The Balance, sustainability and controlling gestures.

Emily in Melbourne asked me a question this morning about sustainability and Iceland that starts me pondering. Sitting in Cape Town observing and thinking about sustainability I reflect about how my country Iceland somehow developed faster than we can handle. A country known for clean air, beautiful nature and ample natural resources. In my youth I remember regular news on radio and grown up talk about fishing, the weather (always changing) and of course the Cold War. Icelanders are by nature fast response people and have to be because of continuous natural extreme changes. Volcanic eruptions, impulsive weather, no fish in the sea, too much fish in the sea, harvest blowing away in hurricanes. It is the nature of Icelandic society to respond every day to current natural events. Our joke is that the national policy of Icelanders is this

“Hey mate! I am in trouble! Can you help me?”

I meet regularly people that admire Iceland for its use of ‘renewable energy’ – especially Canadians who obviously have received great news about Icelandic hydro energy and geo energy. But the story is not all that beautiful. I come to that later.

Fishing Control Systems in Iceland

As a kid I travelled with my parents (my father being an artist did not have a steady job) in the summers to remote places for work. One summer to a fjord in the East (Norðfjörður) where they worked in the herring boom, working 24 hours per day, hopping out in the middle of the night when the boats came in overloaded with herring. When the herring came everyone was happy. The herring was called ‘The Silver of the Ocean’. Then there came months and actually years when the herring disappeared. A national economic disaster that as a kid I remember the politicians talking about all the time on the radio. The talk came up in the 60’s that there would be a need to control overfishing somehow to create sustainable economy and stability. Government institutions were formed that decided how many tons of each species it is allowed to catch every season. In the media there is continuous argument between the fishing industry saying the specialists know nothing and forbid fishing when they are out at sea and see the silver swimming all over. The specialists on the other hand refer to research, annual measurements etc. Both arguments are understandable. Then in the 80’s government controls were increased, – a system of fish quotas was introduced. All in the need to control fishing, to try to form a system that would make the fishing industry sustainable. Yes sustainable, not to overfish but to control in an advanced system that we would also be able to fish in the coming years, not just this summer and nothing the next. A noble systemized solution to control our ambitions! Or to put it simpler: Our Greed!

Some kind of a systemized holistic solution for our future. I like to see this also in the perspective of thePeruvian Hernando de Soto who in his books ‘The Other Path’ (1989) and ‘The Mystery of Capital’ (2000) puts forward the thesis (in my simple understanding) that no nation can have strong market economy as long as most people remain on the outside looking in. He talks about two parallel economies – legal and extra legal. This results in an elite minority that enjoys the economy benefits while the majority of entrepreneurs are stuck in poor conditions on the outside – ergo: They have nothing measurable as property that they can use as collateral for creating economic activity (nothing that they can use to take loans in banks so as to start some entrepreneurial activity. Why do I wonder about this in the perspective of sustainability and Iceland fisheries?

Yes, as a result of the invented quota system, to control over-fishing a system developed where some people got rights to quotas for fishing and others not. Over the years after the introduction of this system of course the industry developed and those that own the right to fish have become property owners (the property being the fish in the sea, not even yet out of the sea!). The fish quota accumulated in fewer hands and many stopped participating in the fishing activity themselves. They just rented out the right and started buying other things like UK football clubs and other strange investments. Something that does in no way participate in the sustainable national economy. They are now named Quota Kings (and actually Queen) and a large section of Icelandic society despises them while at the same working for them. The conditions are over heated, the economy linked to bank systems and properties all over and of course collapsed in 2008 as everyone knows.

Before, just as the people in the 3rd world do not have infrastructure to document their properties to take loans, the people in Iceland went out fishing if they owned a boat or had access to the sea.

Kárahnjúkar Energy Station.

Now to the energy. The Icelandic nation is divided in half about those issues. Yes, maybe in the eyes of foreigners the hydro and geo-thermal energy is clean in the perspective of carbon outlet of coal or oil or gas. But how do we in Iceland obtain this energy? Iceland has today Europe’s largest hydro station creating electricity Kárahnjúkar. (I spent a few days in a tent few summers ago next to a beautiful waterfall Töfrafoss saying good bye since it is all gone now). The nation is divided in half about that condition also. To build this station large areas of the very sensitive Icelandic highland had to be drowned in water. Grazing areas for reindeer, for gees migration and so on and so on. And the creation of this energy is to supply electricity to global companies like Alcoa, a very non-environmentally friendly company producing aluminum, producing weapons and so on. For years the nation argues about this and there is no solution as yet. The people that maintain that they own the land for drowning say that they have the property right to make power stations while others (more urban dwellers) say that the land should be evaluated as a whole for the nation and it can not be destroyed for the profit of the few.

Now, living in Africa I do not see a solution, I just ponder. The Icelandic society has grown far too fast, capitalistic globalization has moved in with collateral capabilities and grand schemes are invented all over. Iceland is properly out of control and most visions of sustainability are missing. In my view, large parts of the nature and the economy that I come from and love is in such a mess that only crisis might be able to save it. But the people are not capable to deal with the current situation. Fishing is controlled by international companies, geo power rights are being sold to international companies (and I can tell you that geo power is no more sensitive to nature than any other. Parts of the highland looks like oil-rig Texas with roads all over, drill holes and complete destruction of grazing or outdoor areas). Please Canadians do not admire our ‘clean’ energy nor fishing controls.

What comes out of these ponderings of mine? I must apologize for the non-scientific writing but blogging is a form of putting thoughts out there. I have more and more come to the conclusion that small actions are usually much better than the grand system governmental or international gestures. This I see in the perspective of Icelandic economic history, in governmental actions and also here in Africa in NGO activity. Making grand gestures not in relation to the bigger picture. Anyway, who cares about the big picture while he is making money?

The hidden economy in the world is larger than the documented one that exists in the stock exchanges. To me, this is fine. People should be left alone to do what they do while education about sustainability, theTriple Bottom Line (people profit planet) and small gestures should be facilitated. Recently Ezio Manzini said: “Maybe if there would be a grand disaster in the world the African Continent could cope with it much better than our Western World.” This is a thought, they have less oversized grand schemes, they are small social entrepreneurs every day coping with what comes while we wait for systems to respond when they can not because they are so over elaborate. I could go on for ever here, the food in Japan was finished within very short time after the recent earthquake since the transport system was not working. The people that grows their own food (or are close to their support) can cope better. In the near future when energy is going to become properly priced we will not be able to buy exotic fruit in Iceland, we will have to depend on our own land and our own fish and our own energy. The same goes for Africa and everywhere.

I recommend to everyone to read the blogs by Sharon Astyk: ‘The Chatelaine’s Keys’ – Finding keys to the future . . . . and trying not to loose them in the mess and her book: Depletion and Abundance. To read the blogs of John ThackaraEzio Manzini and many other that are trying to participate in the steering of this strange wrong course that we are on.