Living in Germany for a lot of people means to look at the nordic countries – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland – with a mixture of awe, jealousy and romanticisation. The usual comments go like this: “It’s cold up there but have you seen their wellfare system?” “Look at the schools, they have a way better educational system than we have!” Other remarks, expressed in the media or by friends, deal with the levels of gender equality (“SO many guys working in kindergardens!” “Did you know that employers pay you if you leave work to nurse your baby?”). My personal favorite is the annual World Happiness Report by the UN. The northern countries almost always take turns to lead: According to the 2019 report the worlds happiest people lived in Finland, followed by Denmark, Norway and Iceland, in the years before Norway led the list.
Then there is environmentalism and sustainability, and somehow we are led to believe that inhabitants of nordic countries are basically walking piles of human humus, messias of ecology, Jesus, Maria and Mohammed on an e-bike. We think of beautiful and tall København folks driving their bycicles. We think of happy Norwegians, hiking the mountains, sleeping outdoors, leaving behind no traces. The Swedes go kajacking or elk-riding, the Fins are humble and content as long as there is a sauna around. Naturally, all of the countries inhabitants are smart and mindful when it comes to thinking and acting green. Oslo was European Green Capital of 2019 – that must count for something, right?
Norway, not as green as I thought
When we look at the big cities, Stockholm, København, Oslo or Bergen, than in fact there is a lot of eco consciousness. A fair amount of people are working on more sustainable solutions when it comes to use of energy, (public) transportation, sustainable building, waste management and alternative agriculture. There is a variety of health stores, vegan burger places, organic supermarkets, bike lanes, car sharing services, road tolls for cars in inner city circles and so on. While some of these things are also symptoms of gentrification they are for sure developments towards more sustainable city environments.
But as soon as I leave the city, I can’t help but notice a ton of disinterest and outright ignorance, when it comes to dealing with a climate crisis that is already happening all around us. Did you know that Norwegians fly more than most other European countries? Only the inhabitants of Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, and Cyprus fly more (the two latter are island states). Norwegians on average fly eight times a year inland. For 2019 the national statistic institute SSB registered more than 40 million inland flights. Flying in Norway is the cheapest and fastest way to get you to places. On the contrary, train tracks only measure 4219 kilometers in this huge country and don’t go further north than Bodø, 1000 kilometer south of the North Cape.
My observations are made merely on the countryside, and I can only speak for the south of rural Norway, since I have not lived on the countryside of another Scandinavian country. This is not meant to be a rant but a sharing of observations, fuelled by environmental concern.
The lack of a green consciousness in rural Norway lies in details, some of them more obvious than others. Like in the absence of organic products at supermarket chains in the Tinn region. If you ask employees whether they couldn’t broaden their offer of organic products they will just tell you that, sadly, there is not enough request. In contrast, the same conventional supermarkets like Kiwi or Meny in Oslo offer an o.k. selection of organic products. Still, it is by no means comparable with Germany and its selection of organic supermarkets like Denns, Alnatura, Basic or Biocompany in almost every small town. In Norway there is simply no such thing as an organic supermarket chain, only small health food stores (I am not saying small cooperatives going big is merely a good thing). Because Norway is such a small country a lot of German organic brands end up on the shelves of health stores. They are of course much more expensive, due to import taxes and shipping, the latter making them also much less sustainable.
When you talk to Norwegians many of them will say that buying organic just doesn’t make sense. They think of it as a mere distinctional behaviour. They will say it is only more expensive, not necessarily tastier or healthier. While I am having trouble believing that (think of drugged-up animals, think of pesticides, GMO and fertilizers) let’s assume they are right. If you don’t buy organic for the taste or your own health it all boils down to one argument: in favour of a more sustainable agriculture. Now, Norway is quite a big country, especially in length, with five million inhabitants scattered mainly in the south. There still is a lot of space, there is an overabundance of supposedly untouched nature, of farming on a rather small scale. Weather conditions are only mild in the south and the sheer geography of the country makes XXL-farming impossible. If Norwegians go into nature and they don’t just happen to stumble across a mine, a mountaintop removal site or a salmon aquaculture farm where algae make the water slimy, the Norwegian nature seems to be doing fine, with or without them buying organic.
