Published June 20, 2012
Through his 63 years on Earth, Ari Trausti Guðmundsson has enjoyed a varied career that has entailed him earning a degree in earth sciences, writing award-winning books of fiction as well as several scientific and/or educational non-fiction tomes, acting as TV and radio weatherman and programmer, being a mountain guide and founding a radical political organisation—among other things. And now he is vying for yet another job to list on his resume: being President of Iceland. “I have been a freelancer for the past 25 years, working around thirty jobs annually, so I have amassed a wide array of experiences,” he says as we sit down to discuss his candidacy. “Promoting Iceland, associating with scholars and national leaders, and so on. Through all this work as a freelancer, I have also learned to be efficient in many fields at once. I feel very qualified for this important position”
A FORMERLY NEW RADICAL
Your political history has been mentioned quite a bit in connection with your running for president. How have your political opinions evolved through the years?
I was apolitical at first, right up until moving to Norway as a student. This was during the whole social upheaval associated with the ‘68 period, and I was influenced by events such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Vietnam War and the student revolts in France and elsewhere. Those events inspired me to read up on radical political theory, which eventually led me to become a Marxist. When I returned to Iceland a few of us youngsters, who had been studying in Norway, unified in a leftist group; in fact there were a few leftist groups formed around that time that were sometimes united and sometimes fought, but we all shared the goal of forming a political party that would be to the left of Alþýðubandalagið [the socialist People’s Alliance, current president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson’s old party].
However, that turned out to be impossible, and a lot of what we were preaching and believed in turned out to be wrong, or at least at odds with the real world. So the entire movement sort of faded away eventually, replaced by feminism and environmentalism—which is where today’s radicals reside. I stopped being involved with politics at the same time that the socialist group I had co-founded dissolved, which was in 1983 if I recall correctly, thirty years ago. Since then I have fostered a great interest in all sorts of social affairs and community service, but have refrained from participating in political parties and other social interest groups.
What led you to abandon radical politics?
It was due to learning that reality only matched part of the theories we had been studying and espousing; those ideologies had grown stagnant and we weren’t the people to properly evolve them or lead them into new directions. I reached the conclusion that my time would be better spent trying to exert a positive influence in other fields, which is something that has coloured every aspect of my life since. It has been a red thread in my work promoting nature, environmentalism, science and innovation. Social responsibility informs every non-fiction book I have written and I have long been the spokesman for the sustainable harnessing of nature. I have also talked extensively about global warming and other environmental threats, and I take them seriously.
A FRAMEWORK IS NEEDED
In light of your avowed environmentalism, would you, had you been in President Ólafur Ragnar’s position, used your presidential powers to call for a national referendum on issues such as the very controversial Karahnjúkar dam?
Well, I believe the president’s veto powers should be employed in light of society’s general atmosphere. For me the question much more relates to the framework programme about our responsible harnessing of nature, which should have been created twenty or thirty years ago. Had we had such framework in place, we would have been working in light of a pre-determined nationwide consensus on these matters, instead of having to debate each case individually. As president, I would have focused on getting such a framework in place as soon as possible, and with that all the premises would have been a lot clearer. And it goes without saying that such a framework would have needed the consensus of a majority of Icelanders.
One thing is important; the president needs to ensure both interests of people outside of Reykjavík and of people from the capital. The fast increasing differences between the people of the greater-Reykjavík area and people from outside of the city is one of the biggest societal issues Icelanders face, and it is a field where I wish to make an impact—not a as a saviour, but as a sort of moderator, one who encourages and leads the discussion.
The Office of the President should rightfully be considered an important one. What spurred you to run? Why do you believe you are the right man for the job, and how does one decide one wants to run for president of one’s nation?
I am sure it is the same for many candidates. It starts by friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues and strangers mentioning the post to you and urging you to consider it, saying that you possess both the personal qualities and background to serve in such a position. Then it’s time to do some soul searching, where you convene with your family and try to ascertain whether the job is right for you. In the end, you and your family need to answer the question: Do we want to do this, or do we not want to do this? And I decided that I wanted to embark upon this journey, and my wife María G. Baldvinsdóttir along with our three children agreed to join and support me.
