From Iceland — The Moss Revolution

The Moss Revolution

The Moss Revolution

Published January 13, 2006

The concert and political movement of January 7th probably won’t be remembered by the date alone, as we have suggested on our cover, but it will be a key moment in Icelandic history. With 5,500 guests, the concert brought in a higher percentage of the population of Iceland than Woodstock did Americans, and while the concert ran roughly seven hours as opposed to Woodstock’s three days, when contemporary attention spans and schedules are taken into consideration, the accomplishment seems roughly equivalent. Jokes aside, it was a long time coming for protest to work its way fully into Iceland’s popular culture. But now, in a country that is at a crucial point economically and culturally—standing as it does on the brink of full-scale smart economy, and well-played globalisation—the rock stars of Iceland might shape their country as much as the punk rockers of Prague shaped the history of Czechoslovakia.

The land at stake is remarkable. While there are hundreds of descriptions of the landscape that will soon be destroyed, if nothing intervenes, the description from self-proclaimed “urban” local musician KK, (pronounced Cow Cow), seemed to me to get to the heart of the matter. Explaining his one visit to the highlands that would be destroyed by the Kárahnjúkar dam project, he said “It’s like being closer to God. Experiencing the highlands is like listening to good music; you forget yourself.”

Coming from a man who lives for music, this was a high compliment. Assuming by my silence that I might be an atheist, he clarified: “Did you see Antony and the Johnsons? When you hear these kinds of things, you become overwhelmed and you cry. You become overwhelmed with beauty, a non-egoistic thing. You get closer to god, without religion or anything.”

Just before he went up to perform in front of 5,500 protestors—an enormous audience by Icelandic standards—Mugison explained to me that he didn’t really care about nature. “When I have to take people to Geyser and Gullfoss, I just hang out in the coffee shops,” he told me. “But as I see it, where I’m from in Ísafjörður, the people are kind of the environment. The people make the place. And this dam is taking the people away from Ísafjörður to go work at this giant project. So it’s destroying the environment I love.”

This hinted at the overall meaning of the concert—the reason 5,500 people could get together under the suggestion of an environmental concert in a country in which gas guzzling jeeps are the dominant mode of transportation, and on average the city’s busses contain no more than ten Icelanders at a time. Beautiful as the countryside they are losing is, Icelanders got together on January 7th not to preserve the environment, but, it seemed to this observer, to put a stop to the abuse of power by the current government.

The most popular shirts and slogans, including a chant sung by Einar Örn of the band Ghostigital, called out the current Prime Minister, Halldór Ásgrímsson. When pink-footed geese appeared on a screen, the majority of the public looked disinterested. But when an image of former Minister of the Environment Siv Friðleifsdóttir was displayed, the crowd went somewhat rabid.

The youth and the artists of Iceland are profoundly disappointed with their leadership, and for good reason: it was remarkable to discover that no MP or political figure was willing to lend a voice to a movement that was trying to stop the destruction of wildlife, even after ticket sales and public discussion should have clearly indicated that a pro-environmental stance would be a popular move. When I interviewed the artists before their show, not one artist named a single political figure in Iceland who they felt had acted responsibly in recent years. Not one single figure, in a country with one of the highest rates of voter turnout in the world.

In the days after the concert, our local readers have told me that they are sure Iceland is changing, that there will be a new outlook on the environment and on preservation in the country. Judging by the sheer amount of energy in the crowd on the night of the concert, and judging by their animosity towards the current members of Alþingi (Iceland’s parliament), I think that the change will not be limited to environmental policies. It is likely this is the beginning of what we might call the Moss Revolution. The symbol and turning point looks to be twofold: a massive concert of protest held this week, followed by a refusal to acknowledge dissent from the current government and a continuation of policies the youth of this country find impossible to stomach. If general feedback from our local readership, 40% of whom have claimed in the past to be supporters of the Independence Party, is any indication, the Kárahnjúkar dam will be completed. It will permanently scar the landscape of the highlands. But with the completion of the dam, the members of the Independence and Progressive political parties will have sealed their fates: not one MP whose name is connected to this dam will be elected again. Icelandic voters are famous for their short attention span, but provided with a massive monument to politicians acting against their own interest in the heart of their country; it is unlikely they will forget this time.

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