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Blog by Kristin Vala Ragnarsdottir, WEAll Ambassador and Professor of Sustainability Science at the University of Iceland

June 2, 2020

A few years ago a  guy called me up in Iceland and asked: “Why do the leftists own the environment?“  My answer was: “They do not but they have taken environmental issues to the forefront of their politics.  All parties should do that.“ He went on to found the Right Green Party which never took foothold in Icelandic politics.  But it was a step in the right direction.   Healthy environment and sustainability is tantamount for everyone’s wellbeing.

I was party to a similar discussion in an international WhatsApp group recently:  “Why is it that left-wing governments are promoting the wellbeing agenda?  In doing so it will be rejected by those to the right in politics.“

My response was: “In Iceland there is a broad political base behind the new wellbeing policy which has a focus on prosperity and quality of life and is aligned with the UN Sustainable Development goals.“

Our Prime Minister is from the Left Green Movement, but her coalition government encompasses the whole political spectrum – with the Independence Party (conservative right wing) led by Bjarni Benediktsson who is Minister of Finance and and Economic Affairs, and  the Progressive Party led by Sigurður Ingi Jóhannesson and is Minister of Transport and Local Government.

This broad based coalition government agreed the Wellbeing policy agenda in April 2020.  It has 39 wellbeing indicators that are to be collected and followed by Statistics Iceland.  This is very important when considering what may happen in the next election – when the Left Greens may no longer lead the government.  Then the wellbeing agenda is already engrained in policy with civil servants and public institutional support.

What about the other countries in the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership?

In Scotland, the wellbeing economy agenda is being supported and followed by the National Performance Framework (NPF) which was presented to the Scottish Parliament by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Sturgeon is from the Scottish National Party (SNP) – which is considered to be a centre-left party and wants Scotland to become independent and and have closer ties with Europe and the EU.

Importantly, the NPF was passed unanimously with support from all five political parties in the Scottish Parliament.  Again, with this broad base of support in parliament the wellbeing economy agenda has a chance to survive if the next elections do not return the SNP as the leading party.

In New Zealand, the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern set the first wellbeing budget world-wide in May 2019 with a central question – how well are our people? The focus is on five priority areas where evidence indicates greatest opportunities to improve the lives of New Zealanders.  The PM´s political party is Labour (left).  Labour is in a coalition government with the New Zealand First Party (right wing) and the Green Party (left wing).  This again, is a broad-based political coalition, giving strength to the wellbeing agenda.

Scotland, Iceland and New Zealand are all members of WEGo – the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership – which is an offspring of WEAll.  A new member has just joined WEGo – Wales.  The First Minister of Wales is Mark Drakeford and he leads the Labour (left wing) government in Wales.  Wales has had the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act since 2015 that has seven wellbeing goals.  Therefore the wellbeing agenda is firmly in Welsh policy – and has been set in law for five years.

The Wellbeing Economy agenda is therefore neither left wing nor right wing.  It is for us all, so that all people and our planet can prosper.  Now that governments across the globe are finding their feet to lead their nations out of the COVOD-19 health and economic crisis – let us remember that pandemics hit us all, wherever we stand in politics. We also know that we cannot go back to business as usual.

In the worlds of professor Frank Snowden, a historian:  “By creating the myth that we could grow our economy exponentially and infinitely, by almost 8 billion people living on earth, excessive travel, environmental pollution, by pushing back nature more and more, we created almost ideal conditions for the coronavirus to emerge, spread and hit us especially hard.“

Let us join hands across political spectrums and make the Wellbeing Economy the new economy for the 21st century.  Would you like to learn more? Then see the WEAll ten principles of Building Back Better.

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]By Kristin Vala Ragnarsdottir

March 25, 2020

This week a friend and colleague sent this written dialogue to me: 

World: “There´s no way we can shut everything down in order to lower emissions, slow climate change and protect the environment.“

Mother Nature: “Here´s a virus. Practice.“

 

For decades, nations have taken up and practiced a globalised, neoliberal, market-driven economic system with focus on exponential economic growth through natural resource extraction, production with energy use and consumption.

Global natural systems are similarly in exponential decline and the climate is warming exponentially. Despite the 2015 UN Climate Agreement, global emissions were still rising exponentially in 2019.  Few people appear to have listened to physics professor Al Bartlett who often stated that „the biggest imperfection of mankind is that it does not understand the consequences of exponential growth.“  Interestingly, the late economist Kenneth Bolding stated: “anyone who thinks that endless growth in a limited world is possible, is either a madman or an economist.“  For the past decade I have asked university student groups and the public whether they can tell me the doubling time if they know the percent rate of increase, and in my memory only one engineering student knew the answer.

Enter the Covid-19 virus. A global pandemic is declared and in only a few weeks the world has ground to a halt, literally.  Varied civil protection measures for emergency management have been taken across the world, including closing borders.  Testing, isolating, quarantining, treating is the message from WHO. Some nations stepped in with social restrictions early, others later.  It appears that the aim of “flattening the curve“ of peak diagnosis per day so that the health care system will not be overwhelmed, appears to be working in some countries.

Meanwhile, in parallel, the economy has slowed down dramatically across the world.  World GDP growth is unlikely for 2020 and at the same time total levels of pollution and emissions are likely to decrease.

Like all of us, I am deeply saddened by the world health pandemic and feel for those who have already and will lose their loved ones. Since the beginning of this crisis I have, however, observed several positive outcomes for science, the environment and the economy – which we can all benefit from in the future:

  1. More and more people now understand the terms „exponential growth“ and „doubling times“. National government representatives report daily increase in diagnosed Covid-19 cases and how many days it will take the cases to double.  This understanding can in due time be used by address issues relating to both the environment and the economy.
  2. The importance of trust in scientific knowledge has increased. Even populist politicians are now listening to scientists. Dismissal of scientific evidence is thus out, science is in. Even my 8 year old nephew has come up with a Covid-19 virus treatment proposal, which he discussed with my son today who is a medical doctor and research scientist. It is likely that many children will aim to be scientists in the future, filling the current and imminent gaps of lack of scientists and engineers.
  3. Wellbeing of people is the top priority of many government and industry responses. Hi-tech firms from race-car producers to vacuum cleaner manufacturers are being asked to step in to develop and produce in record time ventilators for the overwhelmed health care authorities. Governments are also stepping in to ask companies to produce soaps and other sanitary products and pharmaceutical companies are working with government scientists to develop corona virus vaccines.
  4. Since I am in Iceland I would like to outline the government of Iceland‘s economic rescue package which was introduced last weekend. Before I do that I would like to emphasise that my government is a partner in WEGo (Wellbeing Economies Governments) in partnership with Scotland and New Zealand – all three nations lead by women.

The Icelandic stimulus package is in 10 parts and is a total of 230 billion Icelandic krona, 7.8% of national income. The focus is on Prevention – three actions to prevent job losses and business bankruptcies; Protection – three actions to support individuals and and families due to difficult circumstances; Economic push back – four actions to increase economic activity, goods exchange and investment.  These are further outlined below – and where appropriate are linked with the newly established wellbeing indicators (WBI) that are being implemented in Iceland. These are 39 indicators, 17 related to society, 7 related to the environment and 15 related to the economy.

Prevention:

1) Part time pathway – unemployment benefits for those who have reduced employment percentage.  This supports economic WBIs on employment rates, unemployment and low income rates

2) Bridging loans to businesses – support for businesses that have operational difficulties to take extra loans as well as reduction in banking taxes. This can be related to economic WBI on debt of business

3) Deadline for business tax payments delayed – delay in tax due date, as well as insurance due date, and delay in due date for prepayment of business income tax. This relates to economic WBI on government debt.

Protection:

4) Salary during quarantine – employers are compensated for the salaries of people who are in quarantine and cannot work remotely from home. This relates to economic WBIs on buying power and individual debt

5) Increase in child support payments – single extra child support payments to families of every child under 18 because of changed circumstances. This relates to economic WBI on lack of social of economic quality

6) Withdrawal of private pension savings – allowance to withdraw private pension savings for unrestricted use. This relates to economic WBI of purchasing power.

Economic push back:

7) Strengthening tourism – internal injection for tourism (electronic vouchers for every citizen to travel in Iceland), abolition of overnight hotel taxes, and international promotion of Iceland as a tourism destination as soon as the crisis is over. This relates to national income which is one of the economic WBIs.

8) Extension of „everyone works“, refund of value added tax for home improvement and that of NGO facilities. This relates to the WBI of percentage in employment and unemployment.

9) Easier import/export – cancellation of import tax and delay in deadlines for paying customs fees. This relates to economic WBI of purchasing power.