I think I am the right person for the job, and this is ultimately why I made the decision to run. I have through the years amassed wide and sound knowledge on everything from nature and the environment to social affairs. That, along with the complex experience I have of completing projects and problem solving, convinced me that I have something to offer that the other candidates do not.
My decision is ultimately connected to my interest in society and serving my community. My old political ambitions, so to speak. I think I have already served my community in a respectable manner with my life’s work; I am well known for educating people about the world and their environment, and I have through my educational efforts and other works helped put pressure on the public sector to pay attention to environmental problems and put effort into things like science, education and innovation. Few things are more important. I feel I have been useful in that way and I wish to continue on this path as president, as well as finding new ways.
THE MAGICAL FAIRYTALE ISLAND
Did you participate in the ‘pots and pans revolution’? What is your position towards it?
I participated, although I cannot say I did so to a large extent. I believe it was a justified act of civil disobedience, and that it led to some much needed and inevitable changes in society, even though the whole ordeal sometimes went too far.
The uprising demonstrated that the grassroots can exert an influence, and it opened new political doors. However it seems that, unfortunately, our political parties haven’t been able to properly use the opportunities provided by these events, and one of the reasons for that is the endless bickering in parliament—the total lack of priorities and useless arguments about minor issues.
This has been the case with every politician and every political organisation in the country. They have spent way too much time on quarrelling about minor issues while neglecting the need prioritise and cooperate under the very difficult circumstances we are facing. The state—our entire society—was going bankrupt, and we simply cannot allow ourselves to waste time on empty squabble.
Do I see ‘the pots and pans revolution’ as a lost opportunity? No, but it should have given greater results. For that to happen we would have needed a much stronger public organisation, we would have needed stronger political leadership.
Yet a lot of our international readers believe Iceland underwent some sort of revolution, that things couldn’t be better here…
I think a lot of that is based on a lack of information, or misinformation even. But I would never say the past three years have been for nought. We’ve managed to curtail some of the collapse’s potentially worst effects, and in many cases we have even turned them around and are slowly moving forward. But we have not been on a continuous road to success, that is wishful thinking at best.
We should not forget the myth surrounding Iceland, not only politically but in every field. Iceland is the land of adventure, different from any other country, where the impossible can happen. For a more sobering view of our situation, I would rather look to parties that have been writing about Iceland for a long time and are familiar with our history and ways, such as the more analytical newspapers in Europe. They commonly tell an altogether different, more believable story.
NEW IDEAS, DIFFERENT METHODS, UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
What is your position to the reigning president?
He shouldn’t remain in office any longer. It is necessary that the nation have an opportunity to benefit from new ideas and different methods than those Ólafur Ragnar has employed over the past sixteen years. It is evident that he has had a number of positive effects, and also many that are not so positive. I would like to mention his involvement in the matters of the Arctic, which I am very thankful for. As for the negative, I would say that he has been encouraging unrealistic expectations as to the president’s political powers.
Do you feel it is normal that a president’s role should be to define his or her role? How do you yourself view it?
For me the constitution is 90% clear on the president’s role. I believe it provides enough guidance so that the president doesn’t need to constantly define his or her job, especially if read it in its entirety and in context with what our presidents have done in the previous sixty years.
I look at the Office of the President as that of an elected representative of the nation, one who places emphasis on reinforcing intelligent discourse and ensuring that our democracy is always effective. If you want a different kind of president you will need to rewrite the constitution.
Lastly, I would like to add that each person should choose his or her favourite candidate and stick to him or her; to not vote for the second best option to topple the one they believe to be the worst.
Full name: Ari Trausti Guðmundsson
Born: December 3, 1948 in Reykjavík (Age 63)
Education: Cand. mag. in geophysics from the University of Oslo; graduate studies in geology at the University of Iceland.
Occupation: Ari’s resumé is the probably most wide-ranging among all the candidates: he is an award-winning fiction writer, author of several science books, as well as a weatherman for television and radio, geophysicist and mountaineer.
Tidbit: Ari comes from a family of artists: his brother Erró is a renowned postmodern painter and collage-artist; their father Gumundur Einarsson was a painter, sculptor, photographer and writer.
Read interviews with the other candidates:
Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson