Following the Kárahnjúkar protests of 2005 was anything but boring. The year might have started off with some grumblings between geologists and power company directors, but from the moment the green skyr flew in Hótel Nordica, events took a wilder, sometimes more farcical, turn. The year careened into immigration issues, charges of police brutality and harassment, destruction of property (in the east of Iceland and here in Reykjavík), and a sexual assault accusation against a police officer, before seemingly coming to a screeching halt at a large military tent by Tjörnin. 2006, on the other hand, has already seen what might be the start of a stronger, more organised environmentalist movement, one that seems to have learned something from the mistakes made last year. This could be the year environmentalism in Iceland gets serious.
Last week, environmentalist group Hætta hópurinn (The Stop Group), with the help of actress Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir, organised a concert that brought about five thousand people to Laugardalshöll. A wealth of musicians, including Mugison, Damon Albarn, Björk and a surprise appearance by Damien Rice, all performed in the name of stopping construction of the dam at Kárahnjúkar, simply because they were invited to do so. It’s certainly no effortless task to organise a concert of this calibre, but I was frankly surprised it didn’t happen last year, while Kárahnjúkar was still getting more front-page attention than it had seen in a long time, the issue once again brought to the public’s attention for a sustained period. Hætta hópurinn found a way to do one better: bring thousands to come and listen, willingly.
But even before the concert began, Ms. Vilhjálmsdóttir, Björk, and Mr. Albarn already demonstrated a sense of inclusion, on live television. Mr. Albarn, as you can see from the transcript in this issue, handled himself well in the face of a pretty rough Kastljós interview. Interviewed on the same show by the same journalist, Ms. Vilhjálmsdóttir put a great deal of emphasis on the idea of open discussion and the weight of public opinion (which she does again in an interview on page 21). Notions like giving the public greater access to information, bringing them closer to the ear of parliament and actually communicating with the people seemed sorely lacking in 2005, especially when one of the main players in last year’s protests refused an interview solely on the grounds that “the actions speak for themselves.” These “actions” included spray-painting slogans on private homes in downtown Reykjavík, as well as, bizarrely enough, the house where Alþjóðahúsið keeps their offices; the words “STOP DESTRUCTION NOW” emblazoned on the building where lawyers and counsellors – specialising in assisting foreigners – do their business. The more inclusive approach this year shows a marked improvement.
Where Hætta hópurinn shows real promise, however, is in their potential for adaptability. As Ms. Vilhjálmsdóttir says in her interview, the group is looking not only to inform people, but also to generate new ideas on bringing the Kárahnjúkar dam project – and heavy industry in Iceland in general – into discussion in the halls of parliament again. What these new ideas will bring remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a far cry from 2005’s Masonic ways. Last year, these offices were informed of a meeting to be held by a group of protestors, where ideas were to be discussed. I offered to make it a news story on our website, and was told not to; rather, I was to personally tell “only people I trusted and thought would be interested” about the meeting. The reason? Fear of police informants. Keeping the general public out of the discussion, for the sake of trying to avoid police surveillance, not only defeats its own purpose (without organising a broader base of support, the movement remains vulnerable to the harassment that police can show activists) – rejecting a truly open exchange of ideas with the general public is anything but democratic. Decisions made behind closed doors are what cause debacles such as Kárahnjúkar in the first place.
All of these examples stem from two different schools of thought regarding influencing government policy. On the one hand, you have a small, closed group that focuses on the singular goal of “shutting it down.” This method avoids such time-consuming tasks as welcoming, talking to and exchanging ideas with the general public, in order to achieve a series of short-term goals, the hope being that these actions will render a project unworthy of the risk and the cost. This generally works best at the very start of something like the Kárahnjúkar dam project, as it conveys an immediate message of unprofitability. But three years and millions of dollars later, investors are a lot less likely to walk away from this now. The amount of energy required to make any lasting difference at this point is probably more than a small cell can bear. Apart from the inefficacy of this approach at such a time, there’s the question of how democratic an exclusive movement is at any time. Without interaction with the general public, the movement becomes insulated, unreachable and disconnected. On the other hand, a movement that bases itself on public involvement is much more likely to garner the support of the nation, satisfying both the “idealist” notion of consensus and the pragmatic standard of what actually works.
So 2006 has started well for the environmentalist movement in Iceland. They’ve regained the public’s attention, and if Hætta hópurinn makes good on their stated intentions, we might see some big changes begin to take shape in Iceland.
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