Norwegian Perspectives on Sustainable Development

In 2009, I moved to Norway with a Fulbright Scholarship from the US State Department. I set out to gain a better understanding of Norwegian perceptions of sustainability domestically and internationally. My ultimate objective has been to share these insights back at home in the United States. In the end, I had interviewed and photographed 40 Norwegians.

Here is a selection from the portraits with excerpts from the interviews.

Norway was once part of Denmark and then part of Sweden. When we became a free country in 1905 we had to decide what would be "Norwegian." We ended up with nature, skiing, outdoor activities and that kind of thing. That's why nature is a big part of Norwegian life.

                       Oslo, 15 August 2009

In Whole Foods they have a Norwegian section. And that's a sad thing by itself, because what is in that section? It's stuff that is not even close to what is good in the actual Norwegian goods market. It's just crazy. And it's so expensive.

But I think I can do something about it. I think I can bring the concept of doing this, big. You have to put people in a store where everything is okay. Everything is free range, organic, local and so on. Then, people would just go in and buy whatever they want and know, "I'm buying something good."

Oslo, 1 September 2009

The colony collapse disorder has not reached Norway. They are trying to find out why. They ask us to send in samples from the bees to see if maybe we don't have the same virus on our bees, maybe. There are lots of theories.

But in Norway, we have decided not to use pesticides. We use only ecological materials, so that we all have ecological honey. That's good for the honey and there is no poison in the box.

Oslo, 5 September 2009

They call me the Green Warrior of Norway. I’ve worked 14 hours a day for so many years on the environment. There are a lot of people who are afraid of me, but that’s only because I’m winning.

I’m a believer that there’s a god in everything and everything has the same value. To me a toad has just as much worth as you and you have just as much worth as a tree, and so on and so on.

I used to say that the environmental movement has a big problem: it’s full of idealistic idealists. I want to invite a new world of realist idealists, you know? Because you can’t sit waiting for the world to be 100% correct. You have to take the steps in between.

Oslo, 13 September 2009

I think that of course there are a lot of things that every person can do, but I think it's the whole picture of political decisions, which is the most important thing. So I'm not the one to point the finger and say "Stop driving your car," but more "Tell your politicians to stop drilling for oil."

Oslo, 4 October 2009

We need alternative thinking. Not only in academia, but elsewhere.

Norway should do well at home first before we go out and either criticize or suggest. That's our weakness when it comes to the CO2 problem. We want to pay Indonesians and Brazilians and Malagasy people not to burn their forests, but we do not want to suffer and drive our cars less.

Oslo, 16 October 2009

There are two ways for comparing. If you compare us to others, we are doing very well. If you compare us to the task, the challenge, we may not be doing very well. The challenge of climate change and, for that matter, other environmental issues, is huge. A lot more will have to be done both in Norway and abroad. We are not on the track to relieve our obligations for 2020, much less, however is the rest of the globe. So, compared to the challenge, we are behind. Compared to nearly any other nation, we are doing well. You can find individual nations who are better at this or that. Let's say, the Danes are better than Norway in wind; the Swedes are better than Norway on biomass, but there is no nation, which is universally better than Norway.

Oslo, 12 October 2009

COP15 UN Climate Change Conference 2009


Lumumba Di-Aping, ambassador from Sudan and head of the G77-China group (right) and Bernarditas de Castro Muller, negotiator for the G77-China group from the Philippines (left) at a press conference.


Daniel Lau from Australia on the 28th day of his fast. Climate Justice Fast participants consumed nothing but salt and water starting as early as the Barcelona Climate talks on November 6, 2009. They promised not to eat until a 'fair, ambitious and binding' deal would be reached. Finally on December 20, they ended the 44 day fast in disappointment at what Copenhagen failed to achieve.

Edvard Munch [the painter of the Scream] used nature in his process. After painting a picture sometimes he put it out in his garden so that the nature would do something with it. He wanted to get the rough expression.

I make woodcuts. I like that the wood leaves texture. That's also something the wood gives back that plastic doesn't. It's a trace of nature, in a way.

Oslo, 21 April 2010

We see all this destructive behavior humans exhibit toward nature and that is kind of normalized, it's a part of the industrialized world. It's like all plants and trees and life have price tags on them. Also, sexuality in a way, with the porn industry, has kind of used humans' confusion about sexuality to earn a lot of money from it.

People are like "yeah, you make porn to save the forest." But it's not. We're filming people having sex. So maybe it's good for people, when they see sex to see people really enjoying or being natural in it.

Oslo, 1 October 2009

Sustainable development has always been around, since Gro Harlem Brundtland [with the UN World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987], but still people have more and more money in this country and consumption grows bigger and bigger.

There is one thing that I find difficult: the state easily passes responsibility to individuals for the environment, while big companies do not always respect the same rules. United individuals have great possibility to make a change, but they need honest models. The consumption society strengthens the state’s economy, but hurts without doubt the environment.

Oslo, 21 April 2010

When we went into oil and gas, we were not aware of the CO2 consequences. No one was.  That's something that came up later. But of course, we are in a position here in Norway that we could put a limit on CO2 and we could put taxes and we could do a lot of things because we can afford it.

So we have been a great exporter of oil and gas, and that has made us very wealthy. Unfairly wealthy, because it is mother nature who has given us all this wealth.

