Saturday, July 20, 2013

Iceland: The Problem of Sustainability in an International Economy

In a world of rapidly increasing numbers of people and rapidly decreasing amounts of natural resources, sustainable resource management is one of the most important problems currently facing humanity.  The country of Iceland is a small country that, throughout its history, has been forced to come to terms with the limitations of its own resources (1).  In some ways, Iceland can be viewed as a microcosm for the world, except, for the time being, on a more extreme level.  While in much of the developed world the problem of unsustainability is not yet a pressing issue in people’s everyday lives, in Iceland the entire national economy hinges on the continued health of its fragile fisheries, so stewardship of marine resources is a top priority for all Icelanders.  Another way Iceland is a smaller, more extreme model for the world is in the recent economic crash, which hit Iceland particularly hard.  Some Icelandic strategies for sustainability may be applicable on a more global scale, but in the long term they will prove insufficient for both Iceland and for the world.

            Fish are Iceland’s most valuable natural resource and the resource that they have been most successful at managing.  Up until 1972, the fisheries around Iceland were not under the jurisdiction of any nation and Icelanders felt that they were in danger of being depleted, as had happened to fisheries elsewhere in the world (2).  In 1972, Icelanders secured exclusive national rights to fish within 57 miles of Iceland, and by 1975 to fish within 230 miles (2).   By implementing catch limits and eventually an Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) system whereby the total allowable catch was split into shares that could be bought or sold by individual fishing companies Iceland has been able to maintain its fisheries (2).  This strategy has succeeded because it converted the fisheries from a ‘commons’ owned by no-one and therefore exploited by everyone to a resource owned by the Icelandic people who were able to choose to manage it a way that would ensure its continued output.  Despite its many successes, ITQ can also be an unfair system because it puts the livelihoods of entire towns at the mercy of the ITQ owners (2).  As the ITQ system is tweaked and improved by the policy test bed that is Iceland, it will continually become more attractive for implementation by other nations.
As a model for sustainable management of renewable resources, such as plant and animal resources, privatization through ITQ or similar systems is promising.  Management of renewable resources, however, is not the most pressing issue facing the world with respect to sustainability.  Far more pressing is the issue of conserving non-renewable resources, most conspicuously fossil fuels, of which any use at all is inherently unsustainable.  The world economy is literally driven by the use of fossil fuels, and Iceland, through its complete dependence on international trade, is inevitably complicit in the gradual squandering of the world’s non-renewable resources; by importing foreign goods, it is importing unsustainability.
An interesting case is Iceland’s whaling industry.  Iceland allows the harvest of a certain number of whales every year from its waters (3).  In theory, it is possible to continue the practice of whaling sustainably if the government is wise in its quota allocations.  Opponents of whaling typically point to whale watching tourism as a more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to whaling (3).  Tourism, however, is highly fossil fuel intensive, requiring tourists to board a plane and fly to Iceland, then get on a diesel powered boat and cruise around Icelandic waters.  Granted, whaling also requires a certain amount of fossil fuels to power the whaling boats and to ship to whale meat to foreign markets, but the total volume of whaling seems destined to remain small, whereas expansion of tourism may have more room to grow.  In the worst case scenario, replacing whaling with whale watching might mean replacing a moderately sustainable industry with an industry solely reliant on unsustainable fossil fuels.
While Iceland still relies on fossil fuels for transportation, it has been a global leader in the development and deployment of renewable energy.  As early as 1990, geothermal energy accounted for 31% of Iceland’s energy usage and hydroelectricity for 37% (4, p. 19).  Iceland is a hotbed for geothermal research and Icelandic experts train scientists and engineers from developing nations on how to exploit geothermal energy in their own countries (5).  Thus, if by their reliance on international trade Iceland is guilty of importing unsustainability, by developing renewable energy technology and sharing this knowledge with the international community, Iceland is just as much commendable for exporting sustainability.
  The economic failures that have recently faced both Iceland and the rest of the world put our commitments to sustainability to the test.  In many ways the collapse bodes poorly for sustainability.  Less capital is available to invest in researching and advancing renewable energy. Iceland also faces the fateful choice between continuing its sustainable management of marine resources or overexploiting them for money to help their economy recover.  On the other hand, the collapse may serve as a reminder of the frailty of human institutions and how quickly things can go wrong if not carefully managed.  The Icelandic firm Audur Capital is an example of a company that has taken an approach to investing that emphasizes sustainability in the wake of the crisis (6).
Iceland has been a pioneer in the stewardship of renewable resources and the replacement of nonrenewable resources and has shown potential to retain its leadership even in the wake of an overwhelming economic crash.  Even so, Iceland remains deeply enmeshed in the fossil fuel dependent global economy.  Until renewable alternatives for fossil fuels are implemented worldwide, being the leader in sustainability is like being the fastest runner in the chain gang.

1.      Diamond. J. (2005). Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. New York: Penguin Group. p.197-210

2.      Eythórsson. E. (2000). A decade of ITQ-management in Icelandic fisheries: consolidation without consensus. Marine Policy. 24, 483-492.

3.      Brydon. A. (2006). The predicament of nature: Keiko the whale and the cultural politics of whaling in Iceland. Anthropological Quarterly. 79, 225-260.

4.      Lacy, T.G. (1998). Ring of seasons. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

5.      Andrésdóttir. Á. (2010). Pure power to the people. Iceland Review. 48, 28-34.

6.      Ertel. M. (2009). Iceland’s women reach for power. Spiegel Online International.,1518,620544,00.html

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