Weighing the destruction of pristine wilderness to make more cans

Icelandic writer and director Andri Magnason (PopTech 2012) comes from a country of pristine rivers, idyllic waterfalls and picturesque fjords. And he has meticulously documented plans by industry and government to squeeze every ounce of energy from frighteningly huge tracts of that largely untouched wilderness.

Iceland's 320,000 people have been energy independent since around 1990, thanks to an aggressive push to tap domestic geothermal energy. So why the big push for more energy exploration? Strangely enough, the answer is aluminum, and what Magnason sees as the mindless pursuit of endless growth for growth's sake.

Iceland's pristine wilderness

Magnason has documented in books and on film how industrial giants and pliant Icelandic politicians became enticed by the allure of easily accessible "green" energy across Iceland and set out to use that power to make Iceland home to a massive colony of energy-hungry aluminum smelters.

Each aluminum smelter would consume as much energy as adding a million people to Iceland. A colony of smelters would result in the ravaging of vast pristine waterways to generate the requisite power.

But do we really need more aluminum, Magnason asks, in a world when you could build four commercial airline fleets with the one million tons of aluminum cans Americans don't recycle each year? 

Magnason explored this theme of unsustainable growth and mindless waste in his 2012 PopTech talk in Camden, Maine. "Can we break out of the cycle?" he asked. "Can we stop these damaging activities?"

The risks of endless growth is a recurring theme for other members the PopTech community as well. PopTech's own Andrew Zolli recently explored why China might be building a 500-person embassy in Iceland. China is moving aggressively in that region with an eye toward the area's rich mineral, oil and gas deposits, including those in Greenland. Zolli notes how Greenland's people are also struggling to manage "the interests of the insatiable global extractive economy into their country in a controlled way, while trying to conserve one of the world’s pristine – and globally essential – ecosystems."

It's a serious conundrum. 

Other PopTech alumni have also mined this rich vein of debate. Social critic John Thackara (PopTech 2012) presented a stunning rebuttal of the growth-forever paradigm at PopTech's gathering that actually took place in Iceland earlier this year. Thackara delivered his most devastating arguments in mathematical jabs, like when he points out that early humans survived on about 5,000 kilocalories a day, including food and fire. We each use 300,000 and counting.  

Thackara deadpanned that it is "very sensible" that we humans have pinned the survival of our economic system on perpetual growth to infinity. He has a point. And Iceland's wilderness provides a provocative vehicle for asking the tough questions about endless, unsustainable growth. 

Magnason's talk appears below:


Thackara's talk appears below:

Photo by Martin Ystenes

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