Stavanger, 1 May 2010

My personal opinion is that we rich countries have the biggest responsibility. It would be unethical to put a burden on the emerging developing countries because they need energy for essential services, to keep people out of poverty and to bring light to villages - those kinds of things.

             Oslo, 10 September 2009

Ninety-nine percent of electricity in Norway comes from hydroelectric power: a renewable resource.

There are still enormous resources left to develop. Hydropower is also very clean. Every time it rains you get a replenished source of power and it is financially very cheap compared to solar or wind.

I have to say, it's very nice to work and know that you actually are making a difference. It is nice to come home from work at night and think, "I did my part today."

                                 Oslo, 28 January 2010

Most of the electricity in this country comes from hydroelectric plants. It does have some environmental repercussions. Not a lot of people have been moved, save for some indigenous people in the North.

Did you hear about Altasaken - in 1979? [...] The Saami people had one very good river - the Alta river - and it was decided by the government in Oslo to dam it. There was a lot of controversy around this because it was basically damming the Saami people, and their culture and their way of living. Land was taken. It was not that much, but still it was important area. Grazing land for the reindeer and so on.

Stavanger, 30 April 2010

The general public and the politicians, people who don't know much about the industry, can be a bit generalizing. I think a lot of it is based on fear-mongering and not really on the facts.

For example, right now the debate is about opening Lofoten and Vesteraalen for petroleum exploration. The debate, to a large degree, is just based on the opinions of certain people. They throw things out that are not really true. Of course you have the industry on the other side, which might also try to downplay some of the actual threats to the environment. Because, as we're seeing right now in Louisiana, things can go wrong, and it might have some really big impacts.

I believe that people think too much about living good and buying fine things, nice cars and nice clothes. I think it's important that people exercise some restraint and think of the time that comes after us.

It would be nice, if in the future we would have enough saved up so that even if something happened to the oil industry, we could still live well nevertheless. So clearly that's something important in our culture.

Oslo, 17 May 2010

Norwegian National Day

I would like to be a scientist and an engineer. I could work on machines and make better cars that will not pollute. I want to make other machines that can give us energy.

It is very important to take care of plants and grass as well. Cows, birds and all kinds of species. If there were no plants and no animals, humans couldn’t live.

There are some countries that have rainforest, and sometimes these countries continue to log there, which is not so good.

Maridalen, 11 October 2010

People have the responsibility. But also politicians have the responsibility of setting up the framework. [...] We have to accept that people want to keep up their living standards that they have today. So I think the most important thing is to develop new technologies so we can keep that living standard without emitting greenhouse gases. Like using more climate friendly cars, for instance. I take the bus to the office every day.

Oslo, 1 October 2009

As long as [nations in the EU] produce more food than they need, they will export it rather than destroy it, because destroying it is also rather expensive.

We see a lot of countries, especially the Western countries in the European Union, are at the same level as Norway in thinking about Sustainability and environmental questions[...]. We see that in many areas we go further than the European Union, in cases of Sustainability and also environmental policy. We have the freedom to go further if we think that’s right. Outside the EU, we are able to play an active role in these questions through the UN system, for example, or just by making an example outside the EU.

Oslo, 26 November 2009

It is about increasing consumer taxes, but also about closing some holes in the tax system. We were the first country to introduce a CO2 tax, but there are a lot of industries who have relief or are completely exempt from that tax. Because, well the labor party who is in power right now have the unions with their party, so they are getting a lot of exceptions in right now.

Oslo, 5 September 2009

“It’s [about] getting the right balance when you’re doing development work. Also Norwegian NGOs and the government, you know, [Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation] NORAD is the agency that gives recommendations to the Norwegian government regarding their development work. They also have become more and more aware of this with collaboration, working together and giving some input. To make them rely upon their own resources.”

Oslo, 13 February 2010

Civil Society

A group of activists performs a play outside the Bella Center, where the UN convention was held, for entering delegates and passers-by. The aim is to raise awareness about the impact of climate change on developing countries. In the background, a representative from the Climate Debt Agents group wears a bright red suit in front of a video screen.

Copenhagen was really not a big surprise. It was a confirmation of what we saw emerging although the outcome was a bit weaker than what we had expected.

If I remember correctly, back in the 80’s the Nordic council basically allocated tasks related to renewable energy to the different countries. Iceland got geothermal, Denmark got wind, Sweden got biomass and Norway got wave and tidal and if you look at what’s happened with wind in Denmark and biomass in Sweden, there have been huge successes. If you look what has happened with tidal and wave in Norway, it’s nothing. There were two projects and both failed or just ran out of money.

Oslo, 20 January 2010

I think the other Scandinavian societies like Sweden and Denmark had to work harder at using their abilities for making something out of what they had. Norwegians are more about tapping into [the gifts of] nature. I think we have an adjustment to make now as we move into contemporary times because we’ve been so blessed. As a society, I don’t know if we are aware of how easy our wealth has come to us.

Copenhagen, 10 December 2009

I am a fisherman, but I don’t fish much at this time of year. The fish are young, too small now. When you are unemployed, the Norwegian welfare pays you. They pay you 60 percent of your income when you are unemployed. They also have a really good system for elderly and sick people. You get paid to be sick. When you are sick you get one week off, paid 100 percent. If a child under 12 is sick, both of his parents are eligible to get paid 100 percent for up to two weeks to stay home with the child while he is sick. I think Norway is really good about paying you when you cannot work. It’s a really good system here.

Å, Lofoten Islands, 29 November 2009