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Playing with fire in Iceland


By Joan Martinez-Alier and Nick Meynen.

When Norwegian farmers sailed to and colonized Iceland 1,100 years ago, they organized politically without kings for several centuries. They founded the oldest parliament in the world (the Althing) in which they met in the summers. This summer, Iceland was also host to the Conference of the International Society for Ecological Economics where members of the EJOLT consortium made several presentations on the Environmental Justice Atlas and on environmental conflicts.

A great talk was delivered by the author of “Dreamland: a self-help manual for a frightened nation” (Andri Snær Magnason). The best-seller was initially published in 2006, sold 20,000 copies in Icelandic and has been translated into other languages (English version: 2008). One of its readers, the singer Byörk, writes optimistically in a blurb: “This book had an enormous impact in Iceland when it came out. After Icelandic politicians had sold Icelandic nature cheap to some of the industrial giants of the world without the people’s consent, the Icelandic people were upset. We did not get a chance to defend ourselves, or our nature. I have a feeling this is a universal problem that our generation will find solutions to. This book is one of these solutions”.

Here’s how the story goes. A few of the early farmers and fishermen converted into Vikings and went onto the sea, taking advantage of their ability to capture the energy of the wind in quite large boats. They went so far as Sicily and Constantinople returning home with their loot, and reached Greenland and Vinland (in America) where they settled for a short time. The oral stories of their exploits narrated in a direct and vivid style, the Sagas, became written texts after 1200, together with a remarkable book with the names of the settlers in the land from the year 870 onwards (Landnámabók). Many names of the current farms survive from that book.

Looking back, government sources acknowledge that soil erosion and desertification is a problem. About 65% of the entire island is estimated to have been covered with vegetation at the time of settlement. Today, only about 25% of Iceland is vegetated, the result of a combination of harsh climate and intensive land and resource utilization by a sheep rearing and agrarian society over 11 centuries. Jared Diamond writes in the book ‘Collapse: How Societies choose to Fail or Succeed’ that “Iceland’s soils form more slowly and erode much more quickly than those of Norway and Britain”, where the settlers came from. Iceland is now ecologically the most heavily damaged country in Europe. The forest cover was reduced from 25% at the start of settlement to 1% today. Diamond goes on to explain why Iceland narrowly escaped a total collapse similar the Norse settlements in Greenland They stopped keeping pigs and goats, limited the number of sheep, abandoned the most sensible highlands and cooperated to prevent erosion.

Iceland became Christian, and returned to the Norwegian Crown. It lost half of the population when the Black Death arrived in the 15th century. Iceland followed the Lutheran reformation. It became a possession of Denmark for some centuries, reaching home rule in 1918 and independence in 1944. Located just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland has little more than 300 000 people in over 100 000 square km, with a very low population density. Geologically formed only about twelve million years ago, with volcanoes covered by glaciers, its history is marked by eruptions.

It was occupied by British and Americans during the Second World War (when Nazi Germany put in Norway the government headed by Quisling). Iceland belonged later to NATO. It was not a neutral state in the Cold War but at the end of it chose to remain without lucrative US military bases. A pro-American vision had been to turn the country into “battleship Iceland” with 10 percent of the active population devoted to this “industry”.

This option discarded, the great ecological and economic debate that continues today has been on the potential hydroelectric (and geothermal) production of Iceland, and its industrial use for exports.

The main theme of Andri’s book is the debate between “traditionalists” and “moderns” about what to do with the Icelandic economy, which actually has no major problems with their exportable fisheries, their stocks of sheep and cows in large grasslands, and its low population with a high level of education and proven capability of innovating in industrial design. The debate between traditionalists and moderns exists since decades. Halldór Laxness, Nobel Prize in literature in 1955, already took a strong position in it. Despite appearances, neo-liberal economists and engineers of the electrical industry have not been actually very modern because they had a fixed idea over many decades: harnessing as much of the hydroelectric power as feasible at the expense of flooding places of unique beauty and great environmental value in the high mountains. They wanted and want to increase the installed power up to a level of 30 or 40 kw per person (ten or more times more than what is required for the current domestic and industrial consumption). And this not in order, for instance, to pioneer a system of private and public transport moved solely by electricity, but to multiply the number of factories of Alcoa and other multinationals of the aluminium industry. This is an industry that swallows electricity up. Iceland has no mining of bauxite, so the raw material would be imported. The book “Dreamland” speaks also of the social and environmental costs of mining bauxite in Brazil and other exporting countries. Some ten years ago, Samarendra Das, the coauthor with Felix Padel of a study of the bauxite mining industry in India and the world ‘Out of this earth: east India adivasis and the aluminium cartel’ (New Delhi, Orient BlackSwan, 2010) helped Icelandic activists to understand the connections. He was present also at the recent ISEE conference.

In the financial folly of Iceland before 2008, the promises of the aluminium industry had a crucial role. They implied the sacrifice of valuable landscapes in Karahnjúkar and at Thjorsarver and elsewhere flooding land and building hydroelectric power plants for the smelting of aluminium. Some were made and others were interrupted. The illusory guarantee of rising prosperity brought by aluminium giants such as Alcoa, allowed Icelandic banks to seek huge loans from investors of foreign funds promising interest rates that they could not pay. There was a large bankruptcy in 2008-09. Iceland agreed not to service these debts. For a while, the new government moved into a green direction although in subsequent parliamentary elections power returned more or less to the same people who had ruled before, and the aluminium export industry is damaged but not down. The excellent book by Andri Snær Magnason explains all this and much more in an exciting combination of poetry and terawatts accounts.

photo credit: Chris Zielecki

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