What Does A Utopian Iceland Look Like? Five Icelanders Talk About The Future

What Does A Utopian Iceland Look Like? Five Icelanders Talk About The Future

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Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published October 6, 2016

We regularly see articles published in the international press about Iceland, touting it as some kind of ultra-feminist, anti-banker paradise of clean living and social welfare. While we admittedly have it really good, there’s still a great deal that could stand to be improved. What needs changing? What would a Utopian Iceland look like, and how can we get there?

To try and answer these questions, we invited four Icelanders over to our offices for a conversation on the subject. These four Icelanders are musician and journalist Unnsteinn Manúel Stefánsson (U); writer and performer Bergur Ebbi Benediktsson (B); artist and library director Sara Stef. Hildardóttir (SS); and entrepreneur and filmmaker Vala Halldórsdóttir (V). Jumping in from time to time is our acting co-editor, Sveinbjörn Pálsson (SP). What follows is our attempt at a greater understanding of what Future Iceland could be.

Paul: Now that elections are coming up in just a few weeks, what do you think are the big issues the next government is going to have to tackle right after the elections?

V: First of all, I think they should focus on young people. We see continuous evidence that millennials have it a lot worse than older generations; more and more millennials are going to university, but they’re not getting higher salaries. They will also need to focus on the housing issue when it comes to young people. I don’t have a solution to that, but there are a lot of smart people trying to get into the government, so they must find a solution for it.

U: I think it basically comes down to two things. Capitalism is the system we have chosen, and we just have to see how we will work with it. A lot of problems follow capitalism in politics, as the biggest problems we have in this country revolve around money. The most pressing issues not just here but in elections all over the world concern money and how we handle it. That’s why I agree housing is a huge issue. This society encourages you to buy property. Another big issue is anything regarding cyber technology—privacy, how we use technology, security, copyright law. In many ways, technology has been evolving a lot faster than we’ve been able to deal with.

V: I agree that technology is evolving fast, but it’s like the government isn’t evolving with it. You could be talking to a doctor over Skype, or chatting with someone at the student loan office over Slack. That’s maybe not something the next government should be focusing on, but maybe more something we’d talk about when talking about the Utopian Iceland.

Utopian Iceland discussion by Art Bicnick

SS: I agree. I think a lot of our problems stem from the way we redistribute wealth. I think we’re actually seeing the first steps of the death of capitalism, and that’s what the younger generation is going to have to deal with. What this country needs is to get a grip on how we distribute the wealth. We also need to re-structure our health system and education system. Everything else follows after that. If you don’t have your health, and people can’t educate themselves equally across the country and all age groups, then you have nothing. We also haven’t been doing enough for the elderly, and this is a problem we’re all going to have to face. We have a very serious situation before us.

B: I think a reform of the constitution is due. Maybe it’s not the most pressing issue, but we can’t run from it. I think it was unfair how all the work that was done [on the constitution] after the financial collapse was not put to use. I think the most pressing part of the constitution that needs reform concerns the distribution of power. You can see this in the wake of the Wintris affair [referring to the scandal that unseated former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson]. We needed a scholar to explain to people and he ended up becoming President. I think we’re playing with democracy as we go along, which is alright; it should be in a constant state of development, but a lot of the proposed changes to the constitution would have prevented Wintris and made it a much clearer issue. We’re not so far from a dictatorship sometimes. What we have right now is not democratic. We have a Prime Minister who’s the deputy of a disgraced former Prime Minister. I think it’s no coincidence that the parties that gain the most from the current distribution of the vote are the most against reforming it.

But I also think we’re not just experiencing an economic rift, but a moral one. Like what’s going on with the fisheries; there are ideas being floated about putting a tax increase on the fishing giants, or maybe every Icelander gets a portion of the profits. But this involves looking into how we feel about who owns the wealth of these fisheries. It’s a moral issue, because people feel it’s unfair as it is. I think it’s more than just capitalism versus socialism. For example, I support the idea of tax reform, but for me it’s not confined to lowering taxes; I think the tax system also needs to be simplified.

