Sunday, May 18, 2008

Everyone's talking about Iceland

This article in the Guardian, "No wonder Iceland has the happiest people on earth," is pretty effusive in its praise for the societal development of Iceland. Apart from the usual Nordic socialist paradise things we all have read about Sweden and Finland and the rest of those countries, there were a few things that seemed to be unique to Iceland.

Highest birth rate in Europe + highest divorce rate + highest percentage of women working outside the home = the best country in the world in which to live. There has to be something wrong with this equation. Put those three factors together - loads of children, broken homes, absent mothers - and what you have, surely, is a recipe for misery and social chaos. But no. Iceland, the block of sub-Arctic lava to which these statistics apply, tops the latest table of the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Human Development Index rankings, meaning that as a society and as an economy - in terms of wealth, health and education - they are champions of the world. To which one might respond: Yes, but - what with the dark winters and the far from tropical summers - are Icelanders happy? Actually, in so far as one can reliably measure such things, they are. According to a seemingly serious academic study reported in the Guardian in 2006, Icelanders are the happiest people on earth. (The study was lent some credibility by the finding that the Russians were the most unhappy.)

Oddny Sturludottir, a 31-year-old mother of two, told me she had a good friend who was 25 and had three children by a man who had just left her. 'But she has no sense of crisis at all,' Oddny said. 'She's preparing to get on with her life and her career in a perfectly optimistic frame of mind.' The answer to why the friend perceives no crisis in what any woman in a similar predicament anywhere else in the western world might consider a full-blown catastrophe goes a long way towards explaining why Iceland's 313,000 inhabitants are such a sane, cheerful, successful lot.

This is a very unique situation, and seems like as isolated islands go, Iceland seems to have done the best job of figuring out how to live with each other over the last 1,000 years or so. And it looks like more accommodating family arrangements, where divorce isn't seen as a personal failure and no one stays in bad relationships for the sake of the kids, because the kids will be taken care of by everyone in the family, seems to be the evolved best practice. I find it interesting also that while the Lutheran church did establish itself in Iceland, the Christian insistence on getting involved in peoples' personal lives didn't seem to wash with the pagan Icelanders, and they seem to be better off for it.

It is curious to compare Iceland's steady growth towards prosperity with its geographical counterpart, Newfoundland, and maybe ask why Newfoundland who also relied almost entirely on the fishery for most of its history, has not developed along the same path. I found a blog post that discussed just that, at The Head Heeb, but it seems to be offline now, so I'll copy the full text from Google's cache here:

Why Iceland and not Newfoundland?

In the emergent field of Island Studies, Iceland stands out as a highly positive example of a small isolated island society that has succeeded, admirably. Iceland's three hundred thousand inhabitants do face some problems, but by and large these are the problems of success. How can Iceland most effectively switch to a hydrogen-based economy (as detailed by Arno Kopecky in his recent article in The Walrus, "Water to Burn")? How can Icelandic inflation be restrained given the country's galloping economic growth? Is it good that Icelandic investors, flush with cash and finding nothing to buy in their homeland, have embarked on a spree of corporate buyouts in Europe?

To islanders in Atlantic Canada, used to living in some of the most economically depressed jurisdictions of North America, this is depressing. The island of Newfoundland, like Iceland, is a relatively inhospitable island in the North Atlantic famed for its fish stocks. For most of the 20th century, though, the two island nations have gone in separate directions. Where Iceland smoothly developed into an independent state throughout the Great Depression and the Second World War, Newfoundland's economic collapse prompted Britain's suspension of its statehood and eventual annexation into Canada. Where Iceland's fisheries have been carefully and aggressively managed, Newfoundland's fisheries have been famously devastated. Where Iceland is one of the richest countries in the world, Newfoundland remains the second-poorest province in Canada.

What did Iceland do right? What did Newfoundland do wrong? It all comes down, in my estimation, to the two nations' respective histories. Historically, Iceland's has been a much more homogeneous and egalitarian society than Newfoundland's, with a highly literature population united by a common language, a shared history, and political issues (the questions of self-government and nation-building, not to mention the fisheries) which galvanized the entire island. Newfoundland, for its part, has traditionally been riven by divisions: Catholic versus Protestant, outporters versus residents of the capital of St. John's, the poor versus the rich, the fishing familes versus the mercantile families. As a point of fact, in the 1948 referendum Newfoundland's pro-confederates secured their slim majority for union with Canada by invoking a Catholic threat in letters sent to the membership of the famously bigoted Protestant Orange Order. I'm tempted to conclude that the famous lack of initative taken by the Newfoundland state, whether in preventing starvation among outport children during the Great Depression or in effectively pressuring the Canadian government to regulating the Grand Banks fisheries, can ultimately be traced to this paralysis, to the fierce competition of different interest groups all demanding satisfaction. Compare, if you would, the situation of the autonomous Faroe Islands as a sort of intermediate situation, combining the self-assertion of Iceland with Newfoundland's paralysis.