10) Investment efforts – increase jobs in building and maintaining infrastructure, support business innovation, and accelerating planned investment for the future. This relates to economic WBI of percent employed and unemployment.

This quick analysis of the economic stimulus package of the Icelandic government can be directly related to 8 out of 15 economic WBIs.  None of the social or environmental WBIs can be directly related to the package. For the environment WBI a focus on accelerating land reclamation and tree planting and increasing nature protection would both create jobs and improve wellbeing for people and nature.  A focus on supporting remote education and would affect social WBI pertaining to education level and continuing education.

The Icelandic government has already started to think about the long term even as it deals with this short term crisis, thanks to its wellbeing indicator framework: but there‘s much more work ahead. It is my hope that many of the lessons we learn during this Covid-19 pandemic will bring us closer together and that we can use lessons learned to both protect the environment and build economies with focus on wellbeing for people and nature.

Dr. Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir is Professor of Sustainability Science, Faculty of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland. She is also a WEAll Ambassador and a member of the WEAll Global Council.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

By Kristín Vala  Ragnarsdóttir

6 December, 2019

Vala is a WEAll Ambassador, member of the WEAll Global Council and leader of WEAll Iceland. She is Professor of Sustainability Science at the University of Iceland.

 

 

During my summer vacation in 2018 in the Norwegian mountains I read the Nordic Secret by Lene Rachel Andersen from Denmark and Tomas Björkman from Sweden.  The subject of the book was an eye opener for me.  Despite being from a Nordic country (Iceland) I was not aware of the history and social development in the Nordic countries during the 19th century.

Andersen and Björkman demonstrate in the Nordic Secret that when enlightenment came to Copenhagen around 1850 (a century after enlightenment in central Europe) salons were held (mostly by women) and new ideas from Central Europe were discussed.

Unlike Central Europe where the ideas were discussed largely by the ‘intelligentsia’, in Denmark salons were held with a wide participation. Then „folk“ high schools were set up for the children of Danish farmers.  First only young men came to the schools, usually set up by men with their wives – where everyone lived together and discussed new ideas together.  Later young women were also welcomed.  In the „folk“ high schools they discussed new ideas pertaining to philosophy, farming, craft etc.  Everyone lived together, cooked and cleaned, did chores on the land.  No exams were held.

The young people stayed for 3-6 months and then went home to participate and later take over their parents farms – with new ideas in mind.  They were no longer only proud of being farmer children, they were proud of being Danish. This was the foundation of the farming industry in Denmark and the Scandinavian design which is to this day notable.  Later „folk“ high schools were opened up in Norway and Sweden and to a lesser extent in Finland.  By the end of the 19th century there were hundreds of „folk“ high schools in the four Nordic countries. Though no such schools were opened up in Iceland, some of the new ideas came to Iceland with men that had studied in Copenhagen. Of interest is that the „folk“ high schools were set up by clergy and the general public in Denmark, teachers in Norway, the intelligentsia in Sweden and women in Finland.

Once the young people were back on their parents’ farms they were instrumental in founding and supporting co-operatives.  The cooperatives were at the centre of each community, and fostered the building up of libraries and discussion groups.

What was different with the Central European enlightenment was that it largely only affected the intelligentsia.  In the Nordic countries it affected the whole population.  The „folk“ high schools were thus the foundation of the Nordic countries as they are today with their admirable and enviable (proclaimed by many) welfare- and social democratic societies with social justice, universal health care and education at the core.

What is suggested by Andersen and Björkman at the end of the Nordic Secret is that we need to continue with the ideology of the 19th century – where the Bildung of the Nordic population took place (the German word Bildung means more than education – it also is rooted in culture and aims at widening peoples’ horizons). They proposed that Bildung 1.0 occurred from 1850-1900.  Bildung 2.0 took place in the 20th century – and that we now need Bildung 3.0 – with the aim of raising everyone’s horizons to care for humanity as a whole, the Planet and future generations.

I wholly agree and therefore I started to have salons in my living room in November 2018.  Once or twice a month anyone interested can meet in my living room to discuss new ideas with the aim of raising everyone’s horizons.  We read books together and discuss their content.  So far we have gone in detail over the Nordic Secret, in addition (but in less detail) Spiral Dynamics (by Beck and Cowan) and Integral Meditation (by Ken Wilber).  The two latter books outline the evolutions of thinking (Beck and Coward) and the need for the simultaneous development of thinking and states of consciousness (Wilber).

