Embracing uncertainty

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Credit: Mila still fromlivefromiceland.is/webcams/reykjavikurtjorn

By Dorothy Bruce

Dorothy reports on Lesley Riddoch’s conversation with Icelandic lawyer Katrin Oddsdóttir

On the day that Ian Blackford and the SNP Scottish MPs walked out of the House of Commons in protest about not being able to debate the EU Withdrawal Bill sections that impact on the devolution settlement and the powers of the Scottish Parliament, Lesley Riddoch, filming in Iceland with Phantom Power Films on the second Nation video, spoke to Lawyer Katrin Oddsdóttir. Katrin was elected to take forward the constitution drawn up by the Icelanders themselves, and is in charge of the society that’s charged with getting it into law.

Katrin started by saying that in discussions over their independence Icelanders too walked out of a meeting – one with the Danes. The Danes hadn’t come for discussion. They had decided beforehand what would happen. When the big guy, says Katrin, has decided for you what’s going to happen next, and you’re there just to decorate his decisions, why should you sit there and validate their decisions to ignore you, or not even let you talk? In that case they have gone too far. The Icelandic team stood up saying they all objected, then they walked out. Initially it caused problems, but in the end it created a lot of leverage. “You have to show people.”

The crash, Iceland did things differently

After the crash in Iceland people protested, protested, protested to make the power-holders understand that the people understood the power was theirs, says Katrin. So now as soon as the powers-that-be start messing up, the Icelanders are there to show them. “Hang on, we’re watching you, this is not on.” Katrin believes that attitude and action would not have been possible before the crash of 2008. “The crash was a bit of a gift.” It allowed the accumulation of strength to say hang on, this has gone too far. Just do your job, govern this place. “Be responsible but know that as soon as you do something very stupid or lie, we’ll be back there and we’ll take you down.”

Lesley Riddoch refers to the siren attraction of certainