Vaxjo, Sweden, is another case that Tilters and Transitioners like to reference. In one primary way, it is a better example than Cuba or Russia: all of Vaxjo’s initiatives have been voluntary. And as we shall see, it also serves as an example of how the best renewable options are useless when the goal is industrial civilization.
Sweden is one of the truest democracies on the planet. Comparing their constitution to the current US Constitution is instructive if you know what you are looking for. Article 1 states:
(1) All public power in Sweden proceeds from the people.
(2) Swedish democracy is founded on freedom of opinion and on universal and equal suffrage. It shall be realized through a representative and parliamentary polity and through local self-government.
As discussed in “Liberals and Radicals,” the vibrant ferment of democracy in the British colonies in 1776 was displaced by the merchant-barons in their quest to privatize and gut this continent. They won, and the continent, and indeed the planet, has been turned into wealth for a very few. Power organized at a decentralized and local level was purposefully written out of the US Constitution: “local self-government” is not a phrase that appears anywhere.
In the US, so many people have given up in apathetic despair; this is understandable and, indeed, predictable. The US Constitution was not set up to empower the vast majority of us. But the Swedish government was, and people in Sweden have a reason to try. Witness the town of Vaxjo. Their emissions of CO2 decreased a “fantastic” 32 percent from 1993 to 2007.77 Vaxjo’s per capita contributions to global warming stand at three tons of CO2 per citizen, below the global average of four tons and well below the European average of eight tons. These advances were in large measure due to a switch from oil to biomass for heating; Sweden’s forests now supply 90 percent of Vaxjo’s heating needs. They have a centralized town heating system that burns sawdust and wood chips, waste products from paper mills and sawmills in the area.78 Fifty-one percent of Vaxjo’s energy comes from “biomass, renewable electricity, and solar.”79
That sentence sounds so good, so hopeful, but the happy feeling doesn’t hold. First, the biggest proportion of Vaxjo’s energy comes from outside the city, and is, in fact, generated by hydropower and nuclear power in a 50/50 split. Are hydropower and nuclear power “renewable?” I’m happy to grant the point (only for the sake of discussion), but I will add that just because something is renewable doesn’t mean it’s good for life on the planet.
Imagine someone inserting a piece of concrete into one of your arteries, stopping the flow of blood. That is what a dam is to a river, except you are only one creature, one life: a river is a multitude of lives and their lives are at serious risk. Ten percent of all animals, including more than 35 percent of all vertebrates, live in freshwater ecosystems, and they are currently going extinct four to six times faster than other animals.80
And I don’t know what image to use for nuclear power nor why anyone would need an image to understand plutonium-239, a substance so toxic that one-millionth of a gram is carcinogenic. A nuclear power plant will produce 200 kg of it annually, and those 200 kg will last 500,000 years.81
And as for “biomass”: Sweden is 66.9 percent forest, with 17.2 percent being primary forest, which is the most biodiverse form. Arable land only totals 6.54 percent—Sweden is a cold place. Only 2 percent of the GDP is agriculture.82 The basis of the economy is “timber, hydropower, and iron ore,” and its economy is “heavily oriented toward foreign trade.” Other “natural resources” include copper, zinc, lead, uranium, and, to round out the fun, arsenic.
These areas have been reforested with single-storied middle-aged and old pine stands … during the 20th century. Fire suppression and changes in land use from subsistence-to-industrial forestry facilitated Norway spruce regeneration as undergrowth in open Scots pine stands after logging. This natural regeneration has, to a large extent, been cut down and replaced by pine afforestation. During the second half of the 20th century, the standing timber volume has steadily increased, while the mean age of the forest has decreased. Today’s young dense forests will result in higher timber values in the coming decades, but the forest has lost a range of ecological niches.
Or, as the authors state bluntly, “The forest has been transformed into a production unit.”83
So here’s what is really happening in Sweden. There are some important cornerstones in place: real local democracy with citizens who participate, an extensive social safety net, a birthrate of only 1.66 percent, and income redistribution toward an equitable, stable society. Swedes rejected the euro over concerns about the possible destruction of their democracy. Sweden is also the originator of the Swedish Model, which recognizes prostitution as a human rights abuse and has made remarkable strides toward shutting down the commercial sex industry and ending sexual slavery.84 In many regards this is a society with the right values.
