Mar 27 2004

The Icelandic Rift Industry Versus Natural Splendor in a “Progressive” Nation by Jon Swan

Dimmugljúfur - Dark Canyon at Kárahnjúkar

Orion Magazine
March / April 2004

An important article which provides useful historical background.

Glaciers, geysers, fast-rushing salmon rivers, whale-watching, bird-watching — Bjork! One could easily add to the list of identifying characteristics of Iceland, an island nation that exploded out of the mid-Atlantic some twenty million years ago. Geopolitically, the country is considered part of Europe (although, like Norway, it’s not a member of the European Union). Geologically, it is ambivalent, resting (or unresting) on two tectonic plates: the North American and the Eurasian. Both are on the move. The American plate is slipping to the west, the Eurasian to the east. The split widens at the rate of about two centimeters a year. In the rift valley of Thingvellir, where the world’s first parliament was held around the year 930, you can look down into the watery depths of this split. You can straddle it.

It is altogether an unusual country, with thousands of acres of dark sands and lava and glaciers, which cover nearly 12 percent of the landmass. It is a country in which many people believe in elves, in which contractors will reroute roads to respect the “hidden people’s” ancient claims, and in which a pre-Christian religion has found a growing following. It is a land where one senses the vitality of chthonic forces, the geological demiurges that crack and fracture the tectonic plates and finally, as if losing their temper with the status quo, blow their tops and let all hell break loose. Indeed, during the Middle Ages, one or another of Iceland’s volcanoes was reputed to be the portal of hell.

It was during the Middle Ages, too, that Iceland, whose people made a hardscrabble living by fishing and farming and seal-hunting, fell under the control first of Norway, then of Denmark, from which it won full independence only as recently as 1944. If, for centuries, Iceland was what today would be considered a third-world country, it is now very much a first-world country. Roughly the size of Virginia and with a population of about 285,000, Iceland is renowned for its high rate of literacy: 100 percent, according to the government. Its per-capita publication of books and periodicals is the highest in the world, and its living standard, which includes quality of life, ranks among the world’s highest as well. All of which make it surprising that a majority of the country’s adult population supported a giant construction project, approved by Parliament last March, that will sacrifice an irreplaceable wilderness in eastern Iceland in the name of foreign investment.

In a sense, Kipling’s line “East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet” is applicable to Iceland. Eastern Iceland, separated from the populous, industrialized west by the virtually uninhabited central highlands, with their geothermal hot spots and lakes and austerely beautiful stretches of lava and sand, has for decades relied on its fish-processing plants situated on the East Fjords to provide jobs. For decades, the region’s politicians, sitting in Parliament or occupying ministerial positions on the other side of the country, in Reykjavik, have been promising to bring heavy industry to the east, with the dual purpose of providing more jobs and stemming the exodus of young people. Traditionally, the youth have headed to what might be called Greater Reykjavik, where more than half of the country’s population lives. Eastern Iceland has a population of only about 12,000.

Until recently, the high country above the East Fjords was largely terra incognita, traversed only by the occasional intrepid trekker and by farmers grazing their sheep. But the government saw a hidden opportunity, and devised a plan to dam this highland region’s mighty glacial-melt rivers. It even had a name for it — the Land’s Biggest Dream (the initials spell out LSD in Icelandic). For years, young people dismissed the idea as nothing more than a pipe dream of their elders. But a number of these elders have risen up through the ranks to assume positions of great political power, and now that dream has become a reality. Meanwhile, groups of conservation-minded Icelanders have coalesced to try to prevent the wild rivers, vast wetlands, and pristine highlands of eastern Iceland from being industrialized.

When Norse settlers arrived in Iceland one thousand years ago, they encountered an island covered by vegetation, including woodlands. It took the settlers and their livestock only a couple of centuries to destroy the groundcover. Not surprisingly, then, the conservation movement began in Iceland as soil conservation, and the debate in the early years of the twentieth century centered on such issues as whether green grass and beautiful forests (which would have to be planted) or dark sands and gray lava best signified Iceland. Near the end of the century, a new generation of more politically active conservationists began tackling a range of new issues, including the government’s industrialization and dam building. By the 1990s, environmentalists were viewed as a threat to government-sponsored development schemes involving billions of dollars. That threat remained a major source of tension in what came to be called the Battle of the Highlands.

The battle was waged on two fronts as the National Power Company, in which the government owns a majority share, plotted first to build a dam that would drown the vast Eyjabakkar wetlands in eastern Iceland, and, subsequently, to drown a place called Karahnjukar — a high plateau region riven by Iceland’s equivalent of America’s Grand Canyon. The two regions are only a few miles apart; their strong rivers flow from the same glacier. Both are the habitat of large herds of wild reindeer and the feeding and nesting grounds of vast flocks of wildfowl, including the endangered pink-footed goose.

Iceland’s conservationists argued that the highlands should be preserved as a national park. Doing so, they argued, would not only be good for the country’s environment, for its quality of life, and for posterity; it would also provide jobs for locals and benefit the country’s booming tourism industry (in 2002, tourism and heavy industry were tied as income producers, each accounting for 13 percent of the country’s foreign currency earnings). They had a name for it: the National Park of Fire and Ice, a reference to the volcanic action that shaped the region, and to the glacier that dominates the area, Vatnajokull. Extending across three thousand square miles in the southeast corner of the country, the glistening icecap, which conceals several active volcanoes, is the largest glacier in Europe.

Two giant aluminum companies figured in this struggle, the one stepping in when the other stepped away from entering a partnership with the National Power Company. The first was a Norwegian multinational, Norsk Hydro; the second, an American multinational, Alcoa. The utility offered first one, then the other, a hydropower project to fuel a new smelter. Almost everything related to the final version of the project calls for superlatives. The 630-foot dam that would impound a great wilderness river would be Europe’s highest. The wilderness that would be lost is the largest pristine region not only in Iceland, but in all of Western Europe. The canyon that cleaves the area, carved by the glacier over the eons, is both the country’s deepest and “Iceland’s most dramatic,” according to the national utility company whose ambitious plans entail drowning the first fourteen miles of the canyon.

Nor do the superlatives stop there. Alcoa, the foreign investor for whom the wilderness would be sacrificed, is the world’s largest aluminum company. The aluminum smelter it plans to build, with an annual capacity of 322,000 tons, would be the largest in Iceland. A January 2003 Alcoa press release described the construction of the smelter as “the most extensive single investment in the history of Iceland.” Alcoa’s investment will come to $1.1 billion. Then there’s Iceland’s $3 billion investment in building the hydropower project, which The New York Times described as “an undertaking so big it equals nearly a third of the country’s gross domestic product.”

Big is perhaps too small a word for this project, which requires the damming and diversion of not only one major river, but two; and requires, in addition to the giant dam, eight smaller ones; and not just one reservoir, but three. The largest reservoir would put twenty-two square miles of tundra under water. Miles of roads would be built, as well as a twenty-four-mile tunnel, through which the impounded water would be carried to an underground power plant, which would transmit electricity to the Alcoa smelter on the side of a fjord some forty-five miles to the east.

This project, the epitome of the ambitious LSD, has reflected the national utility”s overall strategy for industrializing Iceland’s economy: Sell cheap hydroelectricity to foreign investors. By 1998, when it was still negotiating with Norsk Hydro over the dream for East Iceland, the National Power Company was already supplying hydropower to Canadian and Swiss aluminum smelters in western Iceland. The most vocal of the groups that opposed the dam-the-rivers, full-speed-ahead policy was the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, or INCA, founded in 1997. The World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic Programme, based in Oslo, backed the fledgling organization, providing it with just enough money — about forty-five thousand dollars a year — to pay the salary and expenses of a director, its sole paid staff member.

In the summer of 1998, Gudmundur Pall Olafsson, a founding member of the INCA, made a purely personal protest against the power company’s assault on the nation’s natural resources. I had met Olafsson, age sixty-two, more than a dozen years earlier while traveling on a Guggenheim Fellowship, studying how Nordic people lived around the time the sons and a daughter of Erik the Red began setting out from Greenland to explore the coast of new lands to the west, which they called Vinland. In Sweden I met a man who said I must meet Olafsson, who had studied marine biology in Stockholm and was now teaching and writing on an island in the West Fjords; his telephone number was 8. I took the ferry to the island, called the number 8, and we have been close friends ever since.

