‘At times I thought our work was useless’
Concern for earthquake suffering at last
Initially, they weren’t even all that interested in the quakes, the stress, or the damage to people’s houses. They were interested in the protests, or in the lack thereof.
‘Normally, I’d have to go to Amsterdam to study the phenomenon, but this time it happened close to home’, says professor of social psychology Katherine Stroebe. It was a great opportunity to gain insight into why people decide to take to the streets, or why they don’t.
That’s also what attracted Tom Postmes, also professor of social psychology. ‘It sounds awful, but when I see people throwing bricks at the anti-riot squad, my interest is immediately piqued. I find it endlessly fascinating. Especially protests on the street.’
Barely any protests
Early 2014. Two years before, the earthquake near Huizinge with a magnitude of 3.6 on the Richter scale was the biggest quake ever measured in the Netherlands. The State Supervision of Mines drew an unusually strong conclusion: the production of gas had to be scaled back as soon as possible. That same year, it turned out that more gas had been extracted than in the thirty years before.
But the two researchers finally realised something was definitely going after talking to a colleague who lived in the area. According to them, she was ‘especially level-headed’, but not even she could talk about the problems without getting emotional.
I’m endlessly fascinated by protests on the street
– Tom Postmes
At the same time, people were barely protesting the gas extractions. Sure, someone climbed a fence now and again and sometimes a group of people gathered on a field near a church. But nothing on a particularly large scale. ‘You had to look very closely’, says Postmes.
But the protest movement went through a rapid growth. Three days before Postmes was scheduled to talk about their first online survey on RTV Noord, VVD politician Henk Kamp was facing different cameras in city hall in Loppersum, the heart of the quake zone, explaining the new extraction plans. Kamp had to raise his voice to be heard over the noise of the people shouting for justice outside.
Something much bigger
In hindsight, the questionnaire they started with wasn’t really very good, the researchers confess. It wasn’t very representative and just plain lacking in quality, says Stroebe. ‘It was a little embarrassing’, says Postmes.
They needed different data, of a better quality. They organised a meeting with experts from the area and assigned bachelor students to interview residents.
That’s when they realised it wasn’t about the protests; it was about something much bigger. That’s what they were supposed to be studying.
‘I remember going camping in Dwingeloo and reading the residents’ stories. They gave me chills’, says Stroebe. ‘Their stories were harrowing’, adds Postmes. They were from people who had been suffering from severe damage, red tape, and worries about their safety for years.
Another thing they noticed is that not a single person wasn’t affected by the earthquakes. Even the toughest guy, who insisted during the entire interview that he didn’t care, finally admitted in the end that whenever it got too much for him, he’d drive around on his motorcycle for a while.
Everyone who’d experienced an earthquake said they’d changed their behaviour somehow; some people would circle their entire home after a quake, while others moved their children to a different room.
Those stories gave me chills
– Katherine Stroebe
‘But no one was paying them any mind at the time’, says Stroebe. Certainly not in any of the studies. ‘95 percent of those were about the ground and 5 percent about buildings’, says Postmes. No one was studying the effects of the lack of prospects, the stress, and the residents’ mental health. No one was asking about the residents themselves.
Postmes and Stroebe were finally able to start their bigger study into the psychological effects of the quakes in partnership with the Public Health Service on the order of the National Coordinator for Groningen (NCG). They called their study Groninger Perspectief.
The study’s results were unequivocal: of the more than ninety thousand people who reported damage to their houses, anywhere between 2,500 to 6,800 people were suffering from serious psychological or physical ailments. A year later, this number had gone up significantly.
They went back to the residents time and again to ask them how they were doing. And in every single report, Stroebe and Postmes recommended actions be taken to ease the suffering. But nothing changed much for the residents, says Stroebe.
After two years of this, they started asking themselves if continuing their research was worth it. ‘Until then, all we’d done was write down the facts and present them to the NCG’, says Postmes. ‘We would’ve loved to just stick to the facts, but we just kept repeating our recommendations, kept returning to the residents and asking them to repeat their stories over and over again. We were wondering why the hell we kept submitting the same report over and over again.’
‘We couldn’t justify it anymore. Not to our audience, not to the other research, not to the residents’, says Postmes. ‘But not to myself, either’, adds Stroebe. It made her ‘very angry’. ‘The work just lost its meaning.’ Postmes nods. ‘There were times where I thought what we were doing was completely useless.’
In the end, they ‘crossed a boundary’ in their function as researchers, says Postmes. ‘That was the most difficult moment of the whole study.’ What did they do? They literally wrote that they’d made the same recommendation three times now and that they’d seen absolutely no results.
‘We had to strike a careful balance’, says Stroebe. ‘If you don’t speak up, no one will pay attention to you. And sometimes you just have to speak up.’ As Postmes explains, when someone is unable to sleep for two nights in a row after an earthquake and has had trouble sleeping ever since, it’s significant.
Why am I writing the same report over and over again?
– Tom Postmes
This has led to the occasional issue. Some people think they speak to the authorities on behalf of the residents, or the other way around. ‘We’ve been accused of that once or twice.’
Fortunately, the new Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy Eric Wiebes put an end to the gas extraction in 2018. And all was well in the world.
Except it wasn’t.
It soon turned out that far fewer buildings were going to be fortified. In the meantime, the residents were in distress, because the quakes weren’t going to be stopping any time soon.
Before anyone can say that these earthquakes aren’t that big a deal because they don’t actually kill anyone: there are approximately five of them a year, Stroebe and Postmes explained in a hearing for the Lower House back in 2018. It’s not just about the earthquakes or the danger to human lives, they told the MPs, it’s about the ‘inadequate response to this much damage’. ‘The system itself is a stress factor for the residents’, Stroebe says. ‘Just like it was for the people caught up in the childcare benefits scandal.’
Has it all been worth it? ‘Yes’, they say immediately and in unison. There’s been an important change as well, they noticed, ever since the case moved from Economic Affairs to Home Affairs. Although it’s still extremely slow going.
Postmes quit the study in January of last year. He now focuses solely on the knowledge platform in an effort to improve the translation from knowledge into policy. But Stroebe is already in discussion about phase four, the next stage of the research that Groninger Perspectief is doing. Out of all the houses that need it, only 10 percent have actually been reinforced, and the residents’ health has deteriorated even more, she says. ‘We’re not there yet.’