Jan 31 2006

State TV Host Growls One Night and Fawns the Next


On 5 January Icelandic State TV host Kristján Kristjánsson interviewed Damon Albarn in the news programme Kastljos. The following night Kristjánsson interviewed the Minister of Industry Valgerður Sverrisdóttir. Below, for comparison, are the transcripts of both interviews and an analysis of the contents.

Interview with Damon Albarn:

Intro: Announcer points out that Damon Albarn “was a pop star in the late 1990s”, and will be playing a concert with Björk on January 7. (A curious introduction, as Damon Albarn’s band Gorillaz was both one of the best-selling and most critically acclaimed bands of 2005.)

Kristján Kristjánsson: Are you very much involved in these issues, nature conservatism [sic]?

Damon Albarn: This is actually the first kind of event that I’ve been involved in, but I’m definitely active in quite a few areas.

Kristján Kristjánsson: But not in this particular area or anywhere else?

Damon Albarn: No, I think in Britain we’ve virtually destroyed our countryside anyway. What’s being done here should have been done 50 years ago in Britain and was never even considered, really. I think the interesting thing about this is that Iceland is such a beautifully preserved piece of nature. That is something very tangible that we’re talking about. In Britain it’s just kind of little bits and yeah, we’ve got preservation orders on what’s left of Britain. Compared to Iceland it’s almost irrelevant.

Kristján Kristjánsson: Is this an issue you feel strongly about?

Damon Albarn: Well, yeah, I think amongst friends in Iceland it’s been a discussion point for many years. I remember before the first aluminium factory was built and I’ve sort of really watched it grow. And like most of these things, once they’re there for a while, people just sort of accept that they’re part of the landscape, and I think what people need to do is not accept that in this case. Actually really say, “No, we don’t accept that.”

Kristján Kristjánsson: But you’re a little bit too late, aren’t you, protesting, because the undertakings are so well underway?

Damon Albarn: Yeah they are, but speaking as a frequent visitor, a sort of migratory bird, I think it sends a really bad message to people who want to come here that things like this are happening. I don’t know how much Iceland values its tourist trade, but it’s certainly sold on the fantastic nature, of the people and the place. I think that this will be harmed dramatically if this goes ahead. And you can stop things like this. I was heavily involved with the Stop the War campaign and we managed to get two million people to march in London, but our biggest mistake at the time is that we didn’t do it again. We thought we had achieved our goal but really it has to be a relentless thing. So this concert on Saturday I’m sure will garner a lot of new support and open people’s eyes to what potentially could happen. But it needs to be ongoing because government’s don’t change their policy from one event. It needs to be a relentless thing.

Kristján Kristjánsson: Yeah, of course, but we’ve had this discussion for years now; should we preserve the nature or should we or build a big power plant –

Damon Albarn: I know but it’s just a ridiculous argument, isn’t it?

Kristján Kristjánsson: Try telling that to the people who are getting new jobs, building new houses *–

Damon Albarn: But what’s always struck me about Iceland is the people are very inventive people. Surely you can find another source of development other than destroying the one thing that you’ve got that’s unique?

Kristján Kristjánsson: Which is the nature, you mean?

Damon Albarn: Yeah.

Kristján Kristjánsson: Do you meet many people in London, or Britain let’s say, who know about this at all?

Damon Albarn: I don’t think anyone’s aware of it.

Kristján Kristjánsson: No?

Damon Albarn: No.

Kristján Kristjánsson: It’s not something people discuss?

Damon Albarn: Well, it really wouldn’t be a blip on our kind of radar as far as news is concerned because, you know, it’s all about Iraq and terrorism. But this is another form of destruction, and it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s really depressing. I’ve been coming here since 1997. I’ve built a house here. My daughter’s been coming here since she was a baby. And I hate the idea that any sort of legacy that I’m going to leave her is going to end up somewhat tainted by greed.

Kristján Kristjánsson: But don’t you think that most people would consider this just an argument from sort of a young, rather wealthy man who lives in a big city somewhere else and just doesn’t understand the needs of the people who live on the eastern coast of Iceland?

Damon Albarn: Well, you could say that about anything that I get involved with. I didn’t understand the needs of the Iraqi people, but I felt very passionately about that. I felt it was absolutely the wrong thing for my country. I don’t really like to stand as a representative of my own country; I like to be a representative of people and I don’t think anyone would advocate something like this, really. Our future is dependent on our management of it. This is bad management. You’ll lose something that you’ll never retrieve, and the soul of Iceland will in some way be sort of darkened by it.

*Mr. Kristjánsson suggests, in his tone and language, that locals in the east of Iceland are getting jobs and buying houses. A study of the Icelandic Institute of Statistics indicates that the native-born population of the east and especially northeast of Iceland has fled during the construction of the Kárahnjúkar dam. In other words, only a few people are getting houses, and those are not the same people who are getting jobs — the vast majority of the newly employed are foreigners, and those who are Icelandic are rarely from the section of the country in which the dam is being built. Therefore, Kristján’s response to Damon Albarn is extremely misleading.

Interview with Minister of Industry, Valgerður Sverrisdóttir:

Kristján Kristjánsson: Is there a change of heart among the public regarding environmental issues? I get the feeling there is a large group of people who is reaching the ears of MPs with their viewpoint on preserving the environment?