The next book we will discuss is the latest book by Andri Snær Magnason (About Time and Water), which was published in Iceland in early October – but is currently being translated into more than 20 languages.  It is about the climate crisis – and why we find it so difficult to get our heads around the issues at hand.  I recommend that everyone look for this book when it comes out in their language. Magnason is a master in putting complicated issues into words that everyone can understand.

 

By Kristín Vala  Ragnarsdóttir

November 21, 2019

Vala is a WEAll Ambassador, member of the WEAll Global Council and leader of WEAll Iceland. She is Professor of Sustainability Science at the University of Iceland.

I often tell people about my epiphany that I had when I talked to the late Richard St George in Bristol (UK) in the year 2000.  He was then the Director of the Schumacher Society which held „the“ environmental gathering in the UK – every year – under the title: Schumacher Lectures. I was a Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol (and had never heard about the Schumacher Society despite having lived in the city for more than 10 years).  We discovered during our conversation at my neighbour’s birthday party that we were both working on environmental issues.  I was working at the atomic scale – using Synchotron radiation at the Daresbury Laboratory near Liverpool to decipher the structure and coordination of metals and pollutants in water and on mineral surfaces.  Richard was working on finding ways to make the world sustainable.  He was thinking about the big picture.  I had lost the view of the big picture.

I had a shock once I learned how unsustainable our life on planet Earth was (and still is).  First I did not know what to do.  I spent a summer staring at my computer and did not know how to proceed.  But since being depressed is not my nature, I decided to figure out how an Earth scientist could contribute toward sustainability.  I moved up 15 orders of magnitude and sustainability has been at the centre of my research, teaching and operations ever since.

One of the things I decided I had to do was to minimise my own impact on the world.  I had my old car scrapped and I cycled, walked or used public transportation. When going to Europe I took the train.  I kitted out a loft for myself in an old paint factory with under floor heating, solar water heating, double glazing, sheep wool insulation, linseed oil paint…  I bought local and organic produce, stopped for the most part giving gifts, but instead gave Oxfam „gifts“ for the developing world, ranging from giving access to clean water, sanitation, vegetable gardens, goats etc.  If I bought anything for my extended family it was (and still is) a book on environmental issues.  And for whatever CO2 emissions I was responsible, I offset with supporting tree planting.

At the end of 2008 I moved to Iceland, my country of origin.  It was strange to move straight into the economic collapse in Iceland – where the ethical values I was raised with seemed to have vanished.  First I lived with my parents, then got myself a car and a flat.  Living in the same environmentally friendly way as in the UK was difficult.  Most produce is imported.  Going to conferences and workshop meant flying. Taking the ferry is possible, but takes a long time via Seydisfjördur (East Iceland), the Faroe Islands and Jytland in Denmark.  From there you need to take a train.  Seydisfjördur is 800 km from Reykjavik where I live and work.  Then the same distance back.

So I had to change my way of operating.  From Iceland I have travelled according the following principles since 2009:

  1. Will my presence at the summit/conference/workshop/symposium contribute toward the world becoming more sustainable? and/or
  2. Will l learn something that can help me support the world becoming more sustainable?

For my travel I still offset my emissions.  Not perfect, but better than doing nothing.

Move forward ten years and I recently had another epiphany. It is not enough to only consider sustainability issues, it is also necessary to consider gender balance issues. So from now on my traveling will be bound by a third principle:

  1. Have the organisers of the summit/conference/workshop/symposium provided a gender balanced environment for presentations/panels (and more broad balance of gender identifications, where appropriate)?

This third principle came to me after I attended an international summit recently, where we were either presented with „manels“ (men only panels) or panels with one token woman.  I had gone a long way from Iceland because I had hoped that the summit would focus on the voices of people from the global south, and women.  That was not the case.  All of the presenters were men. Only one African woman was given a voice on a panel.

When it dawned on me what was happening, at first I was furious, then sad, then I had the epiphany to make this third principle at the core of decisions of whether I will travel anywhere.

When I discussed this with two friends today, one suggested that I write a blog (thanks!) and another proposed a fourth principle:

  1. Will the summit/conference/workshop/symposium nourish my soul?

She also suggested this should be principle 1.  I agree (also thanks)!