Coded gray.

Thursday 31 May 2001

Fields and woods

Pic of the day: Which one will stay, and which one will go? The farm, or the wilderness? It may depend on something else than you think.

Bread vs circus

I understand that Norway has more of this conflict than most other countries: The conflict between the capital city and the more remote provinces. This axis is very active in Norwegian politics, and at times more important than the traditional right/left axis.

Norway is a very long country, and its capital city, Oslo, is placed in the south-eastern corner. Most of Norway is further away from Oslo than much of Sweden and Denmark, and the northern parts of the country are more remote than most of western Europe. (In fact, if you were to put a pin in Oslo and rotated Norway, it would reach northern Italy. Don't try this at home if you don't own your own maps.)

It is more than just a conflict between city and countryside. There are few large cities in Norway, a country with only 4.5 million inhabitants. None of the other cities are comparable to Oslo. The official numbers don't do it justice: Culturally, all of the area around the Oslo fjord is part of the capital, and this is a sizable minority of the country's population. And of course, this is where politicians and the national newspapers hang out too.


The engine behind the deep and abiding distrust is that both sides feel that they are paying the other's bills. (In that respect our country is not unlike a modern marriage where both are working outside home.) In reality, the city and the provinces have two different economies. The outlying provinces have most of the agriculture, fishery, and industry. The cities, and Oslo in particular, have mostly a service economy. Thus, the bread comes from the province but the circus is in the city.

Now you can only eat so much bread in a day; but as our political system shows, there is no upper limit on the circus.

Even in Norway, only limited resources can be spent on building infrastructure such as roads (always a favorite in a mountaineous country). Economic analysis shows that building roads in the area near Oslo will improve economic growth the most, and I do not doubt this. Not if you measure economy the most common way, the way expressed in GDP (gross domestic product). In almost all fora of macro economy, GDP per capita is the measure of a country's wealth. But as some farmers point out: If we all cut each other's hair every day, GDP would be high, but we would all starve eventually.

This is quite a real argument. Despite being the world's second largest oil exporter, Norway still relies on various other exports too. (And the oil drilling is definitely not taking place in the Oslo Fjord, either.) Improved quays and ports, roads, railroad and airports in the industrial parts of Norway would enhance export, giving all of Norway more money to spend on circus.

On the other hand, modern agriculture, aquaculture and industry are not very labor intensive. Fewer and fewer people are needed to maintain these activities. And so, fewer and fewer people are needed to support those workers with services locally. I have seen this myself, and how it affects small communities.

As farmers grow old and their children have moved to the city, eventually the farm becomes just a holiday residence and the neighbors take over the land. One by one the farmers disappear. At some point, the local shop is closed down. At some point, the school is closed down. The post office is gone. There is nothing left but a few large farms, but without a community to live in. A group of these small farming communities used to encircle a larger village or small town with some industry and some more trade and services. But as the surrounding hamlets become depopulated, there is less use for the shops, and eventually the village is shrinking too. Labor for the industry becomes scarce, and people are reluctant to live far from all but the most basic of amenities.

Year by year, the districts wither from the smallest twigs inward. Once all the leaf-bearing twigs are gone, the tree will die. Will it go that far? Probably not.


Apart from the sweet taste of national pride, there is no reason why Norway should grow its own food. Well, that and there is not enough food in the world. Except it is, in fact food is routinely destroyed to keep the prices up. Famine almost without exception comes from war or civil unrest that disrupts the economy that distributes the food. A country in peace and freedom is never without enough food. Theoretically there could be a blockade similar to what there was during the Napoleonic wars, where Norway was blocked from buying grain. But it's been a while since Napoleon. Whatever might isolate Norway that way again would probably mean the end of the world as we know it anyway.

If the value of growing our own food is in doubt, it is brightly clear that we have no reason to make our own cars or washing machines, unless we can do so better or cheaper than other countries. Oh, but we must make something! If we don't export, then we can't import, and then we won't have anything to use. True, but the market takes care of this quite efficiently. All we have to do is choose which path to take. We can invest in education, as we did until recently, and have an expensive workforce creating high-value goods and services, like our Scandinavian neighbors. Or if we don't do that, our standard of living will naturally fall to the point where we supply hordes of cheap labor like much of China does today. There will always be exports, the question is what kind.

But the exports do not need to be steel and timber, as they were in days of yore. Software is much more profitable. And software can easily be produced in the city. In fact, it seems to be more easily produced in or near the city. The urban lifestyle seems to lend itself well to production of intangibles, like computer programs and books.


If however we want to keep a varied economy, with both agriculture, aquaculture and industry along with the new economy, then we should think in a whole new way. As it is today, groups of farmers and heavy industry receive large subsidies. Often as not, the motivation for this is explicitly stated to be "district politics". How about giving moderate subsidies to programmers, web designers, graphics designers and composers who want to live outside the large centra? Not enough to make a living without working (though some of the heavy industry receives more subsidies than it would cost to pay the workers to stay at home and do fingerpainting). A subsidy of $6000-10000 a year or so would convince some of us to return to the outlying provinces.

Actually there is some such subsidy already. In the northernmost province Finnmark and in parts of Troms at least, there are tax breaks for everyone and various newly educated academics get a part of their student loan paid each year they stay there. My only objection is that it is too little and too limited. We need a more massive movement to the "twig communities" if we want to keep a balanced structure.

We are past the point where we can rely on agriculture. Even if agriculture paid decently, people don't want to live so far apart that each farm has to keep its own male cat. Neighbors may be a constant irritation, but only a very few of us would be happy to not have a house in sight. And even we would prefer to not need to drive for hours to get our groceries. We must have sustainable communities, or there will be no community at all, and eventually only wilderness.

A city at the edge of an immense wilderness ... that is fine for fantasy novels; but as a future vision for Norway, I think not.

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago
Two years ago

Visit the Diary Farm for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.

I welcome e-mail:
Back to my home page.