JUST a two hour flight away from Glasgow, Iceland, a country of fire and ice, whose origins from hot lava cannot be hidden, confronts humanity with our own insignificance. My pal Rosie and I were as excited as weans at the thought of visiting the country whose volcanic eruption in 2010 caused the biggest air traffic shut down since World War Two.
Tourists are flocking to Iceland. It’s almost as though we believe, in all our human arrogance, that the volcanoes, the lava fields, the thermal pools and the geysers have been placed there for our entertainment, like some geological Disneyland.
But Iceland’s raging magma should serve as a warning to people whose rent on this planet is well in arrears. Sitting on the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, which are moving apart at the rate of 2.5cm a year, Iceland is a young country, whose landmass was formed just 16 million years ago. For comparison, the oldest rocks in Scotland were formed 2.7 billion year ago. Homo sapiens have only walked on these rocks for 200,000 years — a blink of the eye in geological time. The people of Iceland go to work, grow food, breed livestock, raise families and build communities in the perpetual expectation of the earth moving under their feet and molten lava and ash erupting from any one of its 35 active volcanic systems.
Loading article content
Volcanoes are not always predictable. In 1973, without warning, the island of Heimaey was engulfed by an eruption from Eldfell — the Mountain of Fire — which was assumed to be volcanically inactive. It destroyed 400 homes and forced the authorities to evacuate the island. Remarkably, 250 volunteers remained behind to salvage what they could. At Reykjavik’s Volcano House Museum, Rosie and I watched footage of stoical islanders shovelling ash from rooftops as molten cinders spewed out from the earth around them.
When the eruption was declared over, the islanders went back, rebuilt their homes and resumed their struggle to earn a living.
Climate change is increasing the likelihood of eruptions. According to researchers at the universities of Iceland and Arizona, the earth’s crust is rising at a faster rate than ever before. As ice mass is lost, fire strengthens its grip on this group of islands in the North Atlantic.
And it’s windy in Iceland. Think of the blowiest day you’ve ever spent on Ayr beach and multiply it by ten. Even as a long suffering, rain-soaked Glaswegian, my impression was that the Icelandic climate is harsh. I was in awe of the people who have harnessed the resources of this country to make a living. Life there doesn’t look easy.
But Icelanders have higher life expectancy than Scotland: 84 for women and 81 for men, compared to 81 and 77 in Scotland. In Glasgow, it’s only 78 and 71.
And Icelanders are happier. They report being much more satisfied with life than the OECD (Organisation for Cooperation and Economic Development) average. In 2017, it was ranked as the third happiest country in the world – just behind Norway and Denmark. I found this somewhat perplexing as we ventured into a fierce gale, watched over by lethal mountains, to get to a pub in Reykjavik that charged £8 for a pint of beer.
Some people have hypothesised that the “Glasgow Effect” might have, in part, something to do with the weather. I’m afraid Iceland blows that theory out of the Clyde.
But Iceland is far ahead of the UK on income equality. Here, the income gap between the top and bottom ten per cent of earners is almost double that of Iceland. In the OECD league table of income inequality, Iceland sits in fifth place, while the UK languishes tenth from the bottom.
Young people from all over the world can be seen working in the hotels and restaurants in central Reykjavik. One young guy from Eastern Europe explained simply why he liked it there: “I’m treated the same as everyone else. And I can save.”
Iceland seems to have its priorities right: it spends just 0.1 per cent of its budget on defence, while the UK spends seven per cent. Iceland leads the whole world on gender equality according to the OECD. Icelandic women are tough, with a long history of activism. And, like the country’s volcanoes, when they erupt in anger, they do it in style. In 1975, 90 per cent of the female population of Iceland went on a professional and domestic strike.
Since then, they have made continual advances. The country now has the lowest gender pay gap in the world. And they have gone further: this year the Icelandic parliament introduced the first legislation in the world that will require all public and private businesses employing more than 25 people to prove they are paying men and women equally.
Iceland criminalised the purchase of women’s bodies for sex and outlawed strip joints. An in-flight public service film warns any visiting stag parties that the women of Iceland may be attractive but that does not entitle men to harass them or expect a warm reception to their advances.
Iceland’s social policies are not perfect – but they show that humanity’s mark on this earth for the relatively short time we’ve been here need not be entirely greedy and destructive.
It seems to me that Iceland’s relative equality goes a long way to explaining its high happiness index. But living every day in the face of the evidence of the universe’s exploding origins must imbibe people with the kind of existential humility that makes people appreciate every lucky second of accidental life.
I can think of a right few world leaders, politicians and the like, who could be doing with a dose of that kind of humility.