The author of several highly regarded books about Iceland’s geology, birdlife, and nature, Olafsson had trekked into the country’s interior and been struck by the beauty of a region that the National Power Company had consigned to drowning in anticipation of a need for additional hydropower for the Canadian or Swiss smelters. It was a geothermal area, bubbling with hot springs and carpeted with plant life that thrives only in such places. The reservoir was starting to fill when Olafsson arrived on July 18, 1998. Donning a rubber suit, he waded out into the fast-flowing, ice-cold, one-hundred-meter-wide river until he reached a point that was still above water — and there planted a big Icelandic flag, at half mast, “in sign of mourning, for all time, the loss of this unique and beautiful part of our country.”

As luck would have it, a television crew, sent to document the filling of the reservoir, arrived while the flag still fluttered above the surface, providing a dramatic shot, lacking only the perpetrator. Following a tip, the crew caught up with the naturalist-turned-activist and interviewed him. The interview led the evening news. In the following days and weeks, the print and broadcast media started to explore the government’s dams-for-industry program. In September, Iceland’s leading daily, Morgunbladid, ran two major articles, one on the Eyjabakkar wetlands, the other on the Karahnjukar area — “probably the first time the area was shown and explained to the public,” one of the paper’s reporters later told me.

At about the same time, state-owned television aired a three-part documentary that featured an interview with Olafsson up at the flooded geothermal site and negative testimony from Norwegians about their country’s dam building. It also contained footage of Jormundur Ingi, head of Iceland’s growing pre-Christian religion known as Asatru, which carries on the traditions of the “wights,” the hidden people, beings “that live in every rock and everywhere in nature,” as Ingi has characterized them. The documentary showed him blessing a remote highlands area targeted by the government’s dam-building program.

But this coverage turned out to be a high point in the press’s performance, which thereafter became devoid of enterprising reporting on the industrialization of Iceland’s wilderness. The documentary, which raised cogent questions about the government’s policies, apparently angered the powers that be. As Omar Ragnarsson, the veteran documentarian who had spent months on the project, explained to me: “I was told that I should not touch this issue. Pressure was put on me in a very clever way, via friends outside television who told me confidentially, off the record, what consequences it could have for me if I did this.” As it turned out, Ragnarsson, now sixty-five, would receive no assignments for documentary work over the next several years, during which the government aggressively advanced its dam-building projects.

The government’s assault on the highlands of eastern Iceland began at Eyjabakkar — the mountain-rimmed oasis northeast of the great glacier Vatnajokull. In June of 1998, Norsk Hydro expressed interest in building an aluminum smelter to be fueled with electricity from the National Power Company’s proposed dam, which would flood the region’s vast wetlands. The campaign ran into unexpectedly fierce resistance, often from unexpected quarters. For example, when Parliament opened in October 1998, members got a sermon from the chaplain about the need for humans to take care of Mother Earth. A month later, a protest meeting billed as “Saving the Highlands” drew a standing-room-only audience in the University of Iceland’s largest auditorium. Newspapers in January reported that 66 percent of those polled were opposed to building more reservoirs. And on Earth Day 1999, Bishop Karl Sigurbjornsson, head of the National Church of Iceland, told the nation in a televised interview: “My heart tells me that this land must not be destroyed.”

But Iceland’s political spectrum also contained less earth-friendly sentiment: A segment of the populace distrusted environmentalists, especially activists — an attitude forged over the years as Americans and Europeans protested against Iceland’s longstanding whale- and seal-hunting industries. In 1986, an antiwhaling group called Sea Shepherd sank two whaling ships in Reykjavik harbor, touching a sensitive nerve among a people whose ancestors lived off the sea. One of Sea Shepherd’s founders had been a founding member of Greenpeace, which rejected the use of violent means. But politicians conflated the two groups whenever it suited their interests. And INCA Director Arni Finnsson had worked with Greenpeace in Amsterdam before assuming his post in 1997; this connection was frequently used to smear him as an “ecoterrorist” or worse.

The government had no qualms about exploiting this fear and hostility. In June of 1999, Iceland hosted four other NATO nations — the U.S., the U.K., Denmark, and the Netherlands — in a military exercise called Northern Viking 99. In such exercises, the host nation is customarily allowed to define the hypothetical enemy; Iceland’s defense ministry chose to define the enemy as a band of militant ecoterrorists.

In the new year, 2000, the battleground shifted when Norsk Hydro concluded that it needed a much larger aluminum smelter than originally planned, and would thus need more power than could be obtained from damming the Eyjabakkar wetlands. A dam higher up, at Karahnjukar, with its greater, faster-flowing rivers, could provide the power required for the smelter far below, at fjordside. And so, in May, the government signed a memorandum of understanding for this vast new undertaking, shifting the focus to the canyon-cleft plateau of Karahnjukar.

