Iceland Is No Utopia

Iceland Is No Utopia

Joanna Smith
Words by
Photos by
Bjarni Brynjólfsson

Published March 10, 2017

I first visited Iceland two years ago and came home smitten; banging on about this geothermal, liberal paradise. Watching the news with me was a nightmare. If there was a story about corruption in British politics I would chime in with: “In Iceland they’ve jailed all their fraudulent bankers.” If there was a depressing piece on climate change I would say, “In Iceland they run off geothermal energy.” If there was a sad story about refugees I would declare that: “In Iceland people actually want more refugees.”

Now I’m back in Iceland interning for three months and, having left my rose-tinted glasses at home, I am realising that Iceland isn’t the liberal utopia I thought it was. It’s no North Korea, but this paradise I dreamt of currently has a right-wing government, has flooded its highlands to smelt aluminium, burns 160,000 tonnes of coal yearly (a figure on the increase), and is deporting refugees. Additionally, as the Grapevine recently reported, Iceland’s corruption level, as measured by Transparency International, has risen in the past year, making them officially more corrupt than merry old England, the Brexitting land I am so disappointed in.

And it’s not just me—many foreigners obsess over these political wonders, which in reality are not so wonderful. So, why is it that people feel the need to put Iceland on such a pedestal? The answer is simple: it’s comforting. It’s comforting to watch terrible events unfolding on the news and tell yourself that somewhere out there people have it figured out. When you feel as if you aren’t being listened to in your own country, it’s comforting to know that there’s a place where you would be. It’s comforting to know that your dreams of the perfect society are being realised, that it can be done.

But this ignorance is not bliss. It actually prevents people from changing their own situation. Go back to me, watching the news lamenting my England’s choices whilst bragging about Iceland. It does nothing to move my own country towards becoming more like this exalted liberal paradise. It just makes people not want to watch the news with me anymore.

One of Iceland’s redeeming factors is that they’re fighters. Take the Panama Papers scandal, which embroiled the former prime ministers of both Iceland and the UK. Iceland, a country of around 330,000 people, mustered up 23,000 protesters who demanded their PM step down (whilst throwing skyr at the Parliament building). It worked. The UK on the other hand, a country of 64 million people, managed a meagre protest of 1000 people. It did not work. Where was I when this protest was happening? Probably telling everyone that Iceland had sacked their Prime Minister.

Utopia does not exist, in Iceland, or anywhere else. But despite this realisation, Iceland still has a special place in my heart. Rather than my make-believe liberal paradise, it’s my wild warrior wonderland: a place where people stick up for what they believe is right. And, in all honesty, I’m not sure I want to live in a world where you don’t have to throw skyr at a government building every now and then. It may be a Utopia, but it wouldn’t be half as fun.


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