After financial meltdown, now it's smeltdown
The men woh made Iceland go cap in han to the IMF ar now bent on ruining its landscape
After touring for 18 months I was excited to return home 8 weeks ago to good, solid Iceland and enjoy a little bit of stability. I had done a concert there earlier this year to raise awareness about local environmental issues - especially alternatives to aluminium smelters - and 10 per cent of the nation came to it; but I still felt it wasn’t enough.
So when I got home I decided to contact people all over the island who had attempted to start new companies and bring in new ways of working, but had not succeeded. For a long time Iceland’s main income had been fishing, but when that become uneconomic, people started looking for other ways to earn a living. The conservatives in power thought that harnessing Iceland’s natural energy and selling it to huge companies such as Alcoa and Rio Tinto would solve the problem.
Now we have three aluminum smelters, some of the biggest in Europe; and in the space of the next three years they want to build two more. A lot of Icelanders are against this. They would rather continue to develop smaller companies that they own themselves and keep the money they earn. Many battles have been fought in Iceland on these issues.
In one of these battles the Minister for the Environment forced Alcoa to include the impacts of energy exploiting in their Environmental Impact Assessment. The smelter would need energy from a handful of new geothermal power plants and possibly also some dams. This would damage pristine wilderness, hot springs and lava fields. To take this much energy from the geothermal fields is not even sustainable.
And then the economic crisis hit. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by economists and financiers, and people with small businesses in trouble.Young families are threatened with losing their houses, and elderly people with losing all their pensions. This is catastrophic.
There is also a lot of anger. The six biggest venture capitalists in Iceland are being booed in public and on TV and radio shows, with furious voices insisting that they sell all their belongings and give them to the nation. Gigantic loans, it was revealed, had been taken from abroad by a few individuals and without the full knowledge of the Icelandic people. Now the nation seems to be responsible for having to pay them back.
What makes people furious is that the same people that put Icelanders in this situation are now the ones trying to get us out of it. There are a lot of people here that want the people in charge to resign and allows others to tidy up after them. Most criticism is aimed at Davíð Oddson, the head of the Central Bank, with people now gathering once a week in downtown Reykjavik demanding his resignation. He is being criticised, among other things, for making himself head of the Central Bank after 19 years of being the Mayor of Reykjavík and then 13 years of being Prime Minister.
then a huge and most spectacular strike came surprisingly from your own prime minister . So I quote a petition signed by 10 % of the nation : “ Gordon Brown unjustifiably used the Anti-Terrorism Act against the people of Iceland for his own short-term political gain .This has turned a grave situation into a national disaster . . . hour by hour and day by day the actions of the British Government are indiscriminately obliterating Icelandic interests.”
Usually I don’t notice politics. I can quite happily live in the land of music-making. But what did get me caught up in it was how politicians seem bent on ruining Iceland’s natural environment. And I read last week that because of the economic crisis, few parliament members have even suggested that the law on Environmental Impact Assessment should be ignored so they can build their dams as quickly as possible, in order to give Alcoa and Rio Tinto the energy they need for the two more aluminium smelters they want to build.
Iceland is a small country. We missed out on the industrial evolution and my hope was that we would skip it completely and go straight to sustainable hi-tech options. If someone could facilitate this, we could do it. There is a wonderful characteristic in the Icelandic mentality - fearlessness, with an addiction to risk-taking to the point of being foolhardy. I´m not sure the stock market is the right place for these characteristics . In music making, storytelling and creative thought, this risk-taking is a great thing. And after being introduced to a lot of Iceland’s small, growing companies I realize how many of them have shown this fearless approach either in biotechnology or high technology and can diversify in the future.
Icelanders are highly educated in advanced sciences. We have hundreds of people with phd in molecular biology , biotechnics and similar fields . We have Orf in biogenetics, one of the best of its kind in the world; Össur, an artificial limb-maker, CCP, a computer games maker, and so on. We also have a lot of doctors and people educated in the health industry . because of the hundreds of naturally hot pools all over the island and our ( so far ) almost untouched nature , we could easily become one big lush spa where people could come and nurse their wounds and relax …
In the final analysis, flexibility is important: we will have to live with the three aluminium smelters that are here already and try to find ways of making them “greener” (harnessing CO2 for example). But do we need five? In the past having all our eggs in the same basket has proven far too risky, as was illustrated in the days when we got 70 per cent of our income from fish; now we are facing a disaster from betting everything on finance (we now owe 12 times our annual income in foreign loans). If we build two more aluminum smelters, Iceland would become the biggest aluminum smelter in the world, and be known only for that. It would leave little room for anything else. If the price of aluminum falls (which it is doing at present) it would be catastrophic.i am not going to go into the obvious environmental damage 5 aluminium smelters can do to one small island . One thing that the icelandic energy companies have ever revealed is the low price alcoa and rio tinte are paying for the electricity here . This is unheard of . These figures are supposed to be public . In this article , written 3 years ago on the Alcoa website it is said though that they pay half of the price they pay in brazil , 30 dollars per megawatt-hour . Which must mean 15 dollars per megawatt hour .http://mar.anomy.net/files/2006/06/alcoa-frett.htm . All the icelandic businesess , the greenhouses who grow vegetables , many on the verge of bankruptcy , have to pay full price . This is just one of many ways where the icelandic goverment and the icelandic energy companies have made it a lot easier for alcoa and rio tinte to operate here than the companies of their own countrymen .
Iceland can be more self-sufficient and more creative - and have an approach that is more 21st century than 19th century. It can build fewer, smaller and greener dams. Let´s use this economical crisis to become totally sustainable !!!!! Teach the world all we know about geothermal power plants . Support the Icelandic seed companies. Support the grassroots. It may take longer to build and deliver profits but it is solid, stable and something that will stand independent of the rollercoaster rides of Wall Street and volatile aluminium prices.
And it will help Iceland remain what it is best at: being a gorgeous, unpredictable force of nature.
Article in The Times