in the CRM system. I can’t make a selection of municipal councillors or aldermen, or a selection of campaign leaders, and only export data on those persons. Because our campaigners need that contact data I had to maintain separate spreadsheets with those contact persons and manually update them when changes occur. Very dull work and inefficient. Giving every chapter distribution lists such as board.rotterdam@groenlinks.nl or campaignleaders.southholland@groenlinks.nl and synchronizing these with the CRM to catch mutations in the members of the list could solve this.

The content management system (CMS) behind the websites is no good either. Drupal is used to power the websites. I don’t know if it’s inherent to Drupal or not, but it’s not user friendly at all, even for an IT guy like me. That’s why it’s even more frustrating to read that the web team of the GroenLinks party bureau simply denies that there are usability issues. This was especially frustrating for me, certainly after helping webmasters of local chapters in our province with issues several times.

A disadvantage of the CMS and CRM combined is that there is no feature to keep track of registrations for events. Advance registration is necessary in my opinion if you organize a meeting and have a voting procedure on the agenda. You want to know if attending people have voting rights, which are granted to party members who have paid their contribution. The best thing you can do in the CMS is enabling a registration form, which buries you in registration e-mails if a lot of people want to attend. You then manually need to verify if those people have voting rights. This is another very labour intensive and demotivating job. I suspect the party bureau does have some way to automate their registration forms for their own much larger events. Yet they never considered to develop a registration form for the CMS which is integrated with the CRM for local branches.

To conclude, the secretary plays an important role on the board. But if the secretary is not supported by the party bureau with the right tools, the job becomes very unattractive. You find yourself wasting too much time on work which doesn’t demand your skill and intelligence, work which should be automated.

Of course being the secretary also taught me a lot about organization and teamwork skills. I had the benefit to work with many good people. Even though I’m quite critical of the IT facilities provided by the party bureau, there are two employees I’d like to thank: Marieke Schep and Folko de Haan. Both work tirelessly for local chapters.

CETA is dangerous and should not be ratified

On 15 February 2017 the European Parliament approved the Canada-EU Trade Agreement (CETA). Now the treaty will need to be ratified by individual member states before it comes into effect. Let’s hope that CETA is either adequately modified before it’s ratified or rejected. I’m not principally against free trade agreements, but CETA is a bad treaty. As you might already know, CETA contains many nasty provisions favouring big business over the small citizen.

The Stop TTIP campaign (which also wants to stop CETA) covered these issues very comprehensively. There are too many to discuss in a single post so let’s single out one which worries me most: the investment court system (ICS), also known as investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). This is not unique to CETA, but included in many other free trade agreements as well.

The problem with ICS is that it gives foreign investors acces to special courts for investment disputes with states. I can imagine this is justified in case the state in question doesn’t have an impartial legal system, but the EU and Canada have high-quality legal systems. ICS is only accessible for foreign investors, which creates inequality for domestic investors and other actors in society. The rights for foreign investors to have their investments protected are vague and can interfere with the democratic process of lawmaking. And even after modification, judges aren’t employed on a tenured full time basis and a fixed salary, which gives a potential for conflict of interest. These objections, and more, are voiced by 101 European law professors.

Recently South Africa decided to withdraw from treaties with ISDS, Indonesia won’t renew them. India will remodel its treaties to nerf ISDS. Brazil never signed an investment treaty with ISDS at all and doesn’t have difficulty to attract foreign investment. Why do the EU and its member states not notice that? Do we really have to wait for ridiculous claims from foreign investors before we realize that ICS was a terrible idea? Unsurprisingly, my own political party GroenLinks voted against provisional application of CETA for this and other reasons. Another left-wing party, the Dutch Labour Party, thought that ICS was okay after it had been softened (but still subject to the above criticism). D66, slightly less left-wing, maintained that CETA shouldn’t interfere with the rule of law, but voted in favor anyway. They didn’t explain at all why a separate court for foreign investors is necessary.

Fortunately, the regional government of Wallonia resisted CETA fiercely before it reached a compromise with the Belgian federal government to approve the treaty on 27 October 2016. The compromise consisted of an addendum to the treaty which is analyzed in detail here. The most important succes of the compromise is that it requires a review of ICS for compatibility with European law by the European Court of Justice. It also states that the Wallonian region may veto the treaty if the chapter on investment protection is not improved by the time of ratification. We will have to see what their effort is worth by the time they make the decision to ratify the treaty or not.

Even though he couldn’t stop CETA, I’m grateful to Paul Magnette, the minister-president of Wallonia, for his efforts. In an opinion piece on CETA he not only discusses the danger of corporate privilege, but also the environmental consequences of international trade. International trade accelerates climate change through transportation of goods with fossil fuels and should therefore not expand any further. We have to produce more of our goods locally to counter climate change.

