Opinion

Thoughts on Norway, Oil and the Berserker

Affluence, the tragedy reminds us, is no defence against extremism.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 27 Jul 2011 | TheTyee.ca

This is the latest of Andrew Nikiforuk's Energy and Equity column for The Tyee. Nikiforuk is an award-winning author and journalist, and a contributing editor to The Tyee. Read his previous Tyee stories here.

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Geography, scarcity and then oil, have defined the Norwegian ethic.

I grew up in a Nordic household and I am a son of Norway. So when I learned of the bombing in Oslo and the massacre of young Norwegians, a part of me felt as numb as frostbite. Horror does that to a parent: it freezes the soul.

I also immediately knew that only a Norwegian could be the author of something so dark and cold. And Stieg Larsson, the Swedish journalist and thriller writer, would have known it too, if he still lived. He understood how comfort and self-satisfaction can write bloody disasters and spawn Nordic monsters.

Now everyone has heard the cliché: Norway is a small and peaceful country inhabited by a generous people with Lutheran reading habits and a sense of humor that could, as the Swedes say, benefit from a massive dose of Vitamin D therapy. It's the sort of treed place where people pay big taxes so that everyone can live well. Or at least not suffer much.

It is also a small nation (five million people) both blessed and cursed by oil. In 1969 the discovery of large offshore reserves dramatically changed Norway's fortunes and character. Despite the best of intentions and some of the world's most thoughtful public policy, petro dollars bedeviled and softened the place as only oil can do.

And in a strange sort of way, it was oil money and easy living that set the scene for the bloody drama that brought thousands of immigrants from Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan to Norway's shores. And it was this migration, sometimes motivated by the search for cheap labour and sometimes by do-gooderism, that led 20 per cent of the Norwegian electorate to vote for the right-wing Progress Party last election. And it was these very developments that ultimately served as an excuse for the fatherless and affluent video-game player Anders Breivik, a member of the Progress Party and a climate change denier to boot, to behave like some berserker. (Berserkers, "tasters of blood," were Viking warriors who fought combatants or slaughtered innocents in a trance-like state.)

Before oil

Now before oil, Norway was a nation of hardy sardine canners, ship builders, and small farmers. It also made a creative impression on the world. It nurtured Edvard Greig one of the world's finest composer, Knut Hamsen, the father of the modern novel, and Henrik Ibsen, perhaps the best playwright since Shakespeare. You can't walk down the main street of Oslo without stepping on Ibsen quotes embedded in the pavement. (Ibsen famously noted that a man can't wear good pants when fighting for the truth.)

After oil, Norway lost much of its creativity but still produced some remarkable petroleum critics. Gro Harlem Bruntland, Norway's first female prime minister and one of Brievik's targets (she left the island one hour before the killing began) gave the world a bold recipe for sustainable development that unfortunately became a global chorus for business as usual. It also fathered Arne Naess, the mountaineering green philosopher who argued that humans don't have the right to reduce the world's biological diversity.

During the Nazi occupation, Norway demonstrated what resistance to tyranny really looks like. That's when thousands of Norwegians including my relatives donned skis and weekly sabotaged the German war machine. They also risked their lives to ferry Jews to safety in Sweden. Everyone contributed to the "ice front": no one talked to Germans or sat next to them on the trolley. During and after the war, collaborators or "Quislings" moved, with some assistance, to the bottom of fjords with rocks around their necks.

A moral conundrum

Geography and scarcity has defined the Norwegian ethic. Until oil, it was never a fat place: poverty and overpopulation sent Vikings on sea-faring raids across Europe. Due to the scarcity of things, nothing was ever wasted; and thanks to the cold, every good Norwegian built a wood pile, not for one, but three winters. And because of the vagaries of geography and climate, Norwegians cooperated with their relatives and neighbors. Norway's low-energy economy just made its people social democratic in nature.

But the oil windfall challenged the Norwegian character more than the German Occupation. For starters, the scale of the jackpot was crudely surreal: oil promised to enrich every Norwegian with a lump sum payment of $25-million or annual dividend of $1.25 million.

U.S. economist Michael Hudson says this embarrassment of riches created a moral conundrum. "It was not the kind of problem with which Norwegian character has been accustomed to deal. For centuries the nation's austere living conditions have imposed an economic ethic that has emphasized reliance on mutual aid and communal welfare spending to tide its population through difficult times."

Given the choice of spending like crazy to enrich right-wing political movements (the Alberta and Margaret Thatcher model) or saving for tomorrow, Norwegians opted for a petroleum fund in 1990. It is now a pension fund worth $550 billion. (That the fund has largely been invested in debt-ridden North American and European economies could well become another future shock for Norwegians, jarring them much more than the mass killings).

