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17 Jun 2021

Parker O'Halloran

2 minute read

A briefing on Iceland

A briefing on Iceland

A ridiculously concise text on the history and culture of Iceland.

Today Iceland is one of the most modern, healthy, innovative, educated, and sustainable countries on the planet. Now, just imagine if you could turn back the clock one hundred years. The Iceland you would see would be almost unrecognizable—even to Icelanders! The population would have been about 1/3 of its current 369,000, and tourists would have been few and far between. Reykjavik was a coastal village, while most people were living off the land in self-sustaining farms. Houses would have been cramped, many built of turf, and fishing boats were small and mainly powered by sails or rowing until the 1920s.

Row boat

Iceland's weather and environment did not lend themselves to large-scale agriculture. The natural resources of expanding economies at the time demanded oil, copper, and gold. None of which were found in Iceland. For Icelanders, prosperity was elusive. The country had one of the lowest GDPs per capita in Europe until well into the 20th century.

Compared to many nations, Iceland has progressed very far, very fast. Essentially skipping the early industrial revolution trials and moving straight to the information and services boom post World War II. With improved freezing technology and reliable logistics, Iceland's fish was exported around the world. Hydro and geothermal power drew in the power-intensive aluminum industry and made for valuable exports. The tourism and banking rush of the early 21st century really put Iceland on the map—for good and bad! The county was a financial wunderkind, and tourists flocked to take in Iceland's beauty with foreign currency in their pockets. What makes this economic leap forward unique is that it was, for the most part, inclusive for the majority of Icelanders. There were not the deep social and income divides as seen in many countries. Iceland ranks high on life satisfaction, gender equality, a clean environment, and incredible nature. It has a Scandinavian-style modern welfare system, free education, and a low crime rate making it an excellent place to live and work.

"Iceland ranks high on life satisfaction, gender equality, a clean environment, and incredible nature"

Even dating back to the first settlement in ~874, Iceland has been a tight-knit society. The early Viking settlers would have arrived on a desolate wind-swept, volcanic island with no indigenous population (except for possibly a few reclusive Irish monks) and few animals except for sea birds and Arctic foxes. The people had to work together in extended family networks just to survive. Isolation and distance from outside influences have led to a unique culture that persists today. One consequence of large Icelandic family networks is the tight bonds that have resulted in a remarkably non-hierarchal society. A stark contrast to many European nations back in the medieval period.

Perhaps because of these close family bonds and the long-standing participation of everyone since settlement times for basic survival, Icelandic society is remarkably equal. Granted, great strides toward equality have increased in recent times, especially toward gender equality, tolerance, and inclusion. However, all of these contribute to making Iceland a more open, inviting, and approachable society. For example, it is common to see politicians, athletes, and entertainers at the swimming pool, in the grocery store, or looking exhausted while picking up their kids at daycare like everyone else!

Upcoming Taste of Iceland events

This article was written by Parker O'Halloran

Parker is a seasoned writer and editor living in Reykjavik, Iceland.

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