Bjork Worries for Iceland

Authors, musicians weigh in on the crisis.


Financial crisis soul-searching is coming from some unexpected corners lately:

Bj o rk, Iceland's rockingest pixie, blames big companies for bringing financial and environmental ruin to her beloved home, and she's making a tough argument for diversifying at a time when Iceland's economy is in tatters (it hiked interest rates to 18 percent today, as its currency plunges).

Writing in the Times of London, the artist, activist, and Matthew Barney consort calls on her homeland to turn away from overtures to build out its aluminum industry in favor of home-grown businesses. Her arguments sound sensible:

Iceland is a small country. We missed out on an industrial revolution and my hope was that we would skip it completely and go straight to sustainable hi-tech options. If anyone could achieve this, we could. There is a wonderful characteristic in the Icelandic mentality—fearlessness, with an addiction to risk-taking to the point of being foolhardy. In music-making, storytelling and creative thought, this risk-taking is a great thing. And after my introduction to a lot of Iceland's small, growing companies, I realise how many of them have shown this fearless approach either in biotechnology or high technology.

Icelanders are highly educated in advanced sciences. We have ORF, one of the best biogenetics company in the world; Ossur, an artificial limb-maker; CCP, a computer games maker, and so on. We also have a lot of doctors and health professionals. Because of the hundreds of naturally hot pools all over the island and our (so far) almost untouched nature, Iceland could easily become one big lush spa where people could come and nurse their wounds and relax. If only the Government could put its money into supporting these companies rather than serving Alcoa and Rio Tinto.

Flexibility is important: we will have to live with the three aluminium smelters that are here already and try to find ways of making them greener. But do we need five? In the past, having all our eggs in the same basket has proven far too risky, as we discovered in the days when we got 70 per cent of our income from fish. Now we are facing a disaster from betting everything on finance. If we build two more aluminium smelters, Iceland would become the biggest aluminium smelter in the world, and be known only for that. It would leave little room for anything else. If the price of aluminium falls - as it is doing - it would be catastrophic.

Iceland can be more self-sufficient and more creative—and still have an approach that is more 21st than 19th century. It can build fewer, smaller and greener dams. Let's use this economic crisis to become totally sustainable. Teach the world all we know about geothermal power plants. Support the Icelandic seed companies. Support the grass roots. It may take longer to build and deliver profits but it is solid, stable and something that will stand independently of the rollercoaster rides of Wall Street and volatile aluminium prices.

And it will help Iceland to remain what it is best at: being a gorgeous, untouched force of nature.

Also, Margaret Atwood, whose well-timed Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth was written before the subprime crisis, writes in the New York Times (as discussed in the Alpha Consumer Book Club!) about the human side of debt:

Debt—who owes what to whom, or to what, and how that debt gets paid—is a subject much larger than money. It has to do with our basic sense of fairness, a sense that is embedded in all of our exchanges with our fellow human beings.

But at some point we stopped seeing debt as a simple personal relationship. The human factor became diminished. Maybe it had something to do with the sheer volume of transactions that computers have enabled. But what we seem to have forgotten is that the debtor is only one twin in a joined-at-the-hip pair, the other twin being the creditor. The whole edifice rests on a few fundamental principles that are inherent in us.

We are social creatures who must interact for mutual benefit, and—the negative version—who harbor grudges when we feel we've been treated unfairly. Without a sense of fairness and also a level of trust, without a system of reciprocal altruism and tit-for-tat—one good turn deserves another, and so does one bad turn—no one would ever lend anything, as there would be no expectation of being paid back. And people would lie, cheat and steal with abandon, as there would be no punishments for such behavior.

And this:

As for what will happen to us next, I have no safe answers. If fair regulations are established and credibility is restored, people will stop walking around in a daze, roll up their sleeves and start picking up the pieces. Things unconnected with money will be valued more—friends, family, a walk in the woods. "I" will be spoken less, "we" will return, as people recognize that there is such a thing as the common good.

And lastly: Gawker rounds up the novels of economic collapse.

  • Kirk Shinkle

    Kirk Shinkle is a senior editor for U.S. News Money and manages the Best Funds portal. Follow him on Twitter @KirkS or email him at

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