Yet to date Norway remains the world's only state that discovered oil and created a national industry to "serve the interests of the whole society." To prevent the government from becoming a sordid mouthpiece for oil, the Norwegian government still runs on taxes as opposed to oil loot. (Only 11 per cent of its budget comes from oil.)

In contrast, neither Alberta nor Canada has exercised any fiscal accountability with their oil wealth or produced imaginative white papers about the oil curse. Alberta, a classic petro state ruled by one party for 40-years, socializes costs and privatizes gains. According to a 2008 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Alberta has "no framework or long-term goals for the use or investment of resource revenues." Nor does Canada.

'Oil industrial complex' and its demons

But the Norwegian oil experience has been an eternal struggle. Statoil, Norway's wealthy oil company and BP's faithful global ally, has become a state within the state. The oil industry, in turn, subverted a Norwegian policy of "moderate pace of development" into quick extraction that has drained all of Norway's largest fields.

This constant activity "produced an oil-industrial complex in many ways just as dominant in the Norwegian context as the military industry had ever been in the USA," writes Helge Ryggvik in a cogent essay. And now Norway, like every unrestrained petroleum addict, wants to drill in cod-rich Arctic waters or invest in dirty oil projects in Alberta.

Other demons have surfaced, too. Norway, one of the world's largest investors in rainforest preservation, has failed to meet its own climate emission targets. And its fish farms pollute waters around the globe. The world's peacekeeper has also become the world's eleventh largest arms dealer. It might even make the sort of dum dum bullets that Breivik used.

'Failure to integrate'

Oil also hasn't helped Norway integrate its immigrants or political refugees any better than Canada. Notes Project IDEELS, a Bremen-based group interested in cultural diversity: "The failure of Norway's policy of integrating non-European immigrants, who are mainly refugees, has made ethnic minorities in urban areas a sensitive issue."

Although the government tried to place newcomers in every part of the country, they still concentrated in Oslo. "Difficulties with integration and high criminality amongst the second generation of these immigrants have forced Norwegian authorities to consider alternative, long-term solutions."

An IDEELs briefing further notes that many argue that "the Norwegian welfare state is delicately balanced and should not be destabilized by a large influx of non-European immigrants enjoying unlimited social benefits without contributing."

These issues, which have little to do with Muslims, speak volumes about with the quality of integration and ecological limits of migration. All are genuine Canadian problems, too. Just ask the Alberta government why it has yet to conduct a provincial inquiry into the shooting deaths of 30 Somali-Canadians in the oil boom drug trade since 2005.

Fuel for right-wing fantasies

Norway's immigration failure, in turn, has given the right wing much ammunition and fueled the fantasy of 32-year-old narcissist, who like every oil exporter nation, thinks he's more important, more entitled, more God-like, than other mortals.

Several years ago, the Norwegian journalist Simen Saetre travelled to oil-exporting nations to find out what oil did to them. He then wrote a book called Petromania.

Everywhere he went he found that oil producers behaved in extravagant and crazy ways. Norway, for example, built an $800-million opera house out of Italian marble. It's also intervened in Afghanistan and Libya and now dabbles in African oil politics. With an overblown ego and oily arrogance, the country's elites also think they can produce dirty oil, cleanly. Or escape immigration debates.

The massacre oddly illustrated some of this craziness. More than 400 helicopters are available to service oil rigs in the North Sea but Norway's Special Forces had access to only one chopper and it was 40 miles away during the killing spree. No Norwegian parent failed to grasp the deadly magnitude of the paradox.

When I visited Oslo and Stavanger in 2009 at the invitation of Greenpeace, I was struck by the seeming civility of political debate as well as by the nation's self-satisfied comfort and affluence. Its politicians reminded me of Alberta's incompetent Tories: they were not the cream of the crop. Oil had drained purpose and thought from public life.

Oriana Fallaci, the great Italian journalist, often wrote about the decline of individual and collective intelligence in affluent societies. "We are less lucid, less awake, than we were when we didn't have schools accessible to everybody, information available to everybody, technologies which, removing the torment of hunger and the fear of tomorrow, make life easier for everybody. When this cornucopia did not exist, we had to solve things by ourselves."

Blessed and cursed

And then in walks the troll named Anders Breivik, a self-made monster, amidst this dumb and oil-fueled Nordic paradise. And with his bloated visions of grandeur (a 1,500 page manifesto?) came hellish carnage.

And so bad things can happen to a people blessed and cursed with oil. Arrogance can blind a people, too. And affluence is no defence against extremism. Nor is petroleum any guarantor of anything other than greater complexity and vulnerability.

But in the end, Norway will recover from the slaughter the same way it has tried to grapple with the perils of oil: with transparency, open doors, spirited debate and, yes, democratic conflict.

Every man-eating troll, whether a Muslim-hater or an oil-obsessed fiend, has but one enemy: sunlight.  [Tyee]

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