Through sustainable farming, business, innovation and making the most of its as yet largely untapped natural resources, Iceland has the potential to become a completely sustainable nation from which others can learn. Lucy Purdy reports from Reykjavík
From the eeriness of midnight sun, to gloomy winters illuminated only by the snow and ice, Iceland is a country defined by its extremes. When the banking crisis hit in 2008, the system of debt and credit on which the Icelandic economy was based, completely collapsed.
“We had the collapse – and I think it’s good,” says conservationist Omar Ragnarsson.
“Because now we’re in the ruins and we can learn from it. And we can build up a new society, a new environment, a new thinking.”
Since the implosion of the banking sector, ordinary Icelanders have come together with scientists, economists, farmers and other visionaries to not only question a society based on cycles of debt and consumerism, but come up with a blueprint for a sustainable, locally based economy.
“I would like Icelanders to act local, but think global,” says Guðjón Már Guðjónsson, speaking in the Future of Hope documentary, which charted the rise of this new movement. “Iceland has been missing a clear vision for what we’d like to stand for, so that’s why I think it is very important that we get an agreement on how we see ourselves in the world.”
Taking this task on his own shoulders, Guðjónsson founded the Ministry of Ideas – a grassroots Icelandic movement that acts as a forum for discussion about innovations in fields including industry, education, technology, economics and society. Working from the House of Ideas in Reykjavík, the ministry believes Iceland is the perfect place for prototyping new, sustainable solutions.
“This ministry can be looked at as the heartbeat of the grassroots when it comes to innovation and change in Iceland,” Guðjónsson says.
“We can visualise what we’d like Iceland to be in 20 years or 50 years without the involvement of big corporations or political parties. When we vote, we can vote for politicians we feel, as people of the country, are best fitted to fulfil this vision.”
“The best place to be when we really hit the energy crisis is Iceland,” says Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, former dean of the school of engineering and natural science at the University of Iceland.
The country’s geographical and geological make-up means it is a haven of clean energy – it is famous for its hot springs, geysers and active volcanoes, and hot water pumped from under the ground supplies much of Iceland’s heating. Currently some 80% of the country’s electricity needs are met through hydropower while geothermal fields provide up to 20%. The subterranean fields that warm the likes of tourist favourite the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, give Iceland an almost limitless supply of natural hot water.
Icelanders are now moving their attention to those sectors still dependent on fossil fuels. The country’s cars and ships may soon be fuelled by hydrogen cells, as research is under way into how to use geothermal energy to split hydrogen from water. This could make Iceland entirely self-sufficient in energy terms, 100% powered by renewable energy.
Organic greenhouse agriculture, a relatively recent phenomenon in Iceland, is allowing people to domestically produce tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Despite plunging temperatures, biological control has helped make this so successful that Iceland is soon expected to begin to export vegetables such as tomatoes to Europe.
“We’re making local groups in all parts of Iceland, like the Slow Food idea, to eat locally, eat seasonally, so it’s going to save a lot of energy and it’s going to reduce the pollutions caused by all this transport,” explained Eymundur Magnússon, who runs an organic farm at Vallanes in east Iceland. “For me, from organic there’s no way back. When you see the soil, when you see what you’re growing, when you taste how much sweeter and better it is, there’s no way back. This is the natural way to do it.”
Clean energy projects have also strengthened Icelandic universities and helped lay the foundations for a strong engineering and technical sector. This is helping Icelanders generate and develop their own ideas, rather than simply finance those brought in from elsewhere, as was the thinking before 2008. Already, Iceland is engaged with countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas on how to develop clean economies, punching above its weight for a country with just 320,000 inhabitants.
Democracy in action
But Iceland’s size is also a positive thing: political mobilisation in a country with so few people is perfectly possible. Nearly 1,500 people – half a per cent of Iceland’s population – gathered together at a national forum in November 2009 to decide on core values for the country’s future society. They came from a cross section of Icelandic society, from 18 to 88 years old, and from all six constituencies of Iceland.
There has also been a renewed focus on traditional Icelandic crafts and heritage, for example in sales of traditional Icelandic sweaters – perhaps part of a cultural shift which has proved more important than any economic one.
While Icelandic people learned long ago how to survive on a freezing, volcanic island, now they are learning how to endure the most significant manmade economic and climate catastrophes. Spearheaded by the likes of the Ministry of Ideas, they are working hard to create a new economy with clean energy and a sustainable vision at its heart. Crucially, it is being devised by the people – an insurance policy against difficulties to come in the future.