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The thing is, very little of that energy has been tapped, because it’s stranded in the middle of the nowhere between continental Europe and Greenland. So, since the 1960s, the government has been wooing heavy industry to Iceland with the promise of cheap electricity, no red tape, and minimal environmental impact. But—except for two small smelters and a ferrosilicon plant—getting companies to come here has been a hard sell. The labor force is very small, highly paid, and probably overeducated. Add to that the remoteness of the place, the long, dark winters, and the inhospitable weather. Only an industry requiring the most intensive use of energy, and which could get a heckuva good rate for it over a long period, would find it economical to set up shop all the way in Iceland. The most obvious fit was the aluminum industry. And so it was—to the alarm of environmentalists who want to save that rare land and the thrill of industrialists who want to use some of it to finally produce something—that the paths of aluminum smelting and unspoiled Iceland were fated to cross.

According to Sigurður Arnalds, the spokesman for Landsvirkjun, the national power company—an avuncular engineer everyone calls “Siggi,” whose hooded eyes and white-fringed balding head give him the same soft appeal as Mr. Magoo—the grand idea was to “export electrical power on ships in the form of aluminum.”

“We have to live”

Now elsewhere in the world, Iceland may be spoken of, somewhat breathlessly, as western Europe’s last pristine wilderness. But the environmental awareness that is sweeping the world had bypassed the majority of Icelanders. Certainly they were connected to their land, the way one is complicatedly connected to, or encumbered by, family one can’t do anything about. But the truth is, once you’re off the beaten paths of the low-lying coastal areas where everyone lives, the roads are few, and they’re all bad, so Iceland’s natural wonders have been out of reach and unknown even to its own inhabitants. For them the land has always just been there, something that had to be dealt with and, if possible, exploited—the mind-set being one of land as commodity rather than land as, well, priceless art on the scale of the “Mona Lisa.”

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