Björk, Patti Smith and Darren Aronofsky team up with environmental organisations to safeguard Iceland’s highlands
Iceland’s highlands make up most of the country’s landmass—a vast expanse of largely uninhabited, mountainous terrain dominated by a volcanic desert and several towering glaciers. It’s the largest single area of untouched wilderness left in Europe, and home to a range of unparalleled natural wonders, including Lake Mývatn, the Þjórsárver wetlands, the Sprengisandur plateau, the Skaftafell National Park and a variety of other beautiful and significant spots that many hardy explorers specifically travel to Iceland to seek out.
For much of the year, this sprawling region is so inhospitable that rental cars in Iceland attach a map to the dashboard marked “DO NOT GO HERE.” Contrary to the idea held by some that this renders the land worthless, the untamed ferocity of the nature is part of what makes the highlands special. It’s an area that’s resistant to human habitation and therefore unspoiled, with few roads and structures.
This environment is irreplaceably valuable in these increasingly urbanised times, offering a rare chance to experience earthly nature in a raw and undisturbed state. Indeed, doing so induces a sense of wonder, inspiration and reverence in many people.
This Is An Alarm Call
At the recent, highly successful and eye-catching conservation campaign “Let’s Guard The Garden,” three very famous artists stepped up to host a large-scale benefit event for the highlands. Film director Darren Aronofsky and music legends Patti Smith and Björk each gave voice to the horror that many—including conservationists, geographers, hikers and nature lovers from Iceland and all over the world—feel about current government proposals for large-scale industrial development in the highlands.
“I came here first as a young girl aged 22 years old, way back in 1969,” Smith recounted. “Of all the beautiful places I visited back then, many have since been destroyed by man. To come back to Iceland and still find much of the country as I found it then is a gift. Industry has raped Mother Nature again and again—there has to be some place where Mother Nature feels safe and beloved. Iceland is one of the few places in the world where Mother Nature can feel herself. Once this damage is done, that can never come back. In this matter, count me as one of your servants.”
Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson of The Icelandic Environment Association (Landvernd) and Árni Finnsson of The Iceland Nature Conservation Association (INCA) dedicate themselves to issues such as this. The two Icelandic conservation groups work in quite different ways, with the former focusing more on activism and the latter more on lobbying, but on this issue they are united.
“What spurred this campaign was the intention of the Minister of the Environment to withdraw the Nature Conservation Act, which was supposed to take effect on April 1 this year,” Guðmundur says. “Furthermore, and more importantly in the short term, is the fact that the power companies have requested that at least 15 areas in the central highlands be evaluated for the next round of the Master Plan for Hydro and Geothermal Energy Resources in Iceland.”
And what exactly would the damage entail? “The proposed developments include more than 15 hydro and geothermal power plants in the central highlands and large power lines, in particular over the Sprengisandur plateau,” Guðmundur explains.
“This and the accompanying roads would completely change the highlands as we know them today. Wilderness areas, which are among the largest still remaining in Europe, would be fragmented and heavily affected, as well as glaciers! Better roads mean better access, more speed and more noise. This will ruin the quietness, the remoteness and the opportunities to experience unspoiled nature. In my view, ensuring the protection of the central highlands is by far the largest contemporary national conservation task of the Icelandic people.”
The magic of Iceland’s nature has inspired and informed much of Björk’s work. The video for “Jóga,” shown as she performed at the benefit concert, features the earth’s crust cracking open to reveal the boiling rock beneath; the diptych of “Frosti” and “Aurora” on her ‘Vespertine’ album express the sense of vastness and wonder that the wilds can evoke.
So, whilst she often shies away from using her fame as a political platform, on this issue Björk is willing to wield her celebrity status to raise awareness. “I try to stick to doing nature stuff,” she says. “It seems to have a bigger impact that way.
Other than that I just like to focus on making music. But, when I show up, people come with cameras, so perhaps it helps in shining a spotlight on this problem. This is one of the few untouched lands left in the world. It has energy and magic that deserves our unconditional support.”
She is the first to applaud the vigilance and dedication of Landvernd and INCA, and stresses that every Icelander can use their personal power for this cause. “At the end of the day, it is up to all of us to stop these changes,” she says. “My experience has been that the majority of Icelanders feel this way, and agree with us, but they don’t have a platform to express themselves. Celebrities sometimes simply provide a stage.”
With 35 million ISK raised already to fund the continued campaign, and thousands of new members flocking to join Landvernd and INCA, the Icelandic public are raising their voice. When asked to express the value of these threatened places for those who have not seen them, the representatives on this issue gave impassioned pleas for their cause. “Darren Aronofsky gave a very apt description,” Árni Finnsson says. “He said that fragmenting the highlands with man-made structures would be like splitting a diamond in two parts.”