Norway's Arctic archipelago Lofoten is a potential drilling site. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The sale of oil and gas has been highly lucrative for Norway - but should it continue?

The Scandinavian giant has kept itself afloat amid economic turbulence with a steady flow of natural resources - but is this nature-loving nation prepared to promote growth at all costs?

The recent Norwegian elections have taken the country in a conservative direction. While talk of cost cutting, limits to immigration and religious education reform are at the forefront of the political discourse, the national energy debate is proving problematic for the new coalition government. Reconciling Norway’s all-encompassing apprecation of the natural world with the desire to export gas and oil supplies is proving difficult, forcing the parties to ask themselves which matters more: growth or the environment?

The new blue-blue coalition government, elected this September, has already begun a reversal of some key Norwegian ideologies, turning to privatisations, tax breaks and welfare cuts. The coalition, made up of the Conservative Party (Høyre) and the far-right, anti-immigration (ironically named) Progression Party (Fremskrittspartiet), came to power following the previous Labour government’s nine-year term. Most attributed the change to an overwhelming apathy towards the inclumbent government: they hadn’t done anything wrong, they’d just been there for a while. Although Norway managed to dodge the recession with the help of huge oil and gas reserves (and high taxes), the shift in attitude seemed to mimic corresponding shifts across Europe: fear of potential economic downfall resulting in an abrupt reversion to right-wing policy.

Norway’s attitude to nature is deeply entrenched. Even in the capital city, Oslo, access to nature is easy and encouraged. Lakes, mountains and ski resorts are close by and can be reached by train. Buildings can only be built to a certain height, to avoid overdevelopment. Recycling is strictly enforced, even in student housing and in the most built-up areas. Norway continues to be hugely under-populated, boasting large unspoilt landscapes. To be solitary seems to be an essential tenet of Norwegian life, and to be solitary in nature is the epitome of this.

Norway’s ability to maintain its sparsely populated city and untouched natural resources has been largely due to its huge North Sea oil and gas reserves. In 2011, Norway was the 8th largest exporter of oil in the world, as well as the 2nd largest exporter of gas, maintaining its status as the 4th richest country (per capita) in the word, according to the International Monetary Fund. At the same time, Norway aspires to commit to renewable energy, though this ambition is proving difficult. The country's primary energy source is hydroelectric power (95 per cent, in fact). Norway is ranked 30th in the 2008 list of countries by carbon dioxide emissions per capita, and has yet to achieve its ambition of cutting its emissions by 30 per cent.

Norway faces a dilemma when it comes to energy. It’s exportation of oil and gas causes a huge number of carbon emissions, almost 500 million tonnes. For a country that is in no way struggling financially, even compared to its western neighbours, the government still wants to increase exports of these natural goods - increasing its carbon footprint. The current blue-blue government coalition is desperate to drill for oil in areas of northern Norway such as Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja, but have had to make a deal with the minor parties on the right side not to explore these areas in order to gain a majority. The areas are both very beautiful, and extremely vulnerable, due to the narrowness of the fjords and the harsh climate in those areas, meaning that the risk is higher than drilling in open sea. The potential damage is devastating.

The sale of oil and gas has been wildly lucrative for Norway. A recent article in Aftenposten reported that the “net present value of revenues” from oil and gas in Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja would be 1,925 billion Kroner (about 188 billion British Pounds). If there’s anything that’s going to convince you to destroy some natural habitat, 188 billion pounds is probably it.

It’s clear to see why the government is so keen to drill, but the Norwegian attitude to nature coupled with the smaller parties’ commitment to the environment might delay excavation. It appears that for the next four years, the ecological moral values of most Norwegian citizens, as well as the fjords, will remain untouched. 

Getty
Show Hide image

It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage