On a recent visit to Iceland, I had the opportunity to compare that country with New Mexico, two places that at first glance couldn’t be more different. I contemplated some surprising synchronicities while hiking the fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. And I wondered if perhaps attitude, even more than history and geography, is destiny.
Iceland is a remote island in the North Atlantic with a history of colonization, only gaining independence from Danish rule in 1944. Iceland’s interior is uninhabitable due to permafrost; only 320,000 people live there, clustered along its seacoasts. Its glaciers, waterfalls and tectonic plate fissures, its volcanos, smoking hot pots, open vistas and mysterious skies all suggest parallels to our own remote location, history, sparse population and our destiny dominated by our geography of deserts — largely uninhabitable — and mountains.
Iceland honors its Viking history, as we celebrate our Spanish and indigenous roots; the sense of place and unique culture there fosters a folk spirituality akin to our own living spiritual sensibility. And both Iceland and New Mexico rely on tourism to fuel their economies.
Yet, despite its small population, less than a quarter of New Mexico’s, Iceland has attained what in New Mexico are goals that public policy has actually diminished in recent times: high-quality food for all and energy sustainability.
I visited a seven-acre geothermally powered greenhouse that produces fresh greens year-round. The popular swimming pools and 80 percent of the homes in Reykjavik, down to the lovely heated toilet seats, are warmed with geothermal power. Organic lamb, dairy and fresh wild-caught fish provide much of the diet. Family-run dairy farms and sheep ranches throughout the country pool their resources for processing at a single milk and cheese plant; the famous Icelandic wool is processed in a single mill. Food shops do not have “organic” sections, for, as our tour guide explained, “It’s all organic.” GMOs are unheard of there.
Although Icelanders receive health care, education, senior care and other benefits we are told would be ruinous to our independent spirit if they were provided, many work several jobs and are quite entrepreneurial. For example, our van driver, Gunter, tours on the weekend and runs his own international business, mainly in China. Our tour guide, Helga, also operates her own whale-watching company.
It would be interesting to crunch the numbers to compare the amount we pay in taxes, our actual incomes and the comparative costs for services between here and in Iceland, admittedly a very expensive country.
But Iceland has found a way to harness its natural resources, mainly, its naturally heated water, which comes out of the ground at 500 degrees, to produce clean energy. Meanwhile, New Mexico, rich in wind and solar energy, scarcely provides a fraction of the state’s energy from these clean resources.
Perhaps the difference may be summed up by the philosophy I encountered on a tour of a state-of-the-art geothermal plant that also offered a beautiful display titled “Energy is Life” — Iceland is aiming toward becoming a society without waste. No pollution streams, only resource streams.
For example, the spill water from this plant is used to farm fish, Senegal sole, for export. When another large geothermal plant went online, it was eventually discovered that the “waste water” had curative powers. So was born the Blue Lagoon, now a world bucket-list destination.
Perhaps some will say I went to Iceland and “drank the Kool-Aid.” If so, it was GMO-free, organic and contained neither artificial flavors nor color.
Sharon Niederman is a Northern New Mexico journalist, photographer and the author/editor of 20 books of Southwest food, travel, history and fiction. Her next book, The New Mexico Farm Table Cookbook, with Santa Fe photographer Kitty Leaken, is due from The Countryman Press Spring, 2015.