Valgerður Sverrisdóttir: It is good that people generally consider themselves to be environmentalists. I consider myself to be an environmentalist. Even if some people think that I am not, like your guest last night, who seems to believe that all I do is travel around the country and point out where we should dam or build aluminium smelters. That’s not how it is. But there is a lot of interest in the environmental issues, we have a very beautiful country that we should not spoil of course.

Kristján Kristjánsson: But which we are spoiling on grand scale?

Valgerður Sverrisdóttir: But we are, to some extent. In order to harness the water power, the effects of that can be seen on nature. Without question. It is always a question of picking and choosing. As for eastern Iceland, for example, I dare people who are against Kárahnjúkar dam and the aluminium smelter to go to the eastern part of Iceland, to witness the energy within the society there. To see what is happening there. It is a new life for people there.

Kristján Kristjánsson: How do you answer what some people have called sentimental arguments*, and I noticed that Independence Party MP Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson said that it was time to pay more attention to these arguments than we have before. How do you answer when people simply appeal to their love of the country, the untouched nature, that people believe to be our greatest asset?

Valgerður Sverrisdóttir: Like I said before, we have to pick and choose. We are not spoiling nature for the fun of it. If we decide it is right to use hydroelectric power to create jobs, to use this green energy that we have a lot of, then that is also a viewpoint. We are getting attention all over the world for being environmentally friendly. I am talking about how we use reusable energy, we are producing hydrogen, we are binding greenhouse gasses**, we have just been awarded for that in Toronto recently. These viewpoints are all too seldom heard. Keep in mind, if we built an aluminium factory in Iceland that uses green energy, then the amount of greenhouse gasses released is almost ten times more if it is built outside of Iceland and powered by coal***. So if we think globally, which is considered to be a good way to think nowadays, then Iceland is an ideal place to build aluminium smelters****.

Kristján Kristjánsson: Perhaps not for the people who live here?

Valgerður Sverrisdóttir: Why not? I was on a visit today at the aluminium smelter in Straumsvík, I met a lot of people who have worked for 20-30 years. The turnover rate of employees is very good. People are very happy to be working there. It is the same way in Hvalfjörður and it is going to be the same way in Reyðarfjörður. So we should not talk down to these workplaces that are in fact very good workplaces. And we need diversity in our employment market. I think there are all too few people that are thinking about the employment market as whole, including the MPs. We want to live a good life here in Iceland and in order to do that we need strong companies, and the aluminium companies are really strong companies*****.

While Damon Albarn did not intentionally mislead or misstate facts, there are four clear cases, all unchallenged by the interviewer, in which Valgerður Sverrisdóttir misstated facts.

* Kristján employs the celebrated Fox News method, using “some people” instead of citing a source when introducing a biased description. We have always argued that the Kárahnjúkar dam project is an environmental and economic disaster for Iceland — we have never stated that it is a “sentimental” one.

**Iceland, at present, releases minimal greenhouse gasses. This will change as the economy turns to heavy industry — by definition, smelting aluminium produces greenhouse gasses. Specifically, aluminium smelting produces large amounts of carbon dioxide and the PFC CF4. According to the International Aluminium Institute, “On average the smelting process itself is responsible per tonne of aluminium for the production of 1.7 tonnes of CO2 (from the consumption of the carbon anodes) and the equivalent of an additional 2 tonnes of CO2 from PFC emissions. PFCs are potent global warming gases as compared to carbon dioxide and have long atmospheric lifetimes. For example one kg of PFC (CF4) is equivalent to 6500 kg of CO2.” (For more information, view the Aluminium and Climate Change Report from the International Aluminium Institute at www.world-aluminium.com.)

***This assumption depends on two misleading concepts: 1) that only in Iceland will aluminium smelters be powered by hydro-electric power, and that everywhere else in the world only uses coal. The International Aluminium Institute argues that the assumption that this is “an erroneous assumption” and that “the current overall proportion of 55% energy sourced from hydroelectric power” will continue into the distant future. Only 30% of aluminium smelters use coal.

****This does not consider that the destruction of virgin land and fragile habitat should not be considered in a discussion of what is “green.” If untouched and vulnerable ecosystems are to be considered “ideal” places for aluminium smelters, one might suggest the Amazon River as the next logical step. In suggesting Iceland as ideal, Ms. Sverrisdóttir does not consider the transport of the aluminium: aluminium is not mined on this volcanic island, nor are there any facilities that demand its use in production. As Iceland has no aluminium ore, and as it has no use for aluminium—there is not even a cannery in the country. Iceland also has some of the highest costs of labour in the world. The only thing that seems to make Iceland ideal is its lax attitude toward the environment and toward work regulations—Iceland is not a member of the EU.

***** Alcoa’s earnings for this quarter “broadly missed Wall Street projections” according to a 10 January report. The stocks took a tumble, losing 5.5 percent, as, though the company was profitable, it did not do as well as it could. Alcoa does, however, have 129,000 employees and it operates in 42 countries, which means that Alcoa would beat most Icelandic companies in a tug of war, qualifying, therefore as a “strong company”, even if the stocks aren’t doing well.