But no one is telling the truth in Sweden, not anymore than in the rest of the world. The Swedish economy is an industrial economy, based on mining, manufacturing precision parts for industrial machines, and wood products. Mining is near sui generis in its combination of devastation and extraction. Industrial manufacturing to enable more industrial manufacturing is adding an accelerant to the fire already consuming the planet. And turning the forest into a monocrop tree farm leaves the trees to stand alone, a once-living community reduced to a production unit.
Adding some solar power and a high-tech boiler does not change the nature of the Swedish economy, which is an industrial economy based on globalization. They don’t make what they themselves need; instead, they make what other industries need, and then buy what they need with the earnings. Sweden provides for very little of its own food. The Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet calculated the distance traveled for fifty common food products. Combined, they went further than the distance between Earth and the moon. All of this—the mining, the manufacturing, the food imports—is only possible because of fossil fuels. A centralized boiler in one small town is nice, but the entire economy is floating on oil. And paper mill refuse cannot possibly scale up to heat the houses of eleven million people during a Nordic winter. Of course, the people who live near the mill should use the waste, but this is not a solution. To suggest it is one is like suggesting dumpster diving as a solution to world hunger.
As for the hydropower, on the entire European continent only four free-flowing rivers are left. They are all in the far north, with distance and cold as their only protection. The rest, civilization has left in shreds. “Fragmentation” (dams) and “regulation” (flow control) are the “manager’s” terms. “Starvation” and “asphyxiation” might be the river’s. One set of researchers calls dams “the biggest threat” to reindeer and the riparian forest communities on which they depend. The dams on the Lule River, built in the 1960s, “have changed the ecosystems completely.”85 The Lule River has been dammed by fifteen power plants which produce 16 percent of Sweden’s electric needs. The Lule is “a massively reengineered” river now. One of the dam’s “managers” says, “All of Sweden’s lamps are powered by the river.”86 What they are powered by is a dead river.
And as is also true the world over, this destruction has had a terrible impact on the indigenous people. In Sweden these are the S¡mi, who are among the last indigenous of Europe. The S¡mi are the original inhabitants of much of northern Europe, from the Atlantic side of Sweden to the White Sea in Russia. The archaeological evidence, the beautiful utilities of bone and antler, is 10,000 years old.87 Their society consists of extended family groups, siida, led by an elder, often the oldest person, and both men and women are eligible. Their religious leaders, noaidi, can also be both men and women.
All the Sámi dialects contain a rich vocabulary related to the natural environment. They have numerous, very precise words to describe land, water and snow. There is also a rich, varied vocabulary for reindeer and reindeer breeding. For example, the appearance of a reindeer can be described using a large number of words. Its fur, antlers, sex and age can be conveyed in such detail that in a herd of several thousand animals, only one reindeer fits that particular description.88
Nation-states and Christianity have tried to break these people for centuries, but they “did not change the lives of the S¡mi to any significant degree.” What did, of course, was “when industrialization took off in Sweden and the country needed S¡mi’s natural resources: metal ores, hydroelectric power and timber.”89
Land, animals, and people in a tender and sturdy entwinement that lasted 10,000 years, once again destroyed by the relentless assault of civilization and its endless hungers. I can keep asking why, but there’s never an answer. What insanity would drive someone to kill a river? What entitlement could justify the scoured wound of a bauxite mine? Sweden is trying to keep these activities viable, and the bright green hope of the globally privileged along with them. But neither the activities nor the hope have a future. A way of life based on drawdown—of soil, species, of life itself—cannot last.
The authors of this book are repeatedly asked, “How do you want people to live?” The question is often thrown like a challenge. The assumption is that civilization is the only way and once pinned to the wall we will be forced to admit that. But while progressives and environmentalists propose solutions that are really just grasping at industrial straws, there are people living sustainably in Sweden, and doing it so intimately they can describe one reindeer out of a thousand. The civilized and the industrialized are still trying to destroy them—the people, reindeer, and rivers—to turn a lacework of interdependence into production units and consumer goods. Still, the S¡mi persist. If the civilized could learn by example, surely of all people the Swedes would. But it is not the lack of examples of sustainable, egalitarian, and peaceful cultures that is the problem and it never has been. The problem is power, and the bottomless well of psychopathology that is eating the planet alive.