Not so grim up north (of the Arctic Circle)

“Ladies and gentlemen – you can now see the northern lights off the port bow.”  The on-board restaurant emptied in seconds, and a hundred or so travellers from more temperate climes charged out onto the observation deck – into a temperature of about -10oC – to witness the spectacle.

Like almost everyone else on board the M/S Nordkapp, I had come to Arctic Norway in December to try and see these highly charged electrons from the solar wind interacting with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the upper atmosphere over the pole.  And very pretty it was too.  However, quite apart from experiencing nature’s own firework display in the night sky, and the spectacular coastline of Troms and Finnmark in the winter twilight, I also found out that we were to be the subject of a PhD thesis.  A collaboration between the Psychology and Tourism Studies departments of Tromsø University was researching tourists’ experiences on the trip, and in particular how witnessing the high arctic landscape impacted upon our attitudes and our interests.

Now if you read this blog at all frequently you’ll realise that this is pretty much what I do.  I go somewhere to have a look round and talk to local people – call it what you like I’m still a tourist at some level – and then write about the impact it has had on my attitudes and interests. So I was immediately fascinated.

Arctic Norway has a dramatic coastline of islands, snow covered cliffs and crags, and the occasional settlement sheltering in a small inlet.  Not the spectacular steep-sided fjords you find further south perhaps, but stunning none the less.  Many of the towns and villages are built on small islands.  The old Viking word Ø or Øy means island.  So Tromsø and Skjervøy are islands.  Just as Jersey, Guernsey, Lundy and indeed Canvey are back home.  It’s the same word.

It is an area which still makes its living from harvesting whatever natural resources are at its disposal: a thriving cod fishery, reindeer herding (the speciality of the indigenous Sami people of course), iron ore mining, and increasingly oil and gas.  The oil industry accounts for 25% of Norway’s exports by value, and forty years of pumping black gold from the sea-bed has turned the country from an impoverished backwater into one of the wealthiest and most modern countries on earth.  And it isn’t just lining the pockets of the shareholders of multi-nationals.  The Norwegian state pension fund is estimated to own 1% of all the equities available on the planet, and in the north pretty much every island village now has its fixed road link (most of which are in tunnels) to the mainland.

This means of course that the ship I was travelling on, originally a winter lifeline for isolated coastal communities, must now make most of its money from the tourist Krøne – although it still calls at every settlement along the coast, making deliveries or picking up passengers and vehicles.  But such towns were a rare sight on the voyage.  For hours at a time the un-tamed, and frankly cold and hostile, arctic coastline passed by in the moonlight apparently uninhabited.  The fact that humans were there at all was easy to forget until the lights of the next little port appeared on the horizon.

However when I caught up with Christian Ekeland, the Tromsø University PhD student conducting the survey, we had just passed the Statoil Liquefied Natural Gas Plant outside Hammerfest.  This was my “tourist experience” for his survey.  How do I feel about the impact of oil and gas exploration in this pristine wilderness?  The ship’s crew certainly hadn’t tried to hide the plant from us.  Spiced coffee was served out on deck as we sailed past, so we could all have a good look at it (and so can you – it’s the picture accompanying this post).  So never mind us tourists for a minute, what do Norwegians think about it?  Is exploitation of Arctic oil and gas controversial in Norway?

And as Christian explained to me – it can be.  Norwegian oil reserves further south are declining, and the Arctic is the big new opportunity.  Exploration is going on in the Barents Sea, hard up against the Russian border, with little apparent concern, but prospecting around the Lofoten Islands south of Tromsø has proved far more divisive.  Local cod fishermen are concerned about the effects on important spawning grounds, tourist businesses are implacably opposed, and the government has placed a moratorium on any test drilling until after next year’s general election.

Most ordinary Norwegians tend to be more sanguine than the Lofoten islanders however, Christian told me.  “We think Norwegian oil engineers are the best in the world – we haven’t had a major spill in forty years”.  And their fish quotas (unaffected by the EU fisheries policy of course) have managed to maintain stocks, and the livelihoods of fishing communities, pretty successfully too apparently.

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your attention that oil exploration in the Arctic is a bit of a hot topic in the UK right now, with even Waitrose – that bastion of good behaviour– being castigated for opening shops in the petrol stations of Arctic polluter-in-chief (allegedly) Shell.  And when we got home the first thing my wife (a regular customer) did was share Greenpeace’s campaign on her Facebook page.  Which has worked.  Like the Lofoten Islands drilling, Waitrose has now put its plans on ice.

But funnily enough I felt rather differently.  People have been getting a living from the resources of the area for centuries.  Years ago it was whale oil and bear skins, and I couldn’t see the harm of a few oil rigs and on-shore refineries along the hundreds of miles of sparsely inhabited coastline.  Now of course this is all rather different from how I feel about off-shore wind farms – or indeed HS2 – back home, which brought me back to the point of Christian’s PhD thesis.  He thinks that closer collaboration between tourism studies and psychology would yield valuable results.  And if so the same surely applies to the fields of psychology and town planning.  Or more specifically to psychology and Nimbyism.

Place Identity and Place Attachment are the terms Environmental Psychologists give to the feelings we have for places, and how these places become part of our sense of ourselves.  And it is generally agreed that one of the pre-requisites for place attachment to occur in us is a long association with the place in question.  Going on holiday for a few days probably won’t do it.  Although if the place is similar in appearance to one to which you are already attached the process might be quicker.

So there in 30 seconds is Nimbyism explained.  Those of us who haven’t spent significant time in a place (or somewhere else that looks broadly similar) will not have a deep emotional attachment to it, and frequently won’t feel such concern about it being changed by 21st century development.  Those that have lived there for ages will find this attitude utterly incomprehensible and believe that the area will be completely ruined by whatever is proposed.  A complete lack of meeting of minds follows, as endless technical reports – EIAs, sustainability appraisals and economic impact studies etc. – are commissioned, while little or no thought is given to the psychological aspects at work.

So what’s the answer? Well I don’t know, but the thought did at least encourage me to get a book off my shelf which I bought last summer and haven’t even dipped into:  Patrick Devine-Wright’s “Renewable Energy and the Public – from NIMBY to Participation.”  A look in the index found a mention for both Place Identity and Place Attachment, and so when I’ve managed to read it I’ll let you know the solution.  Until then I’ll just have to continue wrestling with my conscience over my total inconsistency – like most of us do…

  • Jeremy Ebdon

    Development management sometimes really is just change management.