ttierney July 15th, 2009
We woke to beautiful blue skies on our second day in Reykjavik, and had a very informative breakfast (see photo) with Rev. Dr. Sigridur Gudmarsdottir, a Lutheran minister and passionate environmental activist. Sigridur explained to us that although it was not possible to stop the Karahnjukar hydroelectric, the next major environmental struggle in Iceland involves another hydroelectric project slated for Thjorsa river, in southeastern Iceland. The Thjorsa river is the longest in Iceland, running from the Myrdaljokull glacier to the sea, through a region that has numerous environmental and cultural treasures. A spectacular waterfall that is close to the mouth of the river, Urithafoss, is threatened by this project, as are the historical seat of the regional parliament and as-yet unexcavated sites from Iceland’s early settlements. This project is not required for a new smelting facility, but rather is part of the plan to expand an existing metal production facility near Keflavik, many kilometers from the river. This means that the locals who support it as a job-creating engine will not even be the ones to reap those benefits. Sigridur was somewhat optimistic that the lessons learned from the frustrating experience with the Karahnjukar project may lead to greater success in stopping the hydroelectric project planned for the Thjorsa.
In our conversation, Sigridur explained how the combination of the Karahnjukar experience and the recent collapse of the Icelandic banking system has led to a change in attitude — she called it “a conversion” — toward the environment among many Icelanders. Icelanders have long felt that they were environmentally conscious and careful, due to their extensive geo-thermal power-generating and water-heating system, but the flooding of a vast pristine area for the Karahnjukar hydroelectric dam shattered that self-image. That combined with the international damage caused by the banking catastrophe are making them aware that they need to reflect much more carefully about the impact of their choices. She was visibly excited that the normally staid Icelandic population rose up in anger at the governmental leadership, and removed them from power this past year. Even more surprising to her was a demonstration that culminated in the crowd burning the national Christmas tree, an annual gift to Iceland from Norway. From the impression given by Sigridur, Iceland is about to enter a more reflective stage of environmentalism, where the myth of Icelandic environmental specialness gives way to a more sober assessment of the trade offs between the economy and the environment.
The Lutheran Church of Iceland is the state church, to which about 85% of the population belongs, at least nominally, so we asked about the church’s role in the environmental debate. Sigridur’s response was that it has done nothing, and to date has shown very little interest in the issue, for several reasons. First, since it is a state-supported institution, the leadership is reluctant to rock the boat – or jeopardize its position – by criticizing the government. Second, the Icelandic Lutheran church (unlike the ELCA, the largest US Lutheran grouping) still adheres to a traditional theology emphasizing human sinfulness and the need for divine grace, and this can foster a certain apathy toward problems in the world, including environmental issues. Third, the rethinking that both Arni and Sigridur pointed to is still largely a product of the educated urban class; pastors of churches out in the rural areas tend to agree more with the perspective of their parishioners, who still look to energy development – realistically or not – to provide jobs. An exception to this, Sigridur mentioned, is a friend of hers who serves a church near the site of the proposed dam mentioned above. He is strenuously opposed to it, but speaking out publicly, she said, is for him “a matter of life and death.” Fourth, in such a small country (pop. 300,000), everyone is either related to or knows practically everyone else, so people are reluctant to criticize, even when criticism is deserved. Finally, there is a widespread view among members of the church (as in many religious institutions in the US) that when they come to a service they want to hear a sermon on “religion, not politics.”
Here’s a telling coincidence: We just stopped (Thursday morning) at a roadside memorial to Jon Eiricksson, a native Icelander born out here on a farm near Hofn, whose intellectual brilliance led him to a distinguished academic career in Denmark, where he became a central figure of the Enlightenment. He returned to Iceland with great plans for progressive reforms, but as he grew older he fell into depression because of the Icelanders’ resistance to all his ideas. It seems that today’s attitudes have deep roots.
Dale: 7/16/09 I also was struck with Sigridur’s passion for the environment and by her comment about the importance of place and history in the Icelandic sense of identity. Unfortunately, she fears that in their current economic crisis, many Icelanders have either forgotten this or consider it insignificant. The proposed hydro project that Tom mentioned above would not only destroy or alter wildlife habitat, but would flood out important historical areas from the Viking era and land traditionally used by farmers for generations.