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Icing on the cake

By
September 6, 2007

Welcome to one of the world’s remote corners, an environmental treasure and a living test of whether man’s commitment to preserving this earth is written in concrete or in sand.

Iceland is Mother Nature doing the samba in shades of black and gray. It’s a rocking, rolling, moving, shifting agglomeration of tectonic plates colliding into one another, crashing, cracking, rescinding, recharging and coming back for destructive re-engagement after destructive reload. It’s a concoction of exploding geysers, tumbling waterfalls and gloomy, looming basalt, foreboding towers of dark rock, of lunar-like landscapes and peat-bog-covered plains.

The country’s marketing commitment to the great outdoors is evident in an ad campaign by 660 North Ltd., manufacturer of superlative outdoor clothing. The firm touts itself on its Web site as “a leading producer and innovator in the making of working clothes used on sea and land, made for the toughest outdoor working conditions on the planet” — and the advertising copywriters are not kidding.

This is an environment that tests the limits of man’s existence. I highly commend to you the fashion photos on the Web site (www.66north.com), showing pale-skinned, blond waifs (male and female) staring blankly into the camera with stark, austere peaks and other scenes in the background, covered by Iceland’s typically thick, gloomy clouds of dark gray.

In some ways the country not only talks the environmental talk, but also walks the walk. Take, for example, its widespread use of geothermal and hydropower. According to the office of the minister of industry and commerce, more than one-quarter, or 26.5 percent, of electricity generation in Iceland is produced by harvesting geothermal resources. Almost all the rest, or 73.4 percent, comes from hydropower. A mere 0.1 percent is generated by fossil fuels, a minimal dependency on oil and coal that the rest of the Western world envies.

Legend has it that when Iceland’s first Nordic settler sighted land in the late ninth century, he (one Ingolfur Arnarson) threw the pillars of his high seat overboard and relied on the gods to direct him to where he should settle. Arnarson’s slaves found them washed ashore in a bay where smoke rose from the ground. They named the settlement “Reykjavik,” or “Smoky Bay,” after the smoke that rose from the earth not as a product of fire but from geothermal hot springs, which dot much of this barren landscape more than a millennium later.

As a result of this rich environmental legacy, Iceland remains one of the least oil-dependent Western nations. Would that Iceland took the same wise approach to its stewardship of the sea bounty.

Late last month, Iceland issued a smart environmental policy decision, but for all the wrong reasons. The country lifted — temporarily, at least — its much-maligned “quota” of whales. That means it decided not to allow fishermen to continue slaughtering these thinking, feeling treasures that, by man’s greediness, have been pushed to the limits of extinction. Why?

The reason offered was there’s no longer “a market” for whale meat.

Last year, Iceland contravened Western nations’ collective decision to “save the whales” by allowing its greedy fishing fleet to slaughter up to 30 minke whales and nine fin whales per year. That move controversially ended a ban in place since 1986.

Iceland’s environmental decision-making on whale slaughter was sloppy and selfish for several reasons. First, officials should not have temporarily lifted the “quota” (which allows whale hunting) due to a crash in market demand. The market for whale meat died because the rest of the world (except for Japan) is boycotting this inhumane produce. Iceland, of all nations, should recognize the value of these creatures, since many of its citizens make a living by hosting whale-watching tours. I took one myself this week, and the crew sadly reported there have been fewer whales to watch this summer.

Perhaps if Iceland’s officials wisely put the eco-tourism value of whales above slaughter value, they would have made the slaughter-ban permanent and for the right reasons instead of the wrong ones. The country still has time to walk the walk while talking the talk.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)