Arni Finnsson of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
Iceland Nature Conservation Association. We are the biggest member-based NGO in Iceland with 1,300 members.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Photo: Johann Isberg.
INCA was established in 1997 and our main focus was to protect the Icelandic highlands (some 15,400 square miles of wilderness areas more than 650 feet above sea level) from hydropower developments. We set as our goal the creation of one national park in the highlands. We have enjoyed great international support for our campaigns. In particular we are grateful to the World Wildlife Fund Arctic Program and the International Rivers Network.
In a more perfect world, we would like to see Iceland as a champion of conservation at home as well as abroad. In our view, Iceland must take a position as a leading nation calling for international action to prevent human-induced climate change.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I run the INCA office, provide service for our members, deal with media, and keep contacts with other NGOs. Apart from conservation in Iceland, we work on climate issues and ocean issues. Needless to say, we can’t run a full-fledged campaign on any or all of these issues. It would be more appropriate to say INCA tries to serve as a clearinghouse for environmental issues by sending out information and networking with other people at home and abroad.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
From 1989 to 1996 I worked for Greenpeace International, based in Gothenburg, Sweden. Greenpeace was a great experience and, at times, a tough school. When we moved back to Iceland in 1996, I started working on environmental issues, and in May 1997, we established INCA.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
I get loads of emails every day, and I find this to be a lifeline to the outside world. Obviously one can’t read all of it, but it is worth getting. The internet is a great source of information and provides great opportunities to disseminate information. It’s cheap, too.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Ours is too small a society to name those who are a pain in the ass.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
I always enjoy meeting people on the opposing side whose manners are good enough to talk to them on issues which divide.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born and raised in Akureyri, north Iceland. Today I live with my family (wife and two daughters) in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
It was when it became inevitable that we would lose our campaign to stop the 690-megawatt Karahnjukar Hydropower Scheme, the construction of which started in 2003. The customer will be an Alcoa-owned aluminum smelter in a small coastal village some 30 miles away.
Photo: Johann Isberg.
This project will fundamentally change and destroy one of Europe’s wildernesses, a high plateau of lakes and virgin rivers, jagged canyons, and snowy former volcanoes linked by swards of treeless tundra inhabited by thousands of reindeer and geese. According to a recent survey by Gallup, 40 percent of Icelanders say the decision to build this power plant was wrong and 50 percent of those living in Reykjavik say it was wrong.
What’s been the best?
Last January the government decided to establish a new national park in the northeast, including one major glacial river, Europe’s most powerful waterfall, and a unique volcanic landscape. Ultimately some 10 percent of Iceland’s landscape will be protected in this national park. This is less than our vision in 1997, but it is pretty far, nevertheless. I also felt pretty good when the Kyoto Protocol entered into force on Feb. 16.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
The Icelandic government has at times used very aggressive tactics to bad-mouth and attack conservationists, media people, or just anyone who wouldn’t agree with them on environmental issues. Large amounts of taxpayer money have been devoted to this effort, and this sense of democracy, or rather lack thereof, often infuriates me. To be fair, governmental practice has improved, but Iceland still refuses to ratify the Aarhus Convention, the parties to which “… shall guarantee the rights of access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters in accordance with the provisions of this Convention.”
Remember, “government of the people, by the people, for the people …” Environmental campaigning is also a campaign for democratic principles, reminding governments who they should work for.
Who is your environmental hero?
I greatly admired David McTaggart, the founder of Greenpeace International.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
The best you can do is to wake up and try to find out how you can deal with the nightmares. I must admit, though, that the policies of the Bush administration are scary.
For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?
As individuals we can do our share, but in a democracy, politicians are responsible. Whether it is tax policy, energy policy, agricultural policy, education policy, or what have you, those policies can be changed, and need to be changed, in order to provide the individual with options: better public transportation, stricter emission standards for vehicles, etc.
Photo: Johann Isberg.
What’s your environmental vice?
In Iceland, public transport is very poor. We have almost as many cars per capita as do Californians. I have one, too. Also, to travel abroad, one needs to fly.
What are you reading these days?
Right now I’m into a thriller by a Swedish author; Scandinavian thrillers often tell stories involving political and social issues. Henning Mankell is one of my favorites. I also enjoy reading history books and biographies.
What’s your favorite meal?
One at home with family and friends.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Lake Myvatn in northern Iceland is stunningly beautiful.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
On a global scale, I think environmental NGOs did a very good job in support of the Kyoto Protocol. We all know it isn’t enough. Yet I think we are on the winning side. Our arguments are solid and well-put.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
Unless we can reach out and raise funds, we stand short. We need to raise our profile and public willingness to pay for environmental campaigning.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would like to see the U.S. Senate adopt the McCain-Lieberman bill, setting a target or ceiling on U.S. emissions. It would send a strong signal to the White House and help change irresponsible and corrupt U.S. climate policy.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan. I still enjoy listening to Dylan. Today I mostly listen to jazz and classical music. A record I bought recently is The Great Renata Tebaldi; she was a fantastic opera singer.
What’s your favorite movie?
The Godfather I and II, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
What are you happy about right now?
According to a recent opinion survey carried out for INCA by Gallup, some 75 percent of Icelanders are worried over climate change. This despite the fact that our government has more or less ignored the issue and failed to inform the citizens of the dangers involved. I think the result shows that we are reaching out, getting the message across.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
“Don’t send your love, send money,” a friend of mine said. Please help us finance what the environmental movement needs to do.