V: The creative industries are getting so much more impactful every year. The McKinsey report of 2012 pointed out that we will need to double our exports over the next 20 years just to maintain our growth. Right now, our exports are based basically on four things: fish, tourism, heavy industry and the creative industries. Fishing and heavy industry are probably just going to be stable. Tourism will probably continue to grow for a while, but we can’t put all of our eggs in one basket. So I think the creative industry is key here.

B: Absolutely. And I feel a lot of young people want to be able to work independently, and go from gig to gig. And they should be able to, because I think it would stimulate the economy. I don’t think taxes need to be cut, but they can certainly be simplified a whole lot. And where education goes, I would say: less Danish, more coding.

Unnsteinn Manúel by Art Bicnick

SV: I think as well, for the past four years we’ve been living a double life. The financial crisis is over, so we can cut the taxes on the fisheries, but we still have austerity when it comes to hospitals and schools. I saw a recent interview with our Prime Minister where he said that as times got better, they began to cut these income streams, but at the same time, nothing has changed. They’re still making cuts to education and health. What’s frustrating is that what’s missing in the electorate is a strong, angry demand for clarity.

U: Adding to that, I think we definitely lack some good investigative journalism and political examination. I saw a recent political compass that had globalisation versus nationalism, and socialism versus a market economy. I think that’s such an old way of thinking.

SS: I’d just like to point out that the McKinsey report is a right wing report. People look to this report as if it’s the only way out. What has to happen after these elections is the first steps towards changing our way of thinking, and the market system that needed to rise from the ashes of the crash needs to embrace a new way of thinking. Fishing and heavy industry represent the old ways, and the creative industry will be the future, which underlines the importance of education. I think it’s crazy that we consider it foolish to redistribute our wealth evenly, but we consider it sane that only the 1% should enjoy all the wealth.

Paul: So this brings us to the big question: what does your Utopian Iceland look like? How do we get there?

V: I don’t understand why, in 2016, we still have a gender wage gap. In a Utopian Iceland, this would be fixed. I’ve been in touch with a lot of people abroad, especially Americans, who are fascinated with gender issues in Iceland. They look to Iceland, but we still haven’t solved this problem. It’s in a better place than elsewhere, but we still haven’t fixed it. We did legislate that there should be gender ratios in boards in Iceland, and I think that’s working. So maybe something huge like that would work.

SS: I think we need to be a lot more spiritual. A lot of our problems stem from shame. The materialism that’s breaking this society down needs to be off the table. I think a lot of these issues—gender, racism, the beauty myth, religion—they all stem from this flawed system that’s about to enter its death throes. It’s not just religious shame; there’s also a lot of gender-based shame, shame amongst minorities because this society has a “default type” of a human being—the financially stable man. Everyone who isn’t one has problems. Someone once said that to change society, you need to start by changing ways of thinking, and by that you change the culture of the society, and the final stage is where you’re able to change society itself. That probably takes a few generations, I would think.

B: I think most of these are truly universal issues. But to approach this from an Icelandic perspective: I think it’s interesting that Iceland lies on this overlap between American and European culture. I think that’s the global appeal of our culture. I think we should embrace it more. We need to appreciate how we’ve been influenced by foreign cultures. I mean, taking in foreign cultures is our thing. We’re hybrids. We have this romantic notion of being a secluded island, but I think we’re slowly starting to understand that we’ve always been global, and that that’s our strength. I think we need a total reform of immigration in keeping with that. Every Icelander needs to have literacy in more than one culture. We’re not that far from being the open nation that we should be; we just need that extra nudge.