Make high-speed rail travel more efficient

Last year I wrote that I had stopped using aircraft because of their excessive use of fossil fuels. The consequence was that from then on I would only use other forms of transport to travel for holidays. In fact mostly trains for their speed. Last year we practiced what I preached and used the train to travel to Puglia.

The journey went well. The French TGV and the Italian FrecciaRossa high-speed trains can reach speeds of 300 km/h, shortening travel times significantly compared to ordinary trains and buses. On the railroad from The Hague in the Netherlands to Foggia in Italy, you’ll experience these speeds between Paris and Lyon as well as Milan and Bologna for example. It’s awesome to see the surroundings next to the train flash by in the blink of an eye. The problem is that you won’t be travelling so fast for most of the time.

Take the part from Rotterdam to Paris, Lyon and then Milan for example. Coincidentally, according to Google Maps the distance covered by all three legs of this journey is very close at approximately 450 kilometers each. Travel times are also close, at 4:30 hours each. This doesn’t take into account possible congestion, but the route is a worst case scenario which passes through the center of each city. For the train journey with Thalys (from Rotterdam) and TGV (from Paris onwards), the three legs take 2:46, 1:51 and 5:11 (!) hours respectively.

Much of this is to blame on the route through the Alps where the TGV can’t go fast and stops at every provincial backwater. This will be solved with the Turin–Lyon high-speed railway, but that is expected to be finished by 2028 due to the construction of the 57 km long Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel. Another big issue is that the Thalys arrives in Paris at Gare du Nord and that the TGV to Milan departs from Gare de Lyon two hours later. There is a good subway connection between both stations, but you lose a lot of time which could have been spent in the train.

Such important tunnels as the Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel should already have been constructed in the past if there had been foresight of the future. Paris should have one huge TGV station on the outskirts of the city. Give it a good connection to the center with a subway line so the TGV’s can be focused on serious long distance travel and short transfers between trains (which also means more trains). When that’s done, high-speed trains will be able to compete much better with aircraft.

In other places the story is the same. Milan also has two stations for high speed trains, requiring you to make a transfer. When you travel from Milan to Foggia, there simply is no high speed rail on Italy’s eastern coast. The intercity on that route wasn’t slow, but I’m looking forward to the new high-speed line from Napoli to Bari which is due to finish in 2022. When I explored options for a trip to Spain (which also has a decent high-speed rail network) I noticed that there is still no high-speed railway between Montpellier and Perpignan (in France) and that there is no high-speed railway from Madrid to Lisbon (even the ordinary railway connections to Lisbon are scarce).

I can deal with such limitations by spending the night in a city half way through the journey. But others will just take a flight. If we want to make long distance train travel attractive, we have to do a lot more.

Why I don’t want to travel with aircraft anymore

To travel to Nepal and the USA from the Netherlands several years ago, I’ve used aircraft. For traveling to closer holiday destinations such as Spain and Italy, I’ve also taken flights to get there. Since I’ve become more conscious of climate change, I decided to investigate the climate change impact of flights. My findings shocked me.

Flights cause much more carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions than cars, buses and trains. How much more depends on the method you use to calculate it. There are various calculators available on the Internet which can calculate CO2 emissions for a specific route. Because calculation methods and results vary so widely, I’ve compared them in the table below, on the basis of a journey with the train from Rotterdam Centraal railway station (Netherlands) to our next holiday’s destination, Bari Centrale railway station (Italy). For the flight I chose a hypothetical, non-existent flight from Rotterdam The Hague Airport (IATA: RTM) to Bari Karol Wojtyła Airport (IATA: BRI).

This is one way to do the comparison. In reality, you would need to travel 200 kilometers with a car (or three hours and a quarter with the train and bus) from Rotterdam to Maastricht Aachen Airport (IATA: MST) to get a flight to Bari. You would also need to take the metro from Bari Airport to Bari Centrale, which takes around twenty minutes. This makes the comparison more favorable for the train. Also consider that the huge advantage of faster air travel can be negated in practice; the flight departs only on Wednesday and Sunday in the second week of September. We depart on Thursday with the train, which departs every day.

Calculator Flight CO2 (kg) Train CO2 (kg)
MyClimate 310
EcoPassenger 269 63
Carbon Footprint 210
Loco2 144 27
ICAO 141

I should mention that the Carbon Footprint calculator has an option to include or exclude radiative forcing. Without radiative forcing, the CO2 emissions will be 110 kilo, but considering the effect of radiative forcing I think it’s fair to include it.

