Article — From the October 2008 issue

News From Nowhere

Iceland???s polite dystopia

( 3 of 7 )

The exquisite rhubarb crisp that ended my meal at Bessastadir reminded the president of boyhood days helping his grandmother put up jars of rhubarb preserves. Nearly every autumn saw a flurry of activity to dry enough fish and salt enough lamb to avoid starvation during the dark and isolated winter, he said, and people who come here now, “who see this ultramodern society,” fail to understand that it has been only a very short time since Iceland was a poor country, “almost a developing country.”

Iceland is marked, maybe even scarred, by several hundred years of such poverty. It began to lessen only after 1902, when Iceland got its first motorized boats, bringing a wave of modest prosperity to the country’s fishermen, who still produce more than half of its exports. World War II brought the next and larger wave: as the Nazis occupied Denmark, Iceland fell under the protection of Allied troops, thereby allowing the nation to liberate itself from centuries of colonial rule and become an independent republic, although the American military continued to maintain a base there from which to monitor the Soviet Union. In 2006, the United States discovered that it had other priorities, recalled its fighter jets and military personnel, and closed the base.

Long before the U.S. military presence ended, the ruling Independence Party began to cast around for something new to pump up Iceland’s economy. The nation had for decades harnessed the turbulent landscape to produce “clean” energy, though geo thermal power and hydropower are not quite as green as we would like to think. They take a toll in the form of toxic emissions and the destruction of wild places, though most of Iceland’s postwar energy developments were small in scale and impact. In the mid-1990s, however, the government decided to offer up Iceland’s vast natural resources to energy-intensive industries such as aluminum production, which also generates significant pollution, in a scheme that involved damming virtually every major river in the country. This willingness to sacrifice Iceland’s wilderness to foreign corporations reflected Iceland’s image of itself as a new player on the world stage, as “modern” (even if giant dams are rather old-fashioned icons of progress) and “high-tech” (even though it still exports more fish than aluminum). One popular claim was that Iceland would become “the Kuwait of the north.”

Many Icelanders have been troubled by the decision to sell off the landscape. The signature such debate took place over the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Proj ect, which involved building several dams along two major glacial rivers, a series of deep tunnels to carry water to hydropower stations, and a new electrical infrastructure to connect those stations to a coastal smelter. The measure became increasingly unpopular as Icelanders got to know something about the massive amount of remote wilderness that would be—and now has been—drowned; about the reindeer that calved there and the pinkfooted geese that nested there; about the serious pollution the hydropowered smelters would emit, even if the electricity itself was emissions-free; and about the scandalous economics of the deal, whereby the citizens would pay billions for the infrastructure and the U.S.-based aluminum manufacturer Alcoa, which would most benefit from Iceland’s increased smelting capacity, would provide only a few hundred jobs to locals in return. In a country the size of Iceland, a few hundred jobs outside the capital count, and there has been a ripple effect on the declining eastern economy and population—but at a cost many think is too high.

To hear ordinary citizens speak about the dams, you’d think they lived under a vast tyranny; they speak of powerlessness, secrecy, intimidation, and loss. And yet little in the way of actual political protest has emerged. Icelandic presidents are barred from party membership, but before he took office Grímsson was a member of the Peoples’ Alliance Party, which in 2000 joined Iceland’s three other center-left parties to become the Social Demo cratic Alliance. The hope was that the coalition could gather enough seats in parliament to defeat the ruling Independence Party, whose website announces its principles as “the freedom to work and freedom of the individual, abolition of any kind of restraints,” and “a dynamic and open economy.” Despite offering a fairly tepid version of Clintonian moderation, the Peoples’ Alliance effort thus far has not succeeded. Kolbrún Haldórsdóttir, an MP who codirects the Left Green Party—founded in 1999, in part to oppose the dam proj ects—suggested that this conservative streak was just a part of the national character. “It is difficult to get people to join political parties. It is difficult to get people to join the associations and ad-hoc groups that are working on these issues,” she said. “We would be much stronger if we had more people. But they are not willing to come.”

There have been few petition drives and no national referendums on the dams. Indeed, the only concerted campaign has come from a small organization named Saving Iceland, which is run, according to its website, not by Icelanders but by “a network of people of different nationalities.” The most dogged and potent local opposition has come from artists, who began protesting outside parliament almost as soon as the proposals were aired. For a 2003 TV documentary about a site soon to be submerged by a dam, the photographer-naturalist Gudmundur Páll Olafsson tore out the pages of his book on the region to demonstrate what was being done to the landscape itself. At an exhibition in downtown Reykjavík this summer, the artist Rúrí mounted a video installation, called Flooding/Nature Lost, that featured footage of geese and other birds sitting on their eggs until the rising waters of Kárahnjúkar’s reservoir dissolved the nests and washed away the eggs. The birds walked away, puzzled and pathetic. Rúrí, a kind, spiky-haired woman in her fifties, has devoted much of the past decade to creating a mournful video catalogue of Icelandic waterfalls, particularly those already or potentially lost. Of the dam projects, she said, “This is sad and ridiculous in a democratic society, especially one that claims to be the oldest in the world.”

lives in San Francisco and is the author of several books, including A Field Guide to Getting Lost and, most recently, Storming the Gates of Paradise. Her last article for Harper's Magazine, "Detroit Arcadia," appeared in the July 2007 issue.

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