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When the opportunity arose in 2003 for the national power company to enter into a 40-year contract with the American aluminum company Alcoa to supply hydroelectric power for a new smelter, those who had been dreaming of something like this for decades jumped at it and never looked back. Iceland may at the moment be one of the world’s richest countries, with a 99 percent literacy rate and long life expectancy. But the project’s advocates, some of them getting on in years, were more emotionally attuned to the country’s century upon century of want, hardship, and colonial servitude to Denmark, which officially had ended only in 1944 and whose psychological imprint remained relatively fresh. For the longest time, life here had meant little more than a sod hut, dark all winter, cold, no hope, children dying left and right, earthquakes, plagues, starvation, volcanoes erupting and destroying all vegetation and livestock, all spirit—a world revolving almost entirely around the welfare of one’s sheep and, later, on how good the cod catch was. In the outlying regions, it still largely does.

Ostensibly, the Alcoa project was intended to save one of these dying regions—the remote and sparsely populated east—where the way of life had steadily declined to a point of desperation and gloom. After fishing quotas were imposed in the early 1980s to protect fish stocks, many individual boat owners sold their allotments or gave them away, fishing rights ended up mostly in the hands of a few companies, and small fishermen were virtually wiped out. Technological advances drained away even more jobs previously done by human hands, and the people were seeing everything they had worked for all their lives turn up worthless and their children move away. With the old way of life doomed, aluminum projects like this one had come to be perceived, wisely or not, as a last chance. “Smelter or death.”

The contract with Alcoa would infuse the region with foreign capital, an estimated 400 jobs, and spin-off service industries. It also was a way for Iceland to develop expertise that potentially could be sold to the rest of the world; diversify an economy historically dependent on fish; and, in an appealing display of Icelandic can-do verve, perhaps even protect all of Iceland, once and for all, from the unpredictability of life itself.

“We have to live,” Halldór Ásgrímsson said in his sad, sonorous voice. Halldór, a former prime minister and longtime member of parliament from the region, was a driving force behind the project. “We have a right to live.”

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