EcoPassenger seems to have to most refined methodology of all the calculators. If I just enter departure station and arrival station it gives me a figure of 70 kilo for the train, but it tends to select a strange route via Switzerland to come to this result. I got to the figure of 63 kilo by calculating every leg of the journey independently, for the exact trains I’ve booked:

  1. Rotterdam to Paris (Thalys) = 6,0
  2. Paris to Milan (TGV) = 16,5
  3. Milan to Bari (FrecciaRossa to Bologna, then FrecciaBianca) = 40,3

The difference between rail transport in France and Italy is explained by the methodology used by EcoPassenger, which is accessible on their website. They take into account which fuel sources were used for electricity production in 2013. It turns out that nuclear power had a share of 75% in French electricity consumption, followed by renewable energy with 18%. Because this gives very limited CO2 emissions the journey through France scores well. Italy doesn’t use nuclear power and had a share of 41% renewable energy in total consumption. I had expected the journey from Rotterdam to Paris to emit more because the Dutch electricity mix is lagging behind. It is heavily dependent on fossil fuels with a pitiful share of merely 14% renewables in electricity consumption.

Some of the calculators indicate a huge difference in CO2 emissions between aircraft and train. A Dutch environmental organization, Milieu Centraal, calculated the difference at a factor of 7,5 for a journey from the Netherlands to Nice in France. With Loco2, aircraft emit more than five times more CO2 than the train. EcoPassenger shows the smallest difference with a factor of more than four. Their estimate is the most conservative, but their methodology is also appears to be the best and the most transparent.

So how does 269 kilo of CO2 emissions compare? Consider for example that in the Netherlands, cars traveled 12.935 kilometers on average in 2012. They emitted 119 grams of CO2 per kilometer on average in the same year, giving a total of 1.539 kilos of CO2 for the whole year. So a return flight from Rotterdam to Bari equals four months of driving an average car in the Netherlands. This still might not seem much to you. Actually, considering that in the real world you can take a one way flight from Maastricht to Bari with Ryanair for less than € 20, you might not care.

But consider some other things. If you fly long distances, CO2 emissions will equal or exceed the emissions of a car in a year. Commuting to work with your car might be a necessity, but a holiday with a flight is certainly a luxury. With all options for video conferencing today, I think flights for business reasons aren’t essential either. You can also commute to work with electric public transport, an electric car or a more efficient bus. Electric cars and buses are already showing strong growth and are likely to replace their counterparts on fossil fuels in the near future. On the other hand there is no alternative to aircraft which run on kerosene for the foreseeable future.

Because there is no way to make air travel environmentally sustainable at this time, I think we should stop doing it altogether. We have to take action against unchecked climate change. The year 2016 will be another year with a new temperature record, just like the six other years after 2000. If it goes on like this, southwest Asia is predicted to become uninhabitable due to extreme temperatures. More needs to be done to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Why not start with air travel, which was conveniently kept out of that agreement?

The question is, can we do with less? Commercial aviation is still relatively young and became popular no sooner than the 1960’s in the Netherlands. Our parents could enjoy their holiday in the Netherlands itself or elsewhere in Europe without a flight. If they could be content with that, we should be able too. I’d still love to go to Mexcio, Brazil, India and Japan one day, so this is not easy for me either. However, I can live with less and be satisfied with holidays in Europe by train. Given the danger we are in, our climate should take precedence over my and your desires. Don’t fool yourself with arguments like ‘that aircraft will still fly without me’. This assumes you are the only one prepared to act. I’m asking you to assume something different: it might take no more than two hundred people to make one flight unprofitable for an airline.

Now you know what is at stake and you know what you can do about it. What will you choose? The earth or your own desires?

Is Zwarte Piet racist?

The Sinterklaas celebrations in the Netherlands last year again featured a very heated debate about the alleged racist character of Zwarte Piet. A group protestors consisting of mostly black people (and some whites) consider Zwarte Piet racist, while the majority of Dutch white people see it as tradition rather than racism. I recently watched a documentary about the matter, “Zwart als roet”, also available in English. This documentary, made by the (white) Sunny Bergman, appeals to a white public to consider the issue from a different perspective.

The matter was not a big deal to me before the discussion. Initially I considered the protestors a bunch of self-victimizing whiners who took offense at a tradition which was not meant to be offensive. Recently, and certainly after watching the documentary, I’ve come to see that the protestors are mostly right: Zwarte Piet is racist. Zwarte Piet became a tradition in the Netherlands during the 19th century, during a time when there were not as much Dutch people with foreign heritage as now. This, and the character of that time, meant that no one spoke up about the issue. Back in the day Zwarte Piet may not have been conceived of as consciously racist, to demean black people, but it is rightfully experienced as racist by black people now.