At this point, the National Power Company had to prepare an environmental impact assessment, a process that would drag on for more than a year. Throughout that time, opposition to the project remained strong, but the government kept pushing its line that Iceland would be doing the world a favor by producing a light, fuel-saving, environmentally friendly product in an environmentally friendly way. Aluminum was “a green product,” as more than one Icelandic official told me, and in Iceland it would be produced by “a green power,” hydroelectric. Prime Minister David Oddsson made the case to me this way: “If aluminum is not produced in Iceland, it will be produced elsewhere in a smelter powered by coal.” In short, by inviting aluminum companies to do their smelting in Iceland, the government would be helping the world. Iceland’s Foreign Minister Halldor Asgrimsson said as much in an address to the country’s parliament: “If the rest of the world were in a position to operate energy-intensive industry as it is run in Iceland, with renewable energy and best-available technology, a giant leap would have been taken toward combating climate change.”

Renewable energy! This mantra, used reflexively by politicians and journalists, reflected no regard for what stood to be lost — wild rivers, wetlands, habitat of endangered species of animal and plant life, a geological record laid down in eons of sediment.

The citing of “renewable energy” also allowed perhaps an even crueler irony. The previous summer, Iceland, which relies heavily on geothermal power, had negotiated an exemption from the Kyoto Protocol regarding fossil fuel emissions. The exemption allows new large-scale industrial plants built in the country to emit up to 1.6 million tons per annum of carbon dioxide. As a result, Alcoa could operate its smelter without having to pay penalties for its CO2 emissions, which occur during a stage of the smelting process known as electrolysis. An Alcoa official confirmed those emissions would total about 600,000 tons each year.

Then came Earth Day 2001. In New York, Iceland’s dapper prime minister, David Oddsson, accepted an award from Green Cross International for the government’s plan to use hydro and geothermal power to produce hydrogen fuel cells in all forms of transportation by 2040. The Global Green USA award, Oddsson said, would serve to make people aware that Iceland was “miles ahead when it comes to the utilization of renewable power,” adding, “Seventy percent of the power created and used [in Iceland] comes from renewable sources.”

A couple of days after the ceremony, I received an e-mail from Gudmundur Pall Olafsson commenting on the event: “I have in front of me the April 25 edition of Morgunbladid which says, ‘Under the direction of David Oddsson, Iceland has been far in the lead in the use of renewable energy and taken giant strides to hinder greenhouse climate changes.’ Meanwhile, the government of Iceland is breaking twenty-year-old agreements with the State Board of Conservation, Iceland’s law of Nature Protection, and the Ramsar Treaty [on Wetlands]. Nothing holds. Global Green has awarded this government for destroying immensely valuable habitat and encouraged them to destroy the highlands of Iceland. Will the next Global Green prize go to the government of Brazil for the destruction of the Amazon? For the wetlands that are under siege by this government are our Amazon, just as the canyon they want to drown at Karahnjukar is our Grand Canyon.”

In August, Iceland’s independent State Planning Agency, mandated to review the National Power Company’s environmental impact assessment for the Karahnjukar project, essentially sided with Olafsson. “It has not been demonstrated,” the agency wrote in rejecting the assessment, “that the gains resulting from the proposed development of the Karahnjukar Power Plant would be such to compensate for the substantial, irreversible negative impact that the project would foreseeably have on the natural environment.”

This conclusion infuriated the government. As the British publication The Ecologist reported, “the decision has been heavily attacked by Iceland’s Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and Minister for Industry, who also questioned the integrity of the agency’s staff.” National opinion polls taken that summer showed a country split right down the middle on the Karahnjukar project, with 50 percent in favor, and 50 percent against.

It was now up to the environmental minister to decide whether to accept this ruling as final. She did not. In late December, she approved the project, subject to a few conditions.

At that point, no obstacle seemed to remain in the way of the government’s Karahnjukar scheme. Then, in March 2002, much to everyone’s surprise and to the glee of the conservationists, Norsk Hydro backed out, citing a “strategic re-evaluation” of its investment plans.