Utopian Iceland discussion by Art Bicnick

U: I think another way to look at the question is, “What can the government do to create a utopian society? And what could it do right away?” If you look at Iceland from abroad, it’s a perfect country in many ways, and I’m very grateful to live in Iceland. But then there are deep issues that we won’t show to other nations. But in terms of what the government can do right now, I sometimes look at Parliament and think that an ethics expert and an engineer should just get together and redesign it. Parliament is currently designed for 19th century guys on horses getting drunk. It’s not designed for women, or people with children. Regarding the gender question, I think in pop culture, you don’t always have the best role models for young men. But it’s young men who need to speak up about gender issues more. As it is, we’re more interested in playing Counterstrike and latest pizza offer at Domino’s. If we can’t change men’s self-image, then we can’t move forward as a society. People committing acts of terror and violence, these are all young guys my age.

Paul: Now we get to an issue close to a lot of our readers’ hearts: tourism. It’s a growing industry, and will likely continue to grow in the near future, but there has been plenty of criticism from within the industry that we’re not doing enough to make it sustainable. And it’s certainly been having an impact on our society, whether economically, in regards to housing, infrastructure or urban planning. How can we do tourism better?

B: I think it’s basically a trial and error process. We’ve done a lot of things right, but I think it’s a shame that so many things have been reactive, maybe to a fault, and we need to climb out of that. The way to do that is to have a vision, looking maybe twenty or thirty years into the future. It’s already been laid out, by [author] Andri Snær [Magnason] and many others, which is sanctioning off all the land that isn’t being used for agricultural right now. Making all the rest of it a national park, and making it a very special place. So instead of responding to mundane problems, we need to put forward a vision. Obviously, that will cost something, whether that means raising our taxes or putting taxes on the tourists themselves. In the end, it’s about supply and demand. Right now, we’ve got a lot of demand, but Iceland isn’t a very big country. My vision is that we just cordon off a significant part of the country, and forbid cameras there. It feels like a step back, but really it would be quite an accomplishment. Maybe someone will read this quote and think it’s a stupid idea, and that’s fine, but we need to talk about. Say why it’s stupid. Let’s start a debate on it. I’m really asking for more ideas out there.

SS: I definitely agree with Bergur, and I’ve been seeing this idea of “quiet spaces” being floated around. A place where people can pay to be not disturbed: no internet, no cameras, nothing. A digital detox. I also believe we need to re-think the national park, because everything so far has just been trial and error. We’re laughing at the experts who are telling us we need to stop mass tourism, but that’s what we need to do. I think the current situation is mirroring our pre-crash situation.

V: I think we do need a grand vision, and that Iceland needs to be forward-thinking for the first time, instead of just reacting. Like the Nature Pass [a parliamentary proposal that ultimately failed, suggesting that tourists should pay a flat fee to visit Iceland’s sites of natural wonder]. What happened to that? We were discussing this for three years and then nothing. Why haven’t we put something in place that gives us the financial resources to create the grand vision and then execute it? We need to create this foundation so we can do this well, and welcome all these people who want to come here.

U: We have a lot of tourists, but compared to other places, it’s not that much. I’ve seen countries do it very well and countries do it very badly. Some places are getting gradually more plastic, and Iceland is getting so close to becoming plastic itself.

V: We should also watch out, because with our currency, it’s becoming more expensive to come here. At the same time, there’s this gold-digging attitude going on, where the prices of things are going up. There must be a turning point where this doesn’t go hand-in-hand; it’ll start decreasing again. I think we also must distribute tourists to other parts of the country, whether that’s improving the Ring Road or increasing domestic flights. There are parts of the country that tourists just don’t visit, because there’s no rooms available.

Sveinbjörn Pálsson by Art Bicnick

U: If you brought up this national park idea to people living abroad, they’d respond, “Of course.” It’s a non-issue to people all over the world, but in Iceland it becomes a huge issue created by politicians.

SS: I also don’t understand the current Airbnb law. All they did was put a 90-day limit on renting out spaces through Airbnb. I don’t understand why they didn’t just say that you can rent out your legal residence, or a room in your legal residence, for as long as you want. But if you’re a business entity, then you run a guesthouse, instead of buying property and then renting it out through Airbnb.

