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Berit's Story

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GLOBAL REPORT[image, unknown] Changing lifestyles

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Berit's Story
The Sami people - the Lapplanders - of northern Norway find their whole way of life threatened by huge dams designed to meet the country's insatiable demand for electricity. Dexter Tiranti visits one of the construction sites to report on their protests. He is taken there by Berit Gronvold one of the campaigners who argues that the real answer to energy problems lies not in more power projects but in less consumer greed.
[image, unknown] The 10 per cent of the world's people living in industrialised countries have 80 per cent of the world's wealth.
[image, unknown] And they use most of its energy - taking 86 per cent of the commercial supply.
[image, unknown] Then they spend five per cent of national income dealing with pollution.
[image, unknown] Only by people deciding to want less can the vicious circle be broken.

It was still dark; an hour before dawn near a small Norwegian town a hundred miles inside the Arctic Circle. Berit Gronvold and myself slowly drove up the construction road, but we were deliberately obstructed by the police — flagged down four times within ten miles. We had been given official permission to see the bulldozers clearing an approach road across the tundra to the Alta River canyon. There a 425 million watt dam is planned for construction. Obviously there was trouble ahead.

We soon found it. Out of the gloom emerged more police cars and squat grey snow cats. We jumped out of the car and walked forward, our feet crunching loudly on the permafrost. We were muffled against the twenty degrees below zero temperature, yet the cold was so bitter that the humidity from our breath iced up our eyebrows.

A giant earthmoving machine and six-wheeled truck were silent when their diesels should have been roaring into life. Knots of police were gathered around the caterpillar track bulldozers. The huddled figures there had walked through the hills overnight, slipped through the police cordon and chained themselves to the machines. And the police were making slow work of cutting them away. It looked like another day would be lost on building the approach road.

Dawn came and the short Arctic day was well under way when Berit offered hot coffee to the chained demonstrators from the Sami people. Some were shaking uncontrollably from the cold. The police threatened to arrest Berit, an argument developed and she accused them of behaving like the Nazis. Indeed from this drama it was difficult to recognise that we were in one of the most progressive countries in the world. Berit was visibly shocked. She remembered the war years, the occupation and the snap search of their household for resistance fighters. Men in similar uniforms to those who were now dragging away the demonstrators had caught her two uncles. They were taken to labour camps, never to be seen again. Yet Norway had been liberated; it is an outward-looking and progressive country. At the United Nations, Norwegians point out, the country has pledged itself in support of the indigenous people of South Africa and condemned the bestialities of Paraguay’s treatment of their Indian people. ‘And yet,’ Berit remarked shaking her head, ‘for the indigenous people of Norway — the Sami —different standards seem to apply.’

The fight against the dam construction aims to stop the flooding of the Sami (Lapp) people’s land. Over the last thirty years more than a hundred of these northern rivers have been dammed for the hydroelectric needs of Oslo, Bergen and the alumina-smelting refineries of the North American aluminium companies. Norwegians appear to have an inexhaustible thirst for energy — using more per person than almost anywhere else in the world. This greed, Berit pointed out, is paid for by the Sami people. It is their land and lives which are affected. With an economy based on reindeer herding and salmon fishing, the dams have destroyed their way of life. Fish migrations are no longer possible. and the best grazing, mating and calving areas for reindeer herds have been submerged. Even the climate has changed for the worse, as warm fast-moving rivers are stilled and replaced by the chill of frozen artificial lakes.

Sawing off the protesters' chains. Photo: Dexter Tiranti
Sawing off the protesters' chains. Photo: Dexter Tiranti

The Alta confrontation for Berit and the Gronvold family was another landmark in their struggle against the consumer values of their affluent country.

‘We don’t have freedom any more,’ she remarked angrily, watching the police throw the arrested demonstrators into the back of their snowcats. ‘People who believe in economic growth have taken over. And those who believe in the values of life are being rolled over by the bulldozers. We have to choose, do we need more energy? I don’t think so.’

Berit explained how her family had become so strongly set against the values of the consumer society. They had lived and worked in Kenya and the Philippines for eight years.

‘When we came back it was a real shock. There was such affluence, such wealth, so many confused people.’ Their first Christmas home they were swamped with beautiful gifts from relatives. ‘It was a disaster for me and my husband. It was a horrible embarrassment to think of what our friends in the slums of Nairobi and Manila would have had that same Christmas.’ So they decided to lower their standard of living.

‘Not dramatically, and we haven’t got far,’ she said. Not everyone can do the big heroic things like those poor frozen demonstrators at Alta. We just try and take a few steps in the right direction.’ For the Gronvolds this means buying their clothes from secondhand shops. For husband Ebba, it means commuting by bike instead of car. For their eldest son Lars, it means repairing and servicing bicycles to send to Zimbabwe schools. For their youngest, adopted son Ole it has meant selling his Lego to help his former orphanage in Manila.

When Berit goes to the supermarket and passes the glittering heaped shelves of convenience foods she tells herself ’I don’t need it. I don’t need it.’ But even then she admits:

‘I’ll come home with things we don’t need. But I am lucky because my children will sort through the groceries, fish out some can or other and ask "why do we want this?"’

Very often, Berit feels, we fear that if we haven’t got a new car or good clothes we will be branded as losers.

What has happened is that wealth has turned against us, giving the feeling that if we don’t have it we are not worth anything.’ Instead she tries to give her children different values.

Berit argues with Norwegian police. Photo: Dexter Tiranti
Berit argues with Norwegian police. Photo: Dexter Tiranti

It is not just the Gronvolds who feel this way. They are part of a larger Norwegian movement called ’The Future in Our Hands’. With 25,000 members it sees the forces which create underdevelopment of the Third World as the same as those which bring the overdevelopment of the West. The Future’s members are set against the ‘progress planned for them by large corporations: the bleak upward curve on the graph of increased consumption. Inspired by a book* from which the movement grew, Berit talks of the publication as having knitted together so many of the confused strands of issues like pollution, arms, poverty and unemployment, that float across the daily newspapers.

The author of The Future in Our Hands, Eric Dammann, wrote of economic growth as an outmoded concept for affluent societies. There was a time when having more money would improve our lives, he believed. And that’s still the case with the poor world. In fact the quality of ‘eastern’ lives improved along with growth until about 1960-1965. Then the indicators of distress and unhappiness really took off in industrialised countries. It was the beginning of the Valium age that now has nearly half of all the middle aged women of Europe on the drug. Other boltholes from tension and distress have also became more popular, alcoholism, heavy drugs and esoteric religious sects have all mushroomed. Different indicators of the same malaise are seen in the boredom of teenagers. The result is violence. Violence can be directed inwards— safety pins through the cheeks cannot be comfortable — and outwards — to vandalism, riots or soccer hooliganism. Stress amongst the older generation is signalled by the sad statistics on coronaries, marriage breakdowns and car accidents. Too much, too fast and all too confusing.

Yet still the same target of economic growth is set for us. ‘If we are not happy now, more of the same isn’t going to make us happier,’ Berit argues.

‘And what of other people’s problems? How can I send my children off to school every day to learn about fairness and humanity when 82,000 other children are starving to death that same day?’

‘I believe if other Norwegians could see this,’ shouted Berit above the barking police dogs, crackling radio instructions and hacksaws cutting through the chains, ‘they would not want it. But if we are determined to take more and more, not only must we squash the Third World, but everyone in the way here in Norway too.’ We have trusted the experts for too long, its up to the little people like us to say "enough is enough".’

The Future in Our Hands movement puts it this way: ‘We need a new kind of progress, for the sake of the Third World, for the sake of the environment and for the sake of a better quality of life for ourselves.’

*The Future in Our Hands by Eric Dammann, Pergamon Press 1979

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New Internationalist issue 107 magazine cover This article is from the January 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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