Looking towards the future, it's interesting to note that although the 21st century is still young, Iceland and Newfoundland are starting to move towards a common model. Globalization is plugging Iceland ever more deeply into transnational movements, as the country's wealth has made it a destination for foreign immigration while the question of Icelandic membership in the European Union has recently been raised. Newfoundland, for its part, seems to be in the process of consolidating itself, what with the collapse of its traditional sectarianism, the recent economic boom driven by oil and natural gas, the evolution of the capital of St. John's into a prosperous metropole like Iceland's Reykjavik, and--after the tragedy of the Grand Banks cod fisheries--a new determination to control Newfoundland's natural resources. Iceland's prosperous and happy future seems to be secured, even with the complications of European Union membership and accelerated globalization. It might not be too much to hope that Newfoundland, within the Canadian confederation, might finally be catching up to its role model.

Posted by Randy at February 23, 2006 03:25 AM

Newfoundlanders have had the option of moving elsewhere in Canada to find work. Icelanders haven't had a similar option. It's not surprising that Newfoundlanders have had less of an incentive - or need - to build up their island's economy.

Posted by: Peter at February 23, 2006 09:32 AM

Also note that Iceland already had something happen that was more serious than the collapse of fishing stocks - almost total deforestation. That created a powerful constituency for ecological stewardship.

Posted by: Hektor Bim at February 23, 2006 12:13 PM

Newfoundlanders have had the option of moving elsewhere in Canada to find work. Icelanders haven't had a similar option.

Although there was a great deal of Icelandic emigration during the 19th century, with most of it going to Denmark, Canada, the United States and Brazil. I believe Iceland is one of those countries where the diaspora is larger than the home population, and a number of towns have emigration museums or memorials.

Part of the credit for Iceland's prosperity belongs to the investment and infrastructure improvements made by the Allies during WW2, and to the subsequent NATO base at Keflavik. I'm not sure why Argentia and Goose Bay didn't have a similar effect on the Newfoundland economy.

Posted by: Jonathan Edelstein at February 23, 2006 01:12 PM
Coming across what looks like an excellent, thoughtful blog that seems to have disappeared off the face of the Internet is rather depressing, to be sure.

But I think the comment about Icelanders learning to deal with almost complete deforestation, which seems to have caused them to become more innovative and contributed to the collective sense that they have to share this small space with each other and they'd better back each other up. Perhaps losing the fishery in Newfoundland was the wake up call that was much longer in coming, but Newfoundlanders seem to be coming together to make St. John's a pretty exciting place to be right now – and it's not all from the oil boon, either. (Do people say 'boon' anymore or have we all just given up that fight and just say 'boom' now? If we let the rabble win this battle pretty soon we'll all be saying "for all intensive purposes" too, mark my words.)

In the end I think we can safely blame the British. Something about British culture and values, colonialism and its short-term approach to managing resources and leaving people to fend for themselves vs. the more enlightened Nordic view that they're all in it together, combined with an evolved sense of family that seems rooted in practicality that is unique to Iceland, goes to show that they simply do it better than the Anglo world has managed to.

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By al - 6:11 p.m. |

iceland seems to be everywhere. earlier today i spoke to a very lovely lady who lived there for a bit, and also just graduated from studying mythical icelandic something or other. or something.
everyone really IS talking about iceland..
hey al, its boulter from locals, we met one night a babas and discussed geography.

i stumbled upon your blog the other day and found this entry interesting. you may not know but i graduated from the Masters of Arts in Island Studies program from upei and my grad thesis was on the development of the icelandic state vs. the faroe islands and greenland, which are still part of the Danish state.

if you are still interested in this topic (i know it was a couple of months ago) i would love to flex my smart muscles. my email is boulter AT hotmail DOT com

also, since i see you are now working at upei, you could always get a copy of my thesis from the library. i think that it is in the special collection archives. LE3.P8 2006 bou is the call number
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