Fighting for the Future: Lessons from Berlin and Rotterdam

November 1, 2018

This is a guest blog post by Lucy Corlett, recipient of the PPEH Travel Fellowship for the Penn in Berlin and Rotterdam Program in 2018.

What role can we play in protecting the future for our planet? This question hung in the air this summer as I and a group of 11 other students, led by Professor Simon Richter, travelled to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Nijmegen, and Berlin in an effort to learn about how European cities and governments are working to reduce emissions, increase energy efficiency, combat rising sea-levels, and encourage sustainable lifestyles among their citizens.  

I initially signed up for the Penn in Berlin and Rotterdam program due to my interest in sustainability and climate policy. As an Urban Studies major concentrating in Environmental Studies, I wanted to get a more global perspective on the implementation of climate and energy policy. I was able to commit to the trip thanks to a travel fellowship I received from the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities.

beneath Rotterdam's maeslantkering
Beneath Rotterdam’s Maeslantkering, the largest storm surge barrier in the world.


Professor Simon Richter set up an incredibly enriching itinerary for the class. Every moment of the trip, planned and unplanned, provided some kind of educational experience. On our second day in Amsterdam, we met with individuals from Urgenda, a group of advocates who, in 2015 sued the Dutch government and demanded more ambitious climate change policies. Their constant fight against Dutch complacency relating to emission rates made me realize what a small group of intelligent and dedicated individuals can do, at least within a government that is willing to hear them out. Learning about Urgenda’s determination and actually meeting the people who have been able to effectively change the course of the future made me realize that the most frustrating fights are often the most worthwhile. One of my favorite days was the one we spent in Nijmegen, a small Dutch municipality that has taken impressive steps to make life livable where water levels continue to rise. Through the “Room for the River” project, the city has successfully re-wilded the banks of the Waal (which flows adjacent to the city) and expanded the river’s floodplain in order to prevent the destruction of nearby homes and farmland in the event of a storm surge.


Professor Simon Richter on the banks of the Waal in Nijmegen
Professor Richter speaks to students on the banks of the Waal in Nijmegen, home of the “Room for the River” project.


I was surprised by the number of conflicting narratives we heard from activists, legislators, and researchers over the course of the trip. While it seems that Germany and The Netherlands have made impressive progress (compared to the United States) in terms of emission reduction and energy policy, these countries still struggle to meet the sustainability standards that they have laid out for themselves. At some points, I felt extremely optimistic about the future. Many individuals we met with provided an unwaveringly positive outlook; they were sure we’d find a way to live in a world under water. Or they were certain a coal phase-out was on the horizon.  Dr. Stephanie Groll, a consultant for ecology and sustainability at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung foundation, enlightened us about Germany’s deep historical and cultural ties to environmentalism, which she and others think provides a platform for adaptation and acceptance of sustainable policies in Germany. Others we spoke to, particularly data-focused researchers, held a bleaker view-- you could almost see the hopelessness in the circles under their eyes. The words “too late” rang in my ears more than once.

Perhaps most importantly, this trip helped to inform my understanding of the political stagnation in the United States. In The Netherlands and Germany, we learned about their comparatively functional, cooperative forms of government. The proportional representation system seems to prevent the kind of partisan polarization we are experiencing in the United States. The amount of irreversible damage Trump has done to our policies concerning the environment/climate/human rights is astounding, and to see other countries moving forward as we move rapidly backward is terrifying. If the progress Germany has made is still insufficient, we should not even be allowed to compare ourselves to them. I felt ashamed as I sat through many of the presentations, particularly when presenters acknowledged their countries’ comparatively benign shortcomings. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the bitter irony of visiting the Holocaust memorials in Berlin after receiving the news that Trump had pulled the United States out of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Given the darkness of some of the content we encountered on the trip, my classmates were one of the biggest gifts this program has given me. Perspective and education regarding sustainability are important, but a community of like-minded students is one of the most powerful forces in the world. The conversations I had with my peers, -- whether late at night on the deck of a boat or early in the morning on a high-speed train--taught me so much about how to grapple with the daunting topics we faced everyday. We typically discussed how we would be applying our newfound knowledge when we returned to Philadelphia, and how the trip would inform the rest of our Penn careers, if not our entire lives. We found that there is great comfort in a burden that can be shared.

Penn in Berlin and Rotterdam group photo
The group in front of the Berliner Dom, or Berlin Cathedral Church.


Penn in Berlin and Rotterdam gave me the opportunity to learn about the world and my place in it. I am more determined than ever to persevere in the face of hate and regression. I have seen how change can actually be made. I have heard stories of progress and pessimism, both of which assure me that my own internal conflict is appropriate. I’m not sure exactly what the future holds, but I know that I am, or will be, prepared to face it, armed with friends, knowledge, and hope.