by Maria Purcariu
While during the 1960s and 1970s social movements of all sorts became fashionable worldwide, Norwegians were taking action in an attempt of protecting their most valuable heritage: nature. As they have developed this custom of using nature for recreational purposes, such as reindeer hunting, fishing or mountaineering, a word referring to that actually entered their dictionaries: “friluftsliv”, meaning outdoor life in Norwegian. The idea of spending time outside merely for pleasure was imported from England, and it was successfully combined with local traditions. In this sense, the first set of preservation regulations was adopted at the end of the 19th century. Generally, these assured the protection of the small areas surrounding cities that were used for recreation and the reasoning behind all this was preserving the beauty and rarity of these places.
So Norwegians have a longer history of being protective with the environment and besides the fact that this commitment was based on cultural grounds, it is normal for them to be so careful of the unique landscapes that they were blessed to have. But as peaceful as they usually are, Norwegians have drawn the attention of the media in the 1970s, when civil disobedience exploded for the sake of the environment.
What are social movements?
Before actually getting to what happened in Norway, I find it essential to look upon some theoretical aspects. For starters, social movements can take various forms, but at their core they all seek for change, be it on an individual, social, political or cultural level. The change sought can either be proactive and progressive, in the sense that the status quo is challenged (e.g. a protest in which it is fought for new rights) or reactive or regressive, with the purpose of maintaining the status quo by resisting other currents that are imposing modifications themselves (e.g. a protest in which it is fought for guarding the environment from human intervention that can be damaging to it). Irrespective of their type, social movements have some common features: they are collective rather than individual, they challenge or defend existing institutional structures or systems of authority, they act outside institutional or organizational arrangements, but at the same time they operate with some degree of organization and have a degree of temporal continuity.
Before the 70s, Norway was perceived as a peaceful land where people lived in perfect harmony with nature and shown little signs of dissastisfaction, therefore had no reasons to revolt. Up until that point, Norway didn’t witness any attempts of radical environmental actions. Environmental protection was kept to an administrative level and people seemed to be content with the measures that existed.
However, in 1970 the state planned to blemish the beauty of the astonishing landscape offered by the Mardøla waterfall in the Western part of the country. Northern Europe’s highest waterfall and, also one of the highest in the world, was threatened to be dried out, while constructing a dam and a power station were the main courses on the menu.
In order to stop this evil doing, a large group of environmental activists chained themselves to the mountain. The policed intervened and evacuated the protesters, but over night the construction site on the valley was re-occupied by inhabitants. Ambitioned by the activists, they decided to take the matter in their own hands, as they were the ones who were benefiting if Mardøla waterfall was “saved”. They threatened the authorities but without success, and the action had to be given up.
A central role in the demonstrations was played by Arne Næss, a philosophy professor at the University of Oslo. One of his courses on Gandhian philosophy has actually triggered the actions of the activists at Mardøla, and Næss even participated in the part with the chaining. It was an alliance between the most advanced university philosophy of the country and small farmers from rural areas. Gandhian thinking soon became an essential philosophy of method to the environmental, peace and alternative movements. Another figure considered to be important in the campaign was eco-philosoper Sigmund Kvaløy, who was of core significance in establishing a globally conscious environmental movement.
Post-Mardøla: the successful failure that became a symbolic milestone
Although it didn’t succeed and the dam was built, I still see the movement as fruitful, as it reached the media and made news headlines. I consider that it was, to some extent, both proactive and reactive. Not only did the Mardøla action eventually start a new era in Norwegian politics, but its original purpose was to preserve the beauty of the lands that their territory was blessed with. The campaign was pivotal in the development of the environmental movement in Norway. Since 1970, activists felt more encouraged to participate in radical direct actions to state their cause in an attempt of making a change.
Moreover, the movement inspired similar actions in neighboring countries. Later that year, activists in Sweden had engaged in a violent battle with the police while they were protesting against the cutting of elm trees in Stockholm. Known as the “Battle of the Elms”, the action was successful as the city administration had to give up in favor of the occupants. By the same token, in the following years similar movements took place in Iceland and Finland. Nowadays, the public worldwide has started to worry about the environmental changes that our planet is facing and saving the environment is the ultimate trend.
* Intelligent stuff courtesy of Tarjei Rønnow’s 2011 “Saving Nature: Religion as Environmentalism, Environmentalism as Religion”, Ørnulf Seippel’s 2001 “From Mobilization to Institutionalization? The Case of Norwegian Environmentalism”, Anine Norgren Jahnsen’s 2007 “Animal Ethics in Norway” , visitnorway.com and no.geoview.info
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