Danes love Denmark. Their countryside in Jylland heals them and calls them back to a simpler, more rural past; their access to the ocean feeds them and reminds them of their Viking ancestry (of which they are lightheartedly proud). As a country, the Danes try to do everything they can to preserve the richness of both their nature and their culture.
Two weeks into my semester in Denmark, I had the opportunity to visit an island called Samso (pronounced Sam-soo) about 3 hours northwest of Copenhagen. I’m deeply involved in sustainability efforts back at my campus (I went so far as to take a job picking recyclables out of the trash – have you ever stuck your arm shoulder-deep into a trashcan after a weekend party to fish out a misplaced bottle?). I’ve struggled with how to make my individual efforts count, especially when faced with mass-ambivalence towards “environmental awareness.” In the U.S. it seems like saying words like “environmental,” or “green” often flip some sort of off-switch in a person that causes them to passively ignore what you’re saying. It seems like too big of a problem (and in reality it is) for anyone to meaningfully contribute to a solution.
Visiting Samso was, therefore, inspirational. Back in the 1990’s, the residents won a Denmark-wide contest to create a 100% sustainable region, and since then they’ve made it a reality. Over the weekend, I saw the many innovative ways they did so. Gigantic 8-MegaWatt turbines drilled deep in the ocean floor waved a welcome as we approached the island. Using hay and heather grown across the island, the islanders insulate their houses, produce heat, and thatch their roofs. Large steel vats of water aligned in neat rows like solar panels soak up heat from the sun and then flow into people’s houses – and real solar panels decorate many of the more modern homes. An Energy Academy modeled after a Viking longhouse educates residents and communities worldwide about Samso’s efforts. Although they still import some gas, the energy that the share-owned wind turbines produce offsets this import.
Seeing a whole country (and especially this one region) dedicated to living as sustainably as they can was refreshing. I felt like I’d been walking in a swamp of lethargy and apathy and then been thrown a lifeline to pull myself into a new way of thinking. As I came to realize, the average Dane doesn’t necessarily think about living sustainably. Like so many other aspects of their life, they trust those sorts of big issues (e.g. healthcare) to the government and then take pride in following the programs it sets up. For example, my host family spoke with pride about Samso, and told me about all the wind turbines and other renewable sources Denmark uses to produce energy. But my host-brother still took fairly long showers (longer than me!) and they threw out leftovers fairly often. Both my host parents had cars, but they were limited in these luxuries by the high taxes placed on energy and water – they could only afford to have them because they had solar panels on their roof that provided about 90% of their energy. Toilets all had dual-flush functions (less water for fluids, etc); gas and even fatty foods were highly taxed to discourage their use.
The truly innovative aspect of Denmark’s approach to many societal problems is that they keep them as societal problems. They don’t ask individuals to tackle problems like water shortages or global warming on their own; instead, they set up economic and social incentives that set boundaries on what residents can do. Can we apply this to the U.S.? I’m not so sure. Above almost every other ideal, we hold freedom vital to our national identity. Wouldn’t putting higher taxes on resources as Denmark does essentially limit our freedom? Wouldn’t it be a gross violation of the liberty we hold so dear? An example of this mindset is the backlash against the ban on supersized sodas created by New York City’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg. However, I think we’re incorrectly defining what freedom is!
What I’d suggest is that we re-examine our concept of freedom. Since the Enlightenment ideas of Locke and Hobbes, we’ve had a notion that people enter social systems to avoid a chaotic “state of warre;” We still believe that you can do what you want until your actions limit someone else’s freedom. As this country matures (we’re still youngsters compared to many others!) I really hope we can grow to see that having largely unlimited, unrestricted access to resources actually limits everyone’s freedom – overuse creates a tragedy of the commons where soon no one has the freedom to use a resource because it’s quite simply gone. I think Denmark as a country, and individual Danes, recognize this; from what I saw, in trusting societal problems to society, they don’t have to worry about them. Despite living in an essentially socialistic society, could the Danes actually be more free than U.S.?