The Perfect Place to Live

Emily Hahn

There is a popular app in Iceland that the locals use to prevent them from dating close relatives. Before getting involved in a relationship, these decedents of Viking settlers can find out if their potential mates are estranged cousins.  In a country with only about 300,000 inhabitants, where the natives are thought to have derived from a single family tree, this is a real problem.


There are many explanations why Iceland is a homogeneous society with little genetic variation. It’s an isolated community near the Arctic Circle, where the sun shines for only 5 hours in the middle of December, scaring off potential immigrants from warmer climates.  Until recently, Iceland was also one of the poorest countries in Europe, with its economy based primarily on the fishing industry, not attractive to foreigners seeking a better life.   Iceland also had an unwelcoming immigration policy because the citizens were fearful of losing their cultural identity.  Considering these issues, it’s not surprising that in 1996 more than 95% of the population was native to Iceland, explaining the dating problem.


Over the past 20 years, life in Iceland has changed.  Despite its well-documented banking crisis in 2008, Iceland has become a wealthy country. The island nation has fortified its tourism, manufacturing, and financial sectors to raise its per capita GDP to top ten status in the world.  Iceland also relaxed its strict immigration policies and embraced the European Union, bringing much-needed workforce to support its thriving economy. The recent influx of immigrants to the small nation drastically changed the makeup of the population.  In 2017, only 83% of the population had Icelandic blood.


When immigrants and tourists arrive in Iceland, they will realize that the island is more “green” than “ice,” especially during the summer months.  Iceland is “green” both literally and figuratively.  Although there is a dearth of trees on the island, much of Iceland is carpeted with lush grasslands.  Iceland is also one of the most eco-friendly nations in the world. Based on the 2016 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), produced by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, Iceland was ranked as the second most environmental-friendly country in the world (Finland finished first).  For those who care about the future of the planet and not worry about accidentally marrying a second cousin, Iceland may be the perfect place to live.


So the question is what is Iceland doing right?  What can other countries learn from this North Atlantic nation to become more environmentally friendly?  Unfortunately, the factors that distinguish Iceland are not easy to duplicate, because the four most important features that contribute to Iceland’s eco-friendly status are volcanoes, glaciers, low population density, and wealth.


Thingvellir National Park is one of the most popular destinations in Iceland.  It’s one of the few places on earth where a mid-ocean ridge can be seen on land.  The large crack disrupts the landscape and explains the origin of the island. Iceland was formed at the divergent tectonic boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates, where a high concentration of volcanoes gave birth to the rocky island.  Iceland remains volcanically active, fueling the many geysers and hot springs that attract visitors from all over the world.  This natural heat source is also harnessed by geothermal power plants that supply about a quarter of the nation’s electricity.  In addition, geothermal energy is responsible for meeting almost 90% of the heating and hot water needs of the island.


After the obligatory visit to the blue lagoon, the large iconic geothermal spa that invites visitors to soak in its hot outdoor pool, few tourists would leave Iceland without visiting one of its many waterfalls.  Due to the abundance of melting glacier ice, there are more than 10,000 waterfalls throughout Iceland, providing numerous opportunities for memorable selfies.  The rapidly falling water from the rocky cliffs also represents another valuable natural resource.  Hydroelectric power generates about three-quarters of electricity in Iceland.  Considering that geothermal power provides the majority of the remaining quarter, fossil fuels are responsible for generating less than 1% of electricity in Iceland.


Despite the seemingly endless supply of geothermal and hydroelectric energy in Iceland, only 80% of its total power needs are derived from renewable sources.  This is because most of Iceland’s automobiles are still powered by fossil fuels, with less than 10% of its vehicles connected to the electrical grid.  Therefore, government initiatives were introduced to increase the percentage of electric cars in Iceland to 40% by 2030.  Despite the slow transition away from gasoline-powered automobiles, Iceland’s renewable energy usage still dwarfs other industrialized nations.  The United States, for instance, obtains 80% of its power from fossil fuels.


Thanks to volcanic activity and melting glaciers, Iceland is blessed with an abundance of renewable energy sources.  Unfortunately, these advantageous geological features are not available to most societies. To match Iceland’s lack of reliance on fossil fuels, other nations must finance expensive renewable energy policies. However, costly endeavors are often shunned by society, where citizens find it easier to deny climate change rather than invest for future generations.


Another fortunate circumstance enjoyed by Iceland is its low population.  Although immigration to Iceland has increased recently, the population of the island nation remains small.  According to the United Nations, Iceland ranks 227 out of 233 countries in population density, with less than 9 people per square mile of land.  As a comparison, the population density of the world as a whole is about 150 per square mile, and the density of the U.S. is approximately 90 per square mile.  If the United States had a similar population density as Iceland and people resided near hydroelectric plants, more than half of its electricity needs could be met with clean, renewable energy.


Overpopulation has harmed the environment in many different ways, including depleting natural resources, producing pollution, and generating greenhouse gases. Unfortunately, Iceland’s low population density is only an illusion.  The fact is the overall population of ethnic Icelanders has been increasing.  During economic hardships, mass emigration from Iceland was common.  Although the population on the island has remained stable, the number of people with Icelandic heritage has increased elsewhere, especially in Canada and Scandinavia.  Iceland has not solved the overpopulation problem, and population growth remains an inescapable burden without clear solutions.  The challenge remains to effectively manage the world population before the resultant environmental catastrophe takes over the job and systematically kills off the human species.


When constructing the Environmental Performance Index, 24 different indicators are measured to calculate the overall score of a nation.  Many of these factors require financial dedication from the government, with initiatives that reduce pollution, promote clean water supply, protect biodiversity, and improve sanitation.  Iceland is an affluent nation with more resources than the vast majority of other countries.  Iceland has the luxury to care about the environment.  Also, Icelanders tolerate a high tax rate, providing the government with more revenue to devote to environmental protection.  The maximum income tax rate in Iceland is 46.3% compared to 37% in the U.S. In addition, Icelanders pay 20% sales tax, compared to less than 10% in the U.S.  Sociologists theorize that a more homogeneous and less diverse nation, such as Iceland, can tolerate a higher tax rate.  They believe that these citizens view each other more as relatives than countrymen, due to their genetic similarities, and are willing to pay more to benefit others.  Icelanders do not want to marry their cousins but don’t mind paying more for social programs.


Increasing the wealth of individual nations may be necessary to motivate their citizens to invest in the environment.  This is a daunting task, and it does not entirely address the issue.  Even when a country is affluent, like the United States, citizens are often reluctant to devote resources to protect the environment. When faced with dire warnings from climate scientists, the U.S. responded with a loud cry of “fake news” and decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, cut EPA funding, and reduce the income tax rate.  Who needs money to combat a problem that doesn’t exist?


For idealistic environmentalists, Iceland may feel like the perfect place to live.  However, its eco-friendly circumstances can only service a tiny portion of the world population.  The rest of the world lives in less than perfect conditions and continues its relentless destruction of the environment.  Soon enough, the isolated island nation in the North Atlantic will suffer the same fate as the rest of the planet as global warming and pollution will envelop its borders.  Only drastic measures adopted by the world community will mitigate these threats.