The Greening of Scandinavia (Scandinavian Review 1992)

In an unprecedented act of transnational eco-cooperation, the governments of Finland, Sweden, and Norway recently announced that they had put together a $1 billion fund to help the Russian government clean up the noxious nickel factories in the Kola Peninsula, whose sulfur dioxide emissions are endangering the three countries’ Lappish forests.

A new poll shows that three quarters of the adult Danish population consider environmental concerns more important than unemployment or deficit reduction.

The city of Stockholm has declared that public bathers will soon be able to use 20 sites within the capital’s limits for swimming.

The “Swedish model,” or “Swedish experiment,” as it was known in more idealistic days, is quite dead, even in Sweden.

Last year’s parliamentary elections, which saw the defeat of the long-ruling Social Democrats and led to the formation of the first coalition government led by a Conservative prime minister in 60 years, affirmed that much. So did the equally surprising results of earlier elections in neighboring Finland, which led to a similarly drastic fate for the reigning Social Democrats there. Clearly, the great age of Scandinavian social democracy was over.

Perhaps something new — possibly a cross between the unbridled American system of capitalism and the more fettered — albeit more humane — Scandinavian form of political economy will take its place.

In the meantime, it is significant to note, the Nordic countries are continuing to undergo a different, less well-publicized revolution, one that is spawning ideas, concepts, and technologies of a different kind — the green kind.

The “greening of Scandinavia,” one might call it. And in its own way it is just as exciting as the original wave of social democratic reforms that attracted such interest from liberals and progressives throughout the world at the beginning of the century.

One hundred “Central Solar Heating Plants with Seasonal Storage” have been installed in the Swedish town of Lyckebo, making it the most solar-heated town in Scandinavia. All told, about 500 houses receive more than 85% of their heat from the new solar storage system.

Over the last decade Denmark has become the capital of the world’s wind power industry. There are currently 3200 wind turbines in place in Denmark generating pure energy. About 11,000 Danish-made wind turbines have been exported to other countries.

To be sure, the peoples of the Nordic region have traditionally been extraordinarily nature-conscious, even to the point of being mystic about it. Their many nature-derived works of art, literature, and music bear ample proof of that; so do their vocabularies. Where else but in Scandinavia does one find dozens of words to describe the different kinds of snow (as one does in Norwegian), or rain (as one does in Finnish)?

Partly this nature-mindedness is a function of living so close to the soil, either physically of psychologically. Urbanization, it is well to remember, is a relatively recent phenomenon in Scandinavia. Even in Denmark, the most citrified of the Nordic group, it is difficult to find a family that is more than one or two generations removed from the farm.

Partly, too, the Scandinavian reverence for the natural world derives from the extremes of climate and sunlight to be found in that region, and from the necessity of learning to harmonize with the severe moods of the seasons, and the passage from mid-winter’s surliness to mid-summer’s bliss — and back. For most Nordics, the sun falling obliquely across the sky in mid-summer and the special calm of life’s rhythm evoke the feeling of an eternal evening.

To be sure, it is fairly easy to find God in Nature, even for a non-Scandinavian interloper. All one has to do is to sit on a promonotory overlooking a Norwegian fjord for a while, or to take the train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, and be hypnotized by the magical interplay of trees and lakes, trees and lakes, trees and lakes…

Indeed nature worship is as close to a religion that one finds in irreligious Scandinavia. “The beauty of nature affected me almost as profoundly as a religious ‘born-again’ experience,” proclaimed Finnish Foreign Trade Minister Pertti Salolainen recently, while describing his childhood visits to his family’s cottage in the vast, woody archipelago that rings the Finnish coast. “The whole of nature unfolded in front of my eyes. I’m not a religious person, but you could describe me as an eco-pantheist. Where else but in Scandinavia could a ranking Cabinet minster get away with calling himself or herself an “ecopantheist”?

Withal, Scandinavians feel that they have a special relationship with Nature. Contact with the great outdoors is seen as a vehicle for both physical and spiritual recreation. It is also at the core of national identity.

Such is the strong, one may say unique, psychological and spiritual foundation for Scandinavia’s pronounced environmentalism.

In a pioneering environmental education project, the Swedish government is circulating a comprehensive package of written and audio-visual materials about the environment and workplace in the country.

The Finnish company, Neste, recently announced the formulation of a new gasoline for city use that has the lowest vehicle exhaust emissions in the world. Another firm in Finland, which has become a leader in the field of technology became the first in the world to develop a chemical method for separating 100% of heavy metals such as lead and zinc from fluids.

It was only fairly recently — within the last 25 years — that Scandinavia’s pervasive nature-mindedness has actually catalyzed into bold domestic and regional environmental action.

Indeed, until the late 1960s most Scandinavians were just as complacent about their natural resources as we Americans were about ours. Then, in 1968, came the shocking revelation that Sweden’s lakes and forests were under invisible attack by crystallized sulfur oxide emissions from factories in Sweden and across the border: acid rain. This was followed by the equally creepy discovery that the Baltic Sea was rife with lethal PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Such scientific warnings, coupled with the increasingly disturbing evidence of the eyes and the nose, helped to galvanize the country into action.

Within two years Sweden had put into place the region’s most comprehensive national environmental policy, containing stringent standards for air, soil, and water pollution. And it was strictly enforced.

Meanwhile, Denmark had created the world’s first governmental industry devoted exclusively to the protection of the environment.

Thus, unlike in the United States, where the ecology movement faded into faddism, environmentalism gradually became an institutional force. The post of environmental minister became a prestigious position with the ability to attract monies, publicity, and talent.

And, unlike in the United States, where the public seemed to equivocate about the seemingly high cost of changing old ways, the Scandinavian environmental minsters had a clear mandate to act.

And when they didn’t act they could be sure to hear from the ecologically vigilant media or the local Green Party. Certainly one of the milestones in the greening of Scandinavia came in 1968 when the Swedish Green Party won 20 seats in parliament.

A number of environmental disasters in recent years have worked to keep environmental consciousness high in Scandinavia. The 1986 Soviet nuclear disaster at Chernobyl was a factor in helping to persuade Swedes to phase out nuclear power altogether (something which the Finns and the Danes aren’t certain about) by the year 2010. Residents of the region were also scared by the mysterious 1989 Baltic Sea seal kill.

Indeed the greening of Scandinavia isn’t entirely a happy story. The process may have come too late to save the Baltic, which continues to hover in a state of advanced eutrophication, in spite of dozens of studies and protocols.

One also encounters a residue of the old complacency and arrogance about the environment of some people. Thus, the Finns’ stubborn, even obtuse insistence on building their lakefront cottages as close to the water as possible, in spite of clear evidence of damage to the shoreline ecology.

Nevertheless the fact remains that Scandinavia is the only part of the industrialized world where people give higher priority to environmental concerns than to polluter interests. The fact that this greening has such power in a period of austerity demonstrates its strength.

In this respect, environmentally-conscious Scandinavia continues to be a beacon and model for the rest of the civilized world.

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