From Iceland — Welcome To My Nightmare

Welcome To My Nightmare

Published May 19, 2006

Welcome To My Nightmare

The book is called Draumlandið: Sjálfshjálparbók handa hræddri þjóð, or The Dreamland: A Self Help Book For A Frightened Nation. In the three months since its release, it has been re-printed three times, and reached record sales for a book published out of Christmas season, moving in the excess of 8000 copies.

In the book, Andri Snær Magnason, 33-year old novelist, playwright and poet, explores issues surrounding the conflict between environmental preservation and the build up of heavy industry in Iceland, and examines the government’s hope to sell cheap energy from hydroelectric power plants in order to place Iceland among the world’s biggest aluminium manufacturers. He met with me in a suburban café in Reykjavík, interrupted and congratulated repeatedly on his work.

People Would Have Turned the Page

For starters, the question, when a key piece of Icelandic identity hasn’t been covered in the newspapers, magazines or other media, why present it suddenly as a book?

“I think it is really the only way. As soon as a newspaper article reaches one page in length, it is too long. A book can be over 300 pages and not be too long. It is really difficult to go through a whole thought process, if you need to be guided step by step in order to understand the whole process and see the things in a different light. All education, whether it is history or something else, is contained in big units. Where as the media, the news, everyone is trying to grab one headline, to fit in one press release. It becomes chaotic.

“Even if it is a big news announcement, it is still too short to convey this reality. If I had written an article in a paper, people would just have turned the page, and I would never have had the time or the space to confront these matters.”

Magnason is extremely critical of the media’s role and the form in which the media fulfils that role. In his opinion, news is not a good way to learn about the world.

“I think people should just stop following the news. They should just stop accepting this form and denounce news. You watch a whole news episode, ‘6000 chickens slaughtered in Patong in China.’ People who live two kilometres away most likely didn’t even know about the event. Maybe nobody knew. ‘A bus rolls over into a ravine in India,’ what is the point? This tells us nothing. A bus falls into a ravine… It tells us nothing.

“If you were to do a little test on people concerning Iraq, what they now know about the country, and what they knew before, there is no new knowledge. People might be able to name Fallujah. That is it. People know nothing more about the culture, the literature, and the history. They know nothing more than there have been bombings here and bombings there. They know nothing more about the forces behind the war, the thought behind it… I just think it is time people accept that this is not a good way to acquire knowledge. You are better off not knowing anything from the news about how the Iraq War is going, and read a book on the whole thing.”

In his opinion, Icelandic media has failed to critically assess the discussion of heavy-industrialization, and facilitate an educated discussion.
“It is the media’s role to shake things up and give people the whole picture. The media has failed in that respect. Maybe it is just Icelandic media that is so shallow, but it has been more occupied with manufacturing groups of people. We see headlines like ‘the people of Húsavík are happy,’ or ‘ the inhabitants of East Iceland rejoice’ accompanied with a picture of people from East Iceland raising a flag. This is just a product of fascism. They are manufacturing masses, and PR companies are build around this, to maintain this sort of fascism-istic discourse that everyone as a whole is ecstatic over some project, before the project has even been started.

“The media just seems to be a stopover for the discourse. The companies write the press releases, the media picks it up and runs it without assessing it, and then I read it in the papers the next day. The media does not seem to realize how the discourse is shaped, how, and what words are used to portray the discourse… Or they know, and they are just in on it too.”

I press him for a more concrete example.

“Just the other day there was some news regarding the possibility of mining gold up in Þormóðsdalur. That was all that was said, and that people were ‘optimistic.’ There was no mention of how gold is processed. Look… to make one gold ring like my wedding band, you need to grind 30 tons of rock, bath the ore in cyanide to extract the gold and the result is 30 tons of crap and a wedding band. So the area would look like the Kárahnjúkar dam area, with cyanide. And if the price of gold goes up, than maybe grinding 35 tons becomes an acceptable cost.