U: We do have lobbyists in Iceland. And I think the people in Parliament who are talking about Airbnb are speaking on behalf of hotel owners.

Paul: Lastly, we get to immigration. And by that I don’t just mean “regular” immigrants to Iceland, but also so-called quota refugees and asylum seekers. What can we and ought we be doing better?

B: I think we need to have a more general discussion about the kind of immigration policy we should have. In many ways, Canada is analogous to our situation—they had this discussion decades ago, when they were, like us, a very homogenous society. I feel like we haven’t really had this discussion here, and frankly, I think it’s a discussion that only the younger generation should be taking part in, because we’re looking towards the future here. And the question here is: do we want Iceland to be a truly multicultural society? This doesn’t mean just a few people from other countries living here. We’re talking about a lot of people, maybe thirty or forty years down the road, maybe even a third of the country. I think the outcome of such a discussion would be that the majority of young Icelanders are ready for some significant changes in Icelandic society. Once we have this major discussion, then I think issues over the smaller details will be no-brainers.

SS: Well, I have to ask: where would that discussion take place? Would it be some kind of National Assembly [referring to the nationwide citizen’s conference that was the prelude to the constitutional draft]? Because a lot of schools around the country are already trying to implement that kind of discussion.

B: Certainly, and I think that the political parties that we have should also be able to lead that discussion. I haven’t completely lost faith in political parties. I think that some of them are putting some ideas forward and are leading debates like this. Why not start a discussion with the question, could we be twice the population we are now? There’d be a lot of challenges, certainly, but also a lot of examples we could learn from.

U: Since I work for RÚV, I don’t express my political views publicly, but I do talk about human rights issues. Where asylum seekers are concerned, it’s often a political debate, but to me it’s a human rights question. On one occasion, I tagged all the youth leaders of the political parties in a status about asylum seekers, and they were all very passionate about their parties not becoming a racist party. So I think we have a very bright future ahead of us in that area.

B: What I think many people in Iceland don’t understand is that the future is going to be layered. It’s going to be a multinational, multicultural society. Some people will maybe look at themselves as “just” Icelandic, but there will be other cultures mixed in. Multiculturalism isn’t about erasing other cultures. It’s about having layers of many cultures. This is where all cultures are going.

Utopian Iceland discussion by Art Bicnick

V: This is one of the biggest issues we’re facing, along with global warming. I think immigration is a huge opportunity for Iceland to grow and diversify. I think we need to be more open about it and do it right. In addition, the birth rate in Iceland is falling, and the average Icelander is getting older. If we’re going to sustain the country, we need to do something, otherwise we’re just going extinct.

U: It’s going to take effort to work on this. And a lot of people don’t want to put the work into it, and so nothing will change. Look at the parliaments in Canada or South Africa. You have MPs using earpieces, listening to translators while talking to and working with one another in different languages. It’s amazing to see it. Meanwhile, a big issue we’re not talking about here in Iceland is about asylum seekers. We need to move that discussion forward.

SS: I think we need to move beyond just focusing on individual cases, and take on the system as a whole. Because it always comes down to a question of money. But if we were to redistribute the wealth, moving out of the hands of the top 10%, it would take care of most of the problems that come up in immigration already. If you have enough economic resources to take care of housing, then housing for asylum seekers isn’t going to be an issue. We need to distribute our money evenly.

U: One of the big issues that we’re going to have to face about refugees and asylum seekers is how we treat people that we give asylum. I’m not even talking about the people who don’t make it through the system; I’m talking about the people we accept. It’s like we say, “Okay, your case is so serious that you can live in Iceland, so go ahead.’ And then we don’t do anything else. They’re left completely on their own. When we hear about immigrants isolating themselves and dangerous situations arising, that’s because of this kind of neglect.


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