April 10, 2008

What Iceland has to Offer the Global Community

First thoughts/impressions:

The Icelandic hospitality was wonderful and they welcomed us warmly. The taxi driver who drove me from the airport to the hotel spoke with me about the geology of Iceland and said, “in Iceland the plates are coming apart while in California they are bumping together.�

Driving in from the airport I was reminded of my time spent on the Big Island of Hawaii. The temperatures were not the same, but the rugged lava beds that flowed out to the ocean were similar in their sparse vegetation, jagged, crumbling rock, and the feel that one is experiencing the world as it was millions of years ago, before the advent of animal life. I feel like I am in a dream, floating through some mysterious other world…

What Iceland can teach the modern world.

Well it has been 7 days of intense study and learning here at 660 Latitude. Very difficult to do since the sun has been mostly shining and, although the wind is cold, the vistas are stunning. It has been quite a, to use a Nordic term, “saga� of discovery for me. I did not know what to expect beyond what I learned in grammar school about how Greenland is icy and Iceland is green. Suffice to say it was a journey that shed some light the current issues facing our global community.

We started by exploring the history, geography, geothermal energy and natural beauty of Iceland on a bus tour of the “Golden Circle.� A trek starting with an exemplary geothermal energy plant, circling around and visiting Iceland’s largest lake, the rift valley caused by the separation of the European and North Atlantic tectonic plates, the site of the first European parliamentary assembly, a field of geysers, and ending at the Blue Lagoon natural hot springs. Then we settled in to discuss current issues the global community faces in public health, climate change, and the science of Informatics or managing the gargantuan amount of data and knowledge being accumulated and disseminated by the 21st century’s Information Age.

Why Iceland? What can the small country of Iceland possibly have to offer the larger global community?

Island cultures, it seems to me, can serve as excellent models for learning about resource management in the face of scarcity. Icelanders have been forced by their environment to live within the resources available (of course, over time, they have been able, through the advances in global trade and the internet, to increase their material needs beyond what the natural environment of Iceland can provide, but, also, it is precisely because of Iceland’s unique environment and the Icelanders ingenuity to utilize resources without damaging them, that allows them to trade their inexpensive electricity with the rest of the world).

The Icelandic environment has helped make Icelanders resourceful, neighborly, and conscious of the necessity to replenish the environment they live in. This was best demonstrated by the fact that the geothermal plant, after using the heat and electrical energy from the steam they extract, they return at least 70% of the water back to the aquifer they receive the steam from. This creates very little pollution, if any, and insures that the reservoir does not get depleted over time and can regenerate.

In America we would probably just let the water run off into the sea after we used it, acting as if it was an unlimited source, instead of a vast lake that took millions of years to collect. The guide at the geothermal energy plant also pointed out that at one time America had the largest source of geothermal energy in the world but abandoned the program in favor of oil and coal. Iceland shows us that we have a great source of clean, renewable energy in our backyard, we only need the will to change over to it.

This doesn’t mean that Iceland isn’t immune from resource depletion or from the effects of the Global Economy. They depleted their forests through grazing, heating, and building structures (like America did during its expansion and what Brazil and Central Africa are experiencing now) so wood is at a premium as it has to be shipped in. Also Icelandic banks were caught up in the sub-prime loan market that caused the recent economic problems in the United States and the Krona’s value fell as I was visiting.

What I came away from my whole experience in Iceland was, first, a renewed respect and awareness of how beautiful our world around us is and how we need to strive to become better stewards of this precious environment that gives us life while we take so much from it and even degrade it in our ignorance and greed. I also came away with the insight that those of us from the large, continental countries should look to our island neighbors for insight into how to live in better harmony with our environment. Coming from America it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking there is no end to the earth’s resources and we only need to improve out technology to access even more materials. But if we pan back and view the earth from the vastness of space, one gets an even larger since of isolation as one might get looking from the shores of Iceland across the vast, cold, Atlantic. Earth is our precious island that is a system based on renewal and recycling of resources and for us to ignore this circle of life and will certainly be our downfall. We cannot take more than the earth can replenish. That is why I was so impressed by the Geothermal Plant returning 70% of the water back to the reservoir. That is definitely a way to live that is sustainable.

Greg Burgess
MPH Environmental Health, Infectious Disease Control
University of Minnesota