Theater of Cruelty

The Norwegian double standard

The Power of the Periphery. How Norway Became an Environmental Pioneer for the World
Forfatter: Peder Anker
Forlag: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge / New York)
ENVIRONMENTAL PIONEER / The story of the history of Norwegian environmental thinking is an ambivalent portrait of Norway's imagined role as an environmental nation.


The Norwegian historian of science Peder Anker, employed at New York University, has written a large number of articles on environmental theory since the 1990s, and among his books are works on ecological design and the history of ecology. Empirical EcologyEnvironmental Order in the British Empire (2002). When he now grasps the history of the Norwegian environmental movement, he operates as a locally known guide for foreign visitors to the Norwegian (intellectual) landscape. The result is a presentation that mythologises and demythologises Norwegian environmental thinkers at the same time.

Anker begins with Norwegian explorers such as Helge Ingstad and Thor Heyerdahl, who mixed their sensational expeditions to exotic places with what the author sees as a typical Norwegian longing for the simple and authentic life. Similarly, he presents the Norwegian cottage and outdoor life in the post-war period as an attempt to win back to – possibly doubt – a presumably cleaner and more moral way of life, a typical Norwegian mixture of primitivism and natural pietism.

Norwegian «do-gooders»

Only by positioning themselves outside the civilization they criticized and seeking out the periphery of Outlying Norway could Norwegian environmental thinkers create a clean and unpolluted point of view, Anker claims: "On a global level, […] beautiful, peaceful Norway was put in contrast to a polluted and troubled world. The power of the periphery was a social construction and a belief system that supported the environmentalist's confident good looks. "

A typical Norwegian mixture of primitivism and natural pietism.

In Anker's critical-ironic presentation, there is a lot of condescending talk about Norwegian "do-gooders", an expression that in English refers to both naive complacency and moral posing. It is timely to direct such criticism at the legacy of Gro Harlem Brundtland, who with the concept of "sustainable development" would combine marked economic growth with green values ​​and a "typical Norwegian goodness". The oil and overfishing nation Norway has lost much of its credibility as a pioneer for the environment. It is unclear whether Anker also intends to find the roots of the Norwegian double standard towards nature in the distinctive Norwegian environmental movement he describes, which arose in an early alliance between philosophers and biologists.

Kvaløy, Næss and Zapffe

Despite the ambivalence, Anker offers a well-planned and positive reconstruction of the Norwegian environment of ecological pioneers, which will also be presented to an international audience. Anker seizes the opportunity to introduce Peter Wessel Zapf, which it is exciting to see in the context of today's environmental debates. With his cosmic pessimism and what he sometimes calls the "melancholy-metaphysical clairvoyance", Zapffe considered man to be an accident to himself and the planet – who should therefore prepare his own silent annihilation to give the world back to animals and plants. With this misanthropic uncompromisingness, he comes close to "biocentric" eco-anarchists, who criticize civilization as such. Also in the more humane theories of Sigmund Kvaløy Setreng og Arne Næs the role of humans could only be captured by a clairvoyance that came when one took on nature's own point of view.

Ardøla, 25 years later. Mardøl leader Sigmund Kvaløy Setreng, leader heidi sørensen in the nature conservation association, harald austigard. Photo: digital museum

The connection between Zapffe and Arne Næss goes through both philosophy and rock climbing, and both had the ideal of connecting theory and practice. This also applied to the fiery soul Sigmund Kvaløy Setreng, who for Anker becomes a prime example of peripheral thinking: After a harmonious natural environment in Himalayan Sherpa communities and Norwegian settlements, he himself moved to the mountains.

Zapffe considered man to be an accident to himself and the planet – which therefore should
prepare their own silent annihilation to give the world back to animals and plants.

Biology Nestor Ivar Mysteruds summer course in ecology at Finse became the core of a close-knit Norwegian ecological environment with great ambitions. In an interesting critical remark, Anker suggests that the emphasis on outdoor life and high mountains may explain why protection of the sea and coast, oil exploration, whaling and fishing debate received so limited attention in the environmental movement in Norway in the 1970s – a political struggle they should have tackled.

Deep ecology

Although Næss, Kvaløy and others took part in protests against watercourse development in Mardøla and Alta, Anker seems to think that they withdrew when the political conflicts became really radical. Back home in Norway, there was harsh criticism from Marxists in the university community, who regarded deep ecology as a facade policy: "The fight against the eco-catastrophe was the bourgeoisie's reaction to the dark side of capital."

Arne Næss and Zapffe

Also outside the Norwegian environment, deep ecology's attempts to create a broad front were threatened by factions and breakaway groups.

Among the many exciting stories Anker unravels is the story of how Arne Næss' thinking was enthusiastically embraced by the eco-anarchists in EarthFirst! – known for sabotage actions and war rhetoric. This became problematic for deep ecology as a movement, which now came in crossfire from hyper-radical and conservative critics.

Arne Næss' thinking was enthusiastically embraced by the eco-anarchists in Earth First!

On the other hand, deep ecologists were a faction already in the first place: they contrasted themselves with the "shallow" ecology they believed was in line with the destructive mindset of the modern world, where nature was considered a pure resource: a technocratic mindset they believed to be found in the analytical environmental critic Jørgen Randers and in the Rome Club's growth critique.

What is the power of the periphery?

The debates within the Norwegian environmental movement actually often seem ahead of their time, and despite all the criticism, the circle around Næss, Kvaløy and Mysterud gets a broad and positive presentation in the book.

The oil and overfishing nation of Norway has lost much of its credibility as
pioneering country for the environment.

Among the perspectives that seem far-sighted is Kvaløy's slogan "complexity against complications", which sets up fine-tuned ecological networks against the destructive monotony and monoculture of industrial society. Kvaløy was inspired by Herbert Marcuss concept of "the one-dimensional man", and these ideas also point to Bruno Latours talk of ecological «complexification»: Thorough and intricate descriptions and finely tuned lifestyles are an antidote to a simplified and rough handling of landscapes and ecosystems, and to people who use violence against all parties involved.

It is exciting to see Norwegian thinking as part of international movements and an international environment, and we could have had more of the same. What Anker describes as a "perspective from the periphery", is relevant with questions about environmental justice and the understanding of nature to indigenous peoples – who fight to protect land, forests and coasts. The question of whether there can actually be a truly ethical "force" in such "peripheral" perspectives and experiences of nature deserves to be taken seriously, regardless of whether environmental considerations can also be seen as social constructions or parts of a national belief system.


Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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