Sea, Sustainability and Sun

Gotland is probably one of the better-preserved pieces of the earth. Its spellbinding landscape of prairies, pine forests, white sand beaches and peculiar rock formations are quite similar to the ones that existed a thousand years ago. No heavy industry exists on the island, no heavy tension wires disturb the pastoral. Arriving by boat to the only town of the island, Visby, one is transported to a different time.

The island has an image of its own. It resembles nothing else in Sweden. Even in the summer, when tourists come in masse from the mainland, the countryside appears quiet, undisturbed, timeless. The Vikings, whose buried treasures are frequently deterred by labouring farmers, could still be there or so it seems.

At the same time, Gotland has worked hard to become a centre of education and enterprise, and is a perfectly modern society with high-tech infrastructure and comfort for its 57,000 citizens.

In the weak of the Rio environmental conference and its “Agenda 21” manifestoin 1992, a number of local councils in different parts of the world defined their own community objectives and proclaimed themselves as “eco-regions”. Gotland was one of them.

From the very beginning, the need to inform and communicate with the population was considered a priority measure. This has been a success. Multiple are the testimonies of the inhabitants’ adhesion to the plan, and proof of it is found everywhere on the island, in the form of personal initiatives and uncontested constructions for new energy sources.

But the question one can ask is why – why would the people in a place like this, which succeeds to be pristine and perfectly modern at the same time, be motivated to commit to life-changing environmental measures? And in what way could the example be useful for other, excruciatingly less advantaged, places in the world?

It is hard work finding the answer to this question. The reasons seem so obvious that nothing is mentioned on the matter in official publications, where only the goals and the means are treated. Of course, sustainable development has been one of the official goals for the European Union, and thus for its member regions, since the Brundtland report in 1987. But Gotland is one of the leaders of the movement, highly over-delivering on EU legislation. Helena Andersson, eco-strategist for Region Gotland, explains it this way: “Ecological sustainability is an absolute necessity for a long-term sustainable economy. The ecological system produces resources in different ways. Often, the economy valuates the delivery of these limited resources, but omits to valuate the other life-sustaining services of the eco-system like clean air, drinkable water and the vital natural decomposition and regrowth.” For her, sustainability is an economic question. And she stresses the importance of evaluating the functions of the eco-system in these same terms. “[In Gotland] we have learned to evaluate the eco-system’s functions in economic terms. We have also learned that well managed and strong eco-systems are a prerequisite for a positive economic development of the region.” She adds that eco-systems simply are “the best models we know for sustainability”.

When one searches a bit further, it seems to be a favourable blend of culture, economic vision and marketing that has driven the island in an ecological orientation. Gotland is the Swedish region with the highest percentage of (small-scale) farmers and the consciousness of the importance of natural resources and a functioning eco-system is high. There is also a high percentage of small-scale enterprises and independent craftsmen who can only compete with quality products, often connected to a bio-label. Furthermore, the population is highly aware of the island’s natural uniqueness, which brings visitors – and income – from the mainland. On top of all this, in the general competition of regional branding, it was decided to market Gotland as the “island of health”, which has further motivated clean energy and nature preservation initiatives.

Even the yearly Medieval week follows a sustainability chart.
Above: “Leva”, food and garden products, all bio and sustainably produced. Right: “Skulpturfabriken”, one of the local designers.

Ecology as a win-win situation? It would seem to be the case. When looking back, the decision seems perfectly logic: Gotland had a lot of advantages that made it “easy” to become an international role model of sustainability, now visited by experts from near and far who want to learn from the experience.

Other regions will have to work harder: Gotland built on an image that was already there, whilst most places will have to change it. High labour- and resource-costs in Sweden obliges companies to compete with quality anyway, whilst other regions in the world still find it easier to impose their products through low cost – which is often connected to un-sustainable methods and politics. However, there were also structural difficulties: if an island is easier to manage than a piece of region integrated in a mainland infrastructure, in the case of Gotland, the low density of population actually made the transition to lighter, eco-friendly energy production more difficult.

But if the study of eco-systems teaches us anything, it is precisely that each set of conditions finds its own unique solutions. Gotland is one model, many more exist and will be created. What the example proves, though, is that a collective will is needed to create the momentum. Even in Gotland, the changes were not easy and would not have been possible without the collaboration between government, habitants and economic players. We tend to forget that we all belong to the same society and that the healthy development of this society is in the interest of us all. The cake becomes bigger, it is not the pieces that get redistributed. And when people from different walks of life do come together, you feel it: a logic of action, a power of initiative that transpire in many different aspects of regional life. I feel it every time I go to Gotland. It feels good. Inspiring. And gives hope for the future.

View from the Eksta coast, of the island of Stora Karlsö, one of the oldest protected eco-systems of the world.


The principles of the gotlandish “eco-society”

  • avoid extracting minerals, metals and petrol in a faster pace than they are re-created,
  • avoid using substances that nature cannot or does not have the time to break down, such as Freon, DDT, PVC and nitrogen oxyde,
  • take care of the environment and avoid pushing away, manipulating or over-exploiting the eco-systems in a way that destroys the possibilities of reproduction and diversity,
  • share the resources in order to satisfy human needs around the world.

These “simple” principles are extremely difficult to defend in council board meetings where employment and budgets weigh heavily in the decision-making. The local government is not without critics for doing too little, notably from environmentalists. Still, although the progress announced on the council website is rarely quantified in figures, and although conserving the water levels is a constant preoccupation that has not proved successful so far,  the ambition to become a sustainable society in 2025 seems to be sincere enough when examining the concrete efforts made. Gotland has the highest rate of recycling of all Swedish regions, and has more wind-generators and solar cells per habitant than the rest of the country. The library of Visby, is the world’s most energy effective building. The island’s administration exclusively uses green energy and transport. A grid of environmental key figures has been elaborated in order to measure the results of the policy, which are published in the annual reports. Perhaps the best proof of the progress is the interest that the island rouses abroad. Gotland receives committees regularly that come to study the system put in place. Particularly, the Japanese have shown great interest in what happens on this limestone rock on the other side of the world.

Most important factors for the success of the program, according to Helena Andersson:

  • The Gotlandish started searching solutions to problems from a global perspective,
  • The visions of threats against the positive development of the region did not paralyse but lead to collaboration and creativity,
  • Heavy investment in information, education and change of attitude on subjects concerning sustainable development,
  • The recognition: the fact that the work on the island has been internationally recognised and Gotland identified as a role model.
Wind turbines on the north of the island.














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