In early April, in an effort to ease the way for whatever company might replace Norsk Hydro as an energy consumer, Iceland’s Parliament passed an enabling bill allowing the construction and operation of the Karahnjukar project. A part of a much-ballyhooed master plan for hydro and geothermal energy resources, which was supposed to serve as the basis for parliamentary and domestic debate, had been published some weeks before. But its findings were totally ignored in the rush to get the bill passed.

On April 19, little more than a week after Parliament passed the Karahnjukar enabling bill, scarcely a month after Norsk Hydro stepped away from the project, Alcoa stepped forward, expressing interest in signing on as partner with Iceland and its National Power Company. A final decision on the deal was announced on January 10, 2003.

In a press release explaining its interest in building the smelter, Alcoa cited “escalating energy and labor costs” in the United States. It also could have cited the chance to avoid Kyoto penalties on CO2 emissions. But most important, like other aluminum companies in Iceland, Alcoa would receive electricity at a bargain-basement price pegged to the rise and fall of the market price of the product. In other words, taxpayers would soften any impact Alcoa might suffer from market downturns-at a time when economists reported slumping prices. The rate the utility will charge Alcoa, and therefore the exact amount to be subsidized by taxpayers, remains a secret.

At the time of the Alcoa deal, polls showed a still-divided nation. While 61 percent favored the building of an aluminum plant in eastern Iceland, only 50 percent favored the Karahnjukar dam project, with 32 percent opposed, and the rest uncertain. However, another poll, sponsored by the INCA, found that 65 percent of respondents favored a national park.

Late that summer, Morgunbladid once again after a two-year hiatus sent a photographer out to the highland plateau north of Vatnajokull. His photos ran three successive Sundays under the heading “The Land that Disappears.” These dramatic photos may well have contributed to the sense that something irreplaceable was now truly doomed. In any event, the mood in Reykjavik became highly charged. In late September, a few days before Iceland’s Parliament reconvened, the president’s stepdaughter, a sculptor named Erla Thorarinsdottir, wrapped the statue of Iceland’s equivalent of George Washington, which dominates Parliament Square, in aluminum foil to protest Alcoa’s signing on with the National Power Company. On October 1, by which time the statue had been stripped of its foil, hundreds of protestors, many of them wearing aluminum masks, gathered in front of the Parliament building to “welcome” members of Parliament as they marched in solemn procession following a service at the Lutheran Church. On October 7, the mother of pop singer Bjork started a hunger strike, and held out for a full three weeks.

Throughout November and December, opponents of the dam waged a steady campaign of protests, demonstrations, and calls for a national park. The ferocity of the government’s response to its critics reached a high point on December 10, when the head of the National Power Company’s board of directors said that nature conservation associations posed a threat to democracy in Iceland.

On January 10, 2003, Alcoa’s board of directors approved plans for the construction of its $1.1 billion aluminum smelter. Four days later, the City Council of Reykjavik, a 45-percent shareholder in the National Power Company, met to vote on whether to guarantee the loan to construct the hydropower project. More than a thousand protestors gathered outside Reykjavik’s city hall, chanting, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” The council voted nine to five in favor, with one abstention. One member who voted no cited “intolerable damage to the nature of Iceland.”

All along the way, the council had a chance to heed warnings about the viability and safety of the project. The Iceland Nature Conservation Association had sponsored studies, for example, estimating that Norsk Hydro’s project would result in annual losses of well over $10 million. Meanwhile, in other research conducted for the INCA, a respected geologist warned that the rock bed on which the dam would be built was heavily fractured, and that planners had failed to evaluate the hazards of a nearby volcano. But these critical studies, funded by an activist organization, lay buried under an avalanche of newspaper reports, the majority of which reflected the government’s point of view.

Even at this late date, with the deal seemingly closed, those who opposed the dam refused to give up the fight. In mid-February, a crowd even larger than the one that had gathered in front of city hall marched down the main street in Reykjavik and surrounded the Parliament building, demanding a national referendum on the Karahnjukar project. The following day, the National Power Company began dynamiting up at the dam site.

Then a curious thing happened. On Sunday February 23, well after prime time, state television aired a documentary titled “In Memoriam?” about national parks in Iceland and abroad, which included dramatic footage of the Karahnjukar area. Its producer? Omar Ragnarsson, the photojournalist who earlier had been warned off pursuing the Karahnjukar story. Why those in charge of the state television network allowed the hour-and-three-quarters-long documentary remains a mystery.

