Published: March 2008



Power Struggle

The people of Iceland awaken to a stark choice: exploit a wealth of clean energy or keep their landscape pristine.

By Marguerite Del Giudice
Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen

One of the main things to understand about Iceland is how tiny the population is and what it can be like to live here because of that. There’s the feeling that everybody on this isolated subarctic island knows just about everybody else, or at least can be associated (through family, friends, neighborhood, profession, political party, or school) by no more than one degree of separation. Imagine a country of 310,000 people, with most of them jammed in and around Reykjavík—a hip European capital known for its dimly lit coffeehouses, live music, and hard-drinking nightlife. That’s where all the good jobs are, and the chances of running into somebody you know are so high that it’s hard, as one commentator mused, to have a love affair without getting caught.

“We are,” said one bespectacled sixtysomething newspaper editor wearing a blazing white shirt, “very close-knit.” Then he clasped his hands together, as if in an embrace. Or a vise.

The consequence of living in what amounts to a small town on an island in the middle of nowhere, with its vertiginous links going back dozens of generations to the origins of Viking myth (a gene pool so pure that molecular biologists drool), is that it functions somewhat like a big extended family. “As soon as you open your mouth,” one observer said, “they’re all over you.” It’s like living on a mobile—disturbing any part of it could generate a ripple throughout. So while Iceland in many ways remains an open and transparent society, there’s an underlying guardedness among the people when it comes to talking politics and public policy—concerning such things as how the country should go about striking a balance between protecting its environment and growing its economy, which is more or less what this story is about.

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