Buying organic food is simply for those with too much money, I heard people say. Mind you, Norway is one of the richest countries in the world. Yes, food, non-alcoholic beverages and toileteries are very expansive, but Norwegians still only spend around 11 percent of their total consumption expenditure on these goods, according to a study from 2019. Compared to their whopping incomes they spend not more on food than Germans (10,3 percent of their income in 2017). Somehow we have come to believe that we don’t need to spend any money on food – the thing, next to housing, that really sustains us and keeps us well and going.
You might wonder why I am stressing the food part so much, but once you have started to work in the production of food you come to see things differently. What we eat, where it comes from, how it is produced and processed are crucial parts, not only in environmentalism but also when it comes to social justice and the wellbeing of a countries society. Organic food in this way is not just about the taste, your personal health or doing good for the environment. And in this regard Norway for sure could do much better. However I don’t mean to say that on the other hand Germany is an eco paradise.
Another observation: Plastic bags are omnipresent in Norwegian supermarkets. When I made my own small participate observations in Oslo and around Telemark, everyone queueing in front of me requested a plastic bag. No supermarket I went to offered paper or jute bags (yesyes, those materials have their downsides too), and at least when I stood at the check-out no one in front of me brought their own bag. You might think these are unimportant, small observations that don’t necessarily mean anything. I would argue that collective consciousness shows itself exactly in those mundane practices and habits.
Motor out running, man indoor having breakfast
There is one thing that really came as a shock to me, senseless environmental ignorance in a nutshell: Everywhere I went so far, people leave their motors running. It is considered normal to “heat up” your motor, regardless that winter conditions in the south have not been harsh this year. Norwegians just switch their engines on and then go back in and have breakfast. They leave their cars running while going to the supermarket. One guy left his pick-up truck running and then hopped on to his tractor, happily driving off. I don’t know if he was ever coming back, but when I passed the car on my way back it was still running, more than one hour later. I yet have to find the courage to ask people in all seriousness why they don’t switch off their engines. My host Gaby made a joke the other day, telling me about this place in the Arctic where people must not switch their motors off from October till April every year, otherwise their engines break down. There’s always a place where things are worse, I guess.
In general, as soon as you get to rural Norway you need a car. Public transport is just too bad. When you meet Norwegians – as outdoorsy as he or she might be on the weekends up in the mountains – during the weekday they for sure will drive to work, most likely by themselves. Commuting is not really seen as a necessity. I have met sweet and genuinely responsible-thinking guys who never really considered biking to work, although the distance was barely 10k and they were in great shape. Yes, every second new car that is being sold in Norway is an electric car. But for your hytte tur on the weekend you make sure to drive your four-wheel-SUV up to the mountains, no matter how narrow the roads.
Are Norwegians just too rich to be green?
You could say that Norwegians have a little too much money. And they really like spending it. The love to buy flats, hyttes, several cars, big TVs, you name it. And their money derives from the wrong sources, and with that I mean the oil and gas industry that runs and ruins this country. You could also say that it might compromise your environmental consciousness just a little if your personal wealth and that of your family stems from working on oil rigs for two weeks per month and earning a shitload of money. I have come to believe that this hole country has a schizophrenic relationship towards fossil vs. renewable energy. While almost all of Norways own energy derives from green sources, hydropower and a little bit of wind, the countries wealth is measured by the price of oil and gas, its extraction and export. Almost all of the oil is exported so it doesn’t even make it on the sustainability bill. Oil and gas are not factored in when Norway proudly presents its ecological footprint, isn’t that handy?
Regardless of the Paris Agreement of 2015 and its vital 1.5C target, that requires the majority of existing fuel reserves not to be burned, Norway continues to explore for oil and gas, especially in the Arctic. It would be vital for Norway to set an example in climate responsibility: by ending further explorations for oil, by protecting the fragile ecosystem in the North and by using its immense wealth to change an oil-dependent economy. And how about banning those plastic bags that kill fish, sea mammals and end up in our bodies (other countries already led the way, and customers survived it)? How about educating people about sustainable agriculture, about local food chains and alternative shopping and producing cycles? How about not leaving the lights on when you leave your weekend hytte until next year (even if the energy is green)? And how about switching your car off when not driving it? Just some ideas off the top of a hobby organic farmer’s head.