“I was under an enormous pressure not to make this film and was threatened in various ways,” said Ragnarsson, a grandfather of eighteen children who said he sold his car and other possessions to finance the project. “But I could not bear the thought to run away from the issue.”

And so a series of breathtaking images showing a potential national park extending north of Vatnajokull finally made the air — after the government had done its best to ensure the park could never be realized. On March 5, Parliament gave its final stamp of approval, by a vote of forty-one to nine. Ten days later, Alcoa finalized its agreement with Iceland’s government and the National Power Company. The country no longer stood at a crossroads: It had chosen a direction, from which there was no turning back.

In conversation and correspondence, Icelanders have offered a number of explanations for the sacrifice of Karahnjukar. Some assert that government pressure on academics and journalists resulted in the suppression of reports that raised questions about the economic and geological risks involved in the scheme. “Scientists and other specialists who did not believe in or had doubts about the project were swiftly denounced by [the National Power Company] and the Ministry of Industry,” said Gudmundur Pall Olafsson. “The threat was in the air that they would lose their jobs and not be available for others”. The political air here smells that if you are not with us you might be branded as ‘anti-state.'” University of Akureyri professor Ingolfur Johannesson, who has written studies of press coverage during these contentious years, downplays the role of government in manipulating or intimidating the press; as he sees it, the press censored itself.

Then, too, the conservationists found it hard to show that a national park would provide as many jobs as a giant aluminum smelter would, at least in the short term, during construction. Furthermore, financial constraints kept the most activist conservation organization, the INCA, from adequately reaching the public with its point of view. Indeed, the INCA was so short of funds that it didn’t even have a website until 2000, in the midst of the battle. It also could afford to pay for only occasional TV spots — not enough to offset the rhetoric of jobs, “renewable energy,” global stewardship, and the branding of the opposition as “anti-state.” One must also take into account the fact that the government manipulated public opinion by targeting environmentalists, especially an ex-Greenpeace activist, as “ecoterrorists.”

Then there is the land itself, so much of it lava, sand, glacier “empty.” What environmentalists saw as wilderness, Iceland’s older generation of farmers and fishers saw as barren wasteland, and many of their descendants retain this attitude. If the empty land could be used, it should be used; there was plenty of it. As Iceland’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist Halldor Laxness wrote in 1970 in The War Against the Land, the roots of Iceland’s environmentalism are urban: “The idea that nature is beautiful does not flow from farmers, but from people living in the large cities of our time and finally reached Iceland through Germany through Denmark in the times of our grandfathers.”

Although the Battle of the Highlands appears to be over, it is not. For, even as the giant earthmovers ground their way over the tundra, even as dynamite charges blew down cliffs and ridges, as the reshaping of the Karahnjukar landscape got under way in the summer of 2003, a number of individuals and organizations, foreign and domestic, refused to concede.

Chief among the non-Icelandic institutions is Berkeley, California-based International Rivers Network (IRN), which picked up on the battle in 2001. IRN’s policy director, Peter Bosshard, flew to Iceland to learn more about the situation, discuss strategy, and to create a coalition of the like-minded, which has written to banks and public financial institutions urging them not to finance Karahnjukar. At least one financial institution has pulled out, apparently in response.

Among the individuals, one might single out Gudmundur Pall Olafsson, who poured all his energy into producing a book that documents the landscape and its flora and fauna, which was published in the summer of 2003.

And then there is the dauntless pilot-photographer Omar Ragnarsson, who worked all summer to edit his documentary for a Swedish film festival, after its coordinator told him Karahnjukar represented “the worst environmental scandal in Europe in a 100 years.” Ragnarsson, who was awarded Iceland’s equivalent to a Pulitzer for his reporting, points out that the vast majority of ecological damage would occur in late 2006, when mud and water are to pour into the Hjalladalur Valley south of Karahnjukar. “The situation now can be compared to a decision to burn down a large museum, [where] only a small fire has been set to a room in the cellar,” he said, pledging to reveal, through his work, “the loss and damage the fire will do if we do not stop it.”
The Faxi waterfall is on one of several East Iceland rivers to be channeled into a giant hydroelectric plant. Photograph (detail) | Enrico Ferorelli

JON SWAN has written on environmental issues for On-Earth and Smithsonian and is the author of two collections of poems and a collection of one-act plays. He lives in New Marlborough, Massachusetts.

Photo by Enrico Ferorelli