a short trip to Greenland and Iceland

Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore/London

Iceland: Further Thoughts

This is the second half of an email sent after I have returned from my trip.  The first part, about Greenland and seal-hunting is here.  

Whilst Greenland is obviously a poor country heavily dependent on handouts, Iceland is one of the richest countries in the world.  It has a modern developed economy with one of the highest standards of living anywhere.  It has a small population (280,000) living in an island 103,000 sq km, size of a middle sized country.  It may be on the same latitude as Greenland, but Iceland certainly doesnít deserve its icy name.  As they put it, Greenland is ice and Iceland is green.  Last week, I stood along the Arctic Ocean near Husavik, northeast Iceland, just south of the Arctic Circle.  Here, farmers were packing their hay while lambs wandered around.  A few hundred kilometers to the west in Greenland, also just south of the Arctic Circle, people can do nothing but hunt, as the cold kills off all farm creatures and no agriculture is possible.  Iceland has benefited from the warm Gulf Stream, not only in terms of agriculture but also from the rich sea life it brings to Iceland.  This has made Iceland the 11th most important fishing nation.  Given their productivity and efficiency in harvesting this natural resource, Iceland has been able to achieve its current standard of living.

Earnings from fishing has also allowed a high standard of education and the development of a R&D based life sciences and IT industry, all of which help to further diversify its sources of income.  Iceland also lies in a geothermal sensitive region, and income from fishing has allowed it to invest in sophisticated equipment to tap this important source of energy.  Most of Icelandís heating and electricity comes domestically, from its geothermal resources.  This meant enormous savings of earnings that would otherwise go to the Middle Eastern sheikhs.  There are many poor countries in the world that lie on geothermal belts, e.g., Indonesia, Philippines, Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, but few have the resources to harvest such resources. 

Goblins - some Icelandic farmers still believe they exist!

Having said that, Iceland hasnít always been a rich country.  Before WWII, this was a poor country where famines occur frequently, often killing large percentage of the population, not to mention other natural disasters like volcano eruption and earthquakes.  Incidence of whales getting stuck in the shallows, now considered undesirable, used to be greeted by Icelanders as the equivalent of winning the lottery, as these landings often help to alleviate hunger and save the local population from death.  In the past, Icelanders emigrate to look for new land and for survival.  These days it tend to be emigration because of boredom. 

The turning point for Iceland came during WWII, when the British occupied Iceland in 1940 after Denmark, Icelandís colonial master, was invaded by the Germans.  The British brought lots of employment to this poor country and began a huge infrastructure construction programme.  Airports and roads were built everywhere throughout the country, for the war effort against the Germans.  They left in 1941 and were replaced by the Americans.  The 65,000 American soldiers continued the British construction efforts, and virtually transformed this country that only then had a population of 120,000.  There must be as many American soldiers as there were Icelandic men!  The whole economy was injected with cash and blessed with a new infrastructure, which allow the country to develop further after the war.  Not many countries have succeeded in transforming themselves so radically after foreign occupation!  Iceland by then was one that has a long tradition of education Ė compulsory universal education was introduced in the mid-19th century when self-government was declared.  The Icelandic church also play an active part in preserving the Icelandic language through mass education, which meant that Icelanders could easily launch their national development by riding on the British and American occupation.  Most countries become poorer rather than richer after foreign invasion. 

The Icelandic experience is unique indeed and not easily replicable elsewhere.  What is also remarkable is their ability to preserve their language, spoken by only 280,000 people.  With such a small population, it must be very expensive to publish a book or a newspaper, much less run TV channels in the Icelandic language.  In addition are advertising, product labeling, or indeed anything in public life Ė how can you manage a whole country with its own spoken language with only 280,000 people ?  Despite that, the Icelanders publish the largest number of books in the world on a per capita basis, mostly translation of foreign publications into Icelandic, and they have even produced a Nobel Prize winner in literature.  The cost of these must be tremendous but probably well subsidized by the Icelandic economy.  Therefore things are expensive in Iceland, but their economy can support it, and the Icelandic people see the preservation of their language as a matter of national pride.   

As a side note, the Icelanders are obsessed with sagas, long stories of heroes, gods and their deeds.  They are often long and complicated, full of subplots and multiple twists and turns, as well as moral messages, some of which can be confusing (e.g., the good die and the bad go unpunished).  Despite a similar Viking heritage, none of the other Scandinavian countries have the equivalent of an Icelandic saga.  Every Icelander grows up familiar with the sagas.  It was said that there was a student who requested a taxi driver to fetch him home for free, as he had no money.  The taxi driver agreed, provided he could answer a difficult riddle from one of the more obscure saga.  The student agreed and could actually provided the right answers, so earning a free taxi trip.  What is remarkable about this story is that, there are very few taxi drivers in the world who know scholarly sagas well enough to derive a difficult riddle, and it is equally surprising that the student would have been able to answer such a riddle correctly.  Well, I guess, Iceland has done all the right things in the past, thus able to ride on the WWII that was beyond its control, and then transforming itself thoroughly.  This is the real saga of modern Iceland.  

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