So much for Norway’s eco-friendly image.
One of the biggest political shocks of the past decade has been the transformation of Canada. Under the influence of the tar barons of Alberta, it has mutated from a country dominated by liberal, pacific, outward-looking values to a thuggish petro-state, ripping up both international treaties and the fabric of its own nation.
Prepare to be shocked again. Another country, whose green and humanitarian principles were just as well-established as Canada’s, is undergoing a similar transformation. Again, it is not the people of the nation who have changed – in both cases they remain, as far as I can tell, as delightful as ever – but the dominant political class and its destruction of both national values and international image.
I am talking about Norway. It is famous for the size of its aid budget, the maturity of its decision-making, its reasoned diplomacy and above all its defence of the environment. Of course there has been for a long time a fundamental contradiction: Norway’s image as the saviour of the ecosystem is somewhat undermined by its massive oil industry. You might already be aware of other contradictions, such as the clash between its protection of wild fish stocks and its destructive farmed salmon industry.
But what I am about to relate cuts to the heart of Norway’s image as a broad-minded, liberal, green nation. It repudiates those advertisements emphasising the country’s natural beauty and astonishing wildlife and suggests that the sensibilities of Norway’s current political class are no more sophisticated than those of the frontiersmen of the Wild West in the late 19th Century.
Tomorrow (Wednesday [21 Nov 2012]) there will be a meeting between the Norwegian and Swedish governments, at which Norway intends to lay claim to some of the wolves which live on the border between the two nations. This may sound like a good thing. The government’s purpose is anything but.
If it can classify these wolves as Norwegian, even though most of them breed in Sweden, it can go ahead with the extermination of wolves elsewhere in the country. It can claim that, due to the newly-nationalised border population, it is still meeting its international obligations to maintain the species.
Wolves are very popular in Norway: surveys suggest that around 80% of the public – in both urban and rural areas – wants to keep them at current or higher numbers. But as so often with rural issues – in Norway and in many other parts of the world – the dominant voices are those who belong to a small but powerful minority.
Every year some two million sheep are released into forests and mountains of Norway without supervision. Around 1500 of them – as a maximum estimate – are killed by wolves. The farmers are richly compensated for these killings.
Far more sheep – some 100,000 – die for other reasons: falling into crevasses, drowning, infectious diseases, being hit by trains. But as has happened in so many countries across so many centuries, the wolf is seen by some landowners as encapsulating everything that’s wrong with the world. It is, whatever the evidence might say, perceived as a bundle of concentrated evil, which must be contained and destroyed if humankind is to emerge from the darkness of the past.
Nothing we have learnt about wolves over the past few decades – the marvels of their social structure, the very low risk they present to people and even to most livestock, the remarkable extent to which they shape the ecosystem, allowing other species to flourish* – has altered attitudes among the hard core of people determined to exterminate them.
*William J. Ripple, Robert L. Beschta, 2012. Trophic cascades in Yellowstone: The first 15 years after wolf reintroduction. Biological Conservation. Volume 145, Issue 1, pp 205–213.
Politics in Norway tend to be local in character. For people who possess an almost religious aversion to wolves, the persistence of the species is an election issue. But those who like wolves tend to vote as most people do, on issues such as the economy, tax and, perhaps, broader environmental policy.
The Centre Party (which is well to the right of centre) currently holds the environment brief in the ruling coalition. It has been chasing the votes of sheep farmers and hunters. It appears to see the wolf – and the international obligations to protect it – as an issue of Norwegian identity: if we want to kill them we damn well will. This is reminiscent of the Japanese political attitude towards killing whales and dolphins.
Just last month, at the latest summit on the Convention on Biological Diversity, Norway agreed a strategic plan to halt biodiversity loss. Almost immediately afterwards it announced tomorrow’s meeting, whose purpose, as far as some political parties are concerned, seems to be to extirpate the wolf.
Already, the situation of predators in Norway is grim. Just one per cent of the country has been designated a “wolf zone”, in which the animals are allowed to persist. But only three litters a year are permitted: once three pairs of wolves have bred, all the rest can be shot. There are currently just 25 wolves in the country. The hunting quota for this winter is 12. Over a century ago, before state bounties were paid for the killing of wolves, the population in Norway was over 1000.
As the government is aware, 25 – or 13 – is far from being a genetically viable population. Even if it were allowed to remain at this level, the wolves would eventually die out through inbreeding. But if the border wolves are redesignated as Norwegian, the extermination of the last population in Norway proper will take place even more swiftly, as politicians can then argue that the animals in the wolf zone need no longer be protected.
This new policy, if it goes ahead, will be indicative of the brutalisation of the treatment of predators in Norway over the past few years (a process which has also been taking place in Canada). The government has launched a programme of what it calls – in its eerily clinical language – “den removal”. What this means is digging wolverine cubs out of their hibernation dens and killing them. Wolverines, like wolves, are on the national red list of endangered species, yet they are still being killed for political reasons.
The government issues permits for the shooting of golden eagles, if they are considered to have killed reindeer. For the first time since 1932, last year the government permitted “spring hunts” of bears. The animals are shot from a helicopter when they have just emerged from their winter dens and hardly know if they are coming or going. Bears are also on the red list: there are only around 150 in Norway.
Such practices were regarded as barbaric and unacceptable until recently, even among hunters and farmers. Now they are taking place without any public debate or social consent.
Today a large coalition of environment groups in Norway, Sweden and Finland is writing to their three governments, requesting a joint plan to protect big predators across the three countries, and allow their numbers to rise.
Their letter – and the stark facts it contains about the continued suppression of these species in all three countries – exposes the myth of Scandanavian policy towards the natural world, which we have allowed ourselves to believe is better than that of almost any other nations. It is striking that across the Balkans, eastern Europe and Germany, the protection of wildlife and the readiness to allow the number of large predators to rise is far more advanced than in Norway, Sweden and Finland.
The extreme nature of what the Centre Party and a hardcore of its rural supporters is trying to achieve may turn out to be the best thing that has happened to the wolf population in that country. By exploding the myth of Norway’s environmental virtue and embarrassing the country internationally, it might force Norwegians to wake up to what is being done in their name, and turn their passive support for the nation’s wildlife into something more active.
About George Monbiot: Here are some of the things I try to fight: undemocratic power, corruption, deception of the public, environmental destruction, injustice, inequality and the misallocation of resources, waste, denial, the libertarianism which grants freedom to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, undisclosed interests, complacency. Here is what I fear: other people’s cowardice.
Published on the Guardian’s website 20th November 2012.
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