The Green Dilemma


Over the years Iceland’s heavy industry has caused much heated debate about the economic benefits of certain industries like the aluminum smelting business versus the cost to the country’s environment.

Most of this debate has focused around the construction of Kárahnjúkur dam, which is to provide hydropower to the Alcoa aluminum factory in Reydarfjördur in the east of the country, and the proposed expansion (since rejected) of the Alcan smelter in Straumsvík, southern Iceland.

Many argue that while aluminum plants are being run by pollution-free hydropower, they are simultaneously destroying the environment.

And there’s no end in sight to the debate. It was recently announced that although the residents rejected Alcan’s proposed expansion in a referendum in April, the aluminum smelting company is looking into a potential expansion on a landfill in the area on which the plant stands at Straumsvík.

This prospect, combined with the soon to be opened smelter in Húsavík in northeast Iceland and the proposed oil refinery in the Westfjords, have ensured that environmental campaigners will be busy for some time to come. Last weekend the environment protection group Saving Iceland began their “summer of dissent” action campaign with a two-day conference and workshop entitled “Global Consequences of Heavy Industry and Large Dams” in Selfoss, southern Iceland.

According to the group’s website, international speakers attended the event which was organized with the aim of “strengthening the ties between social movements around the world.”

The conference also happened to coincide with Live Earth, the international series of concerts held on seven continents to raise awareness of environmental issues. Earlier this year a local group tried to organize one of the concerts in Reykjavík but it was cancelled due to a lack of interest from the Icelandic government, as reported by Fréttabladid in May.

While the Live Earth concert organizers have received their fair share of questions about both the extent of the success the concerts have had on making viewers more environmentally aware, and the environmental impact of the event itself, questions can also be asked about the effectiveness of this week’s campaign by Saving Iceland.

But then again, how is success measured? If getting significant media coverage is a measure of this success then I’m afraid that Saving Iceland failed. I asked one of the members of Saving Iceland about their aims and measures of success for this week’s events, including Tuesday’s protest at Kringlan shopping mall:

“The aim of the conference was to raise awareness about the multinational companies that are operating in Iceland and around the world with disastrous consequences on the environment,” said Saving Iceland’s press contact, who requested anonymity. “The aim of direct action is to directly stop the work that is going on. The politicians aren’t doing it so we have to. [We are happy when we have] good cooperation among the group. Even if we are unsuccessful in the action, as long as we can learn from it we are successful.”

Some of Live Earth’s sponsors and performers were accused of hypocrisy for praising environmental protection while acting environmentally irresponsibly. According to an article in the Telegraph the emissions from Live Earth performer Madonna’s nine houses, fleet of cars and private jet have earned her the status of having one of the largest carbon footprints.

Her financial links to some of the world’s “biggest polluters” including Alcoa, which was ranked number nine on a list of all-time toxic companies by the University of Massachusetts’ political research institute in 2002, were also criticized. (Alcoa, however, says that they are committed to helping build “a healthier and more sustainable future both for the planet and its people”).

So this leaves another set of endless questions. Is it okay to use vast amounts of energy and generate potentially unnecessary waste in the hope that a fraction of the world’s population will adopt a greener lifestyle?

Although Live Earth claimed to be as energy efficient as possible, is that enough? And, is it okay to fly halfway around the world, thus dumping hundreds, if not thousands of kilos of CO2 into the atmosphere to attend a conference to bring awareness to the issue of looking after the environment?

Let’s call it a day for now.

ZR – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.