Especially revealing to me are the scenes where Sunny Bergman and a collaborator walk around in a British city as Zwarte Piet. Sunny remarks that most white Dutch people are prejudiced because we grew up with Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. For British people this is not the case: they are quick to condemn Zwarte Piet als gravely racist. This is because Great Britain and the United States had a tradition in blackface performances, we are told.

Later in the documentary, a parallel to broader racism is drawn. In another experiment, a white person and two persons with darker skin color try to steal a bike. Amazingly, the white person is even given assistance by passers-by to break a chain lock on the bike, because people consider him reliable. On the other hand, the bystanders quickly recognize the darker skinned persons as thieves and alert the police. Being white, it’s difficult for us to recognize this unconscious undercurrent of racism. The experimental method used by the documentary is a powerful means to expose it.

Apart from the unconscious racism, there is also conscious, explicit racism. It’s understandable that black people are upset when they are called ‘Zwarte Piet’ as a joke. All the racist insults hurled at the protestors are also evidence of the problem. I do think that some of the protestors lacked subtlety in their message. The average Dutch person who grew up with Zwarte Piet probably was amazed and insulted when they were indirectly called racists. Had they been more careful in their message, they would have received more sympathy because people would understand better.

I still like Zwarte Piet as a concept and I would want my children to experience the tradition while black people don’t feel shamed. Fortunately, this requires only a small interventions: remove the earrings, the wig with black curly hair, lipstick and completely black facial paint and replace it with smudges of black paint over the face. Anyone who considers the history of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet will realize the tradition has changed a lot in two centuries, so this is no objection to me. I was taught that Zwarte Piet is black because he climbed through the chimney, after all. This has already been done in several places last year, but needs to get wider following. However, some have also painted Zwarte Piet yellow and other strange colors, which is taking it too far in my opinion. Some schools even went further than that and consider Zwarte Piet a negative stereotype in all cases, no matter what color he is. They replaced Zwarte Piet with commercialized ‘minion’ figures. That is completely absurd.

Cowspiracy, meat consumption and veganism

In September 2015 I watched Cowspiracy, a documentary about the impact of livestock on climate change. It explains why cattle rearing is so damaging to our climate and doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s well made and is likely to achieve its goal to get the viewers thinking about their diets.

The documentary is reasonably well researched, but there is valid criticism on the sources used in Cowspiracy. An earlier version of the film claimed that livestock caused 18,5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, based on an FAO report. The revised version of the film doesn’t mention a figure, but the creators admit on their website that the FAO lowered the figure to 14,5% later. Unfortunately they do continue to support a single study which concluded that livestock is responsible for 51% of greenhouse gases, which is not credible to me after all the criticism I’ve read. Even so, the 14,5% figure is still more than all greenhouse gas emissions from transport, which are 13% according to the sources used for the film.

Another issue is the claim that you can’t be an environmentalist if you eat meat. As said elsewhere, I don’t think it is black and white. If there is mountainous land which is unsuitable for agriculture but which can be used for entirely grass-fed cattle, I don’t see a problem. The same goes for hunting and fishing responsibly. In practice supply of animal food from these two former categories is very limited in the Western world, of course.

You might take an issue with some of statistics and sources used in Cowspiracy, but its message that we should adopt a vegan diet (or in my eyes, at least drastically reduce our consumption of animal products) still stands. There is overwhelming evidence for the extent of the problems caused by livestock. As you can read on their page about the facts, cattle requires enormous inputs in land, water and fodder crops when compared to growing plants. Feeding half our global grain supply to cattle is crazy.

An recent study from Erb et al. (2016) in the prestigious journal Nature sheds more light on the problem. They studied the options for feeding the world in 2050 without further deforestation. A Western diet for everyone is possible, but only if “cropland yields rose massively and cropland expanded strongly into areas that are today used for grazing”. I don’t see skyrocketing cropland yields happening with all the news about failed harvests and drought caused by climate change lately. The authors state that human diets are the strongest influence on our options. They continue that vegan and vegetarians diets allow us to choose from many more options and that these are “associated with only half the cropland demand, grazing intensity and overall biomass harvest of comparable meat-based human diets”.

We won’t be able to keep up our current level of meat consumption with further human population growth and climate change. *You* are responsible for the preservation of our planet, so start lowering your meat consumption drastically or become vegetarian or vegan. Do what must be done, even if it is inconvenient for you! Personally, I still like meat, fish and cheese, but I haven’t cooked meat in years and probably eat less than a two kilos of fish in year. I do still eat meat a few days a month when others cook for me, however. I will strive to lower my consumption of meat, fish and cheese further.