“We are talking about the worst possible industry. Gold mines in the US produce waste that is next to nuclear waste in terms of pollution because the process extracts all sorts of heavy metals from the ore, plus the cyanide, and there is a constant risk that the cyanide solution will seep into the ground water. There was no mention of this in the news. Everyone who saw the segment probably imagined cowboys with filters kneeling on a riverbank. A few weeks earlier, there had been a very critical 5-page spread world in the New York Times about the environmental and social costs of gold mining, but here there was no mention of this. Here we were just told that people were optimistic.”

Icelandic Environment as Sacrificial Lamb

Magnason has plenty on his plate if he sticks with aluminium. Recently, Alcan Aluminium revealed plans for enlarging its Straumsvík aluminium smelter, and that negotiations had begun with Icelandic power companies over how increased demand for energy will be met. The plan is to bring production capabilities up from 180,000 tons to 460,000 tons.

Before Alcan entered negotiations with the government, the power companies and the municipality of Hafnafjörður – where the smelter is located, word had already leaked out that if Alcan were not successful in the negotiation, the plant would close. This created an immense pressure for officials to treat the negotiations carefully, before they even started.

“One of the thing that the media has not picked up on is that the companies seem to be building one half of aluminium smelters. Alcan say they will close the plant if they cannot enlarge it to 500,000 tons. Which means that 500,000 tons has become the smallest unit of efficiency. Norsk Hydro is, for example, building a smelter in Dubai or Quatar, which is 500,000 tons, with the possibility of enlarging it to 1,500,000 tons. Here Alcan claim they need 500,000 tons, just in order to function. In Húsavík, they want to build a 250,000-ton aluminium smelter, which is really just half a smelter. It needs to be bigger to be efficient, and everybody knows this. The smelter in Reyðarfjörður is two thirds of a smelter, and the aluminium smelter being planned in Helguvík is a half an aluminium smelter.

“We are creating this huge infrastructure; the companies are planting their feet and setting up workers who will become an immensely powerful lobby group when the companies announce that they will need to increase production capabilities. This is power that we are loosing control of. It is as if nobody realises the structure we are creating. The Minister of Industry previously said in a speech that was published on her website that the limit of production here in Iceland should be one million tons and we should not exceed that mark. Six months later, without any discussion taking place, she said that limit should be one and a half million tons, and the earlier speech vanished from her website. The fact of the matter is that, in order to accommodate all the future enlargements of these plants that are now being built, that limit would need to be two and a half million in 20 years time.”

The argument that is routinely provided for the continued development of aluminium smelters here in Iceland is that the amount of clean and renewable hydro energy places a moral obligation on us to use that to build up heavy industry that would otherwise be powered by less eco-friendly energy. That is, we should sacrifice our nature for the sake of nature. More and more, this sacrifice is seen as pure and simple waste. The Icelandic Nature Conservation Association, for instance, recently claimed to have from ‘very reliable sources’ that the Kárahnjúkar dam’s economical viability is in fact negative.

“Everything is hidden in the words, ‘it is our obligation to use our clean energy resources.’ This is a ridiculous argument. We are always asked to make ethical moral choices. This is bad business, but we should do it anyway on moral grounds.” This is enough for Magnason to lose his cool. “Alcoa has no fucking morals. Aluminium companies have never made a moral decision. They just look at the price of the energy and base their decision upon that. If coal is cheaper, they will use coal, if the nuclear energy is cheaper, they will use nuclear energy. There is no morality involved.”

In his book, Magnason slowly reveals this very fact, that there has been no morality, and almost as little horse sense, in the selling of Iceland’s nature. The conclusion reveals a nation duped. It leaves you feeling both angry and betrayed.

“A lot of people explain their feelings to me in those exact terms,” he tells me, on hearing my reaction. “They feel angry and betrayed, ridiculed even. People feel humiliated, and they feel they are seen as inferior.”

Did the author himself get angry or feel betrayed?

“Yes, a lot of the time I got really angry. I think one of the most difficult things about writing this book was to read through all the sources, and to discover all the content in the book. I had to keep that bottled up for a year. The hardest thing was to be so angry, and yet to be able to write a constructive book, and not get lost in name calling, to keep my integrity, although I was not really impartial. The book is created from a lot of anger and the main reason behind me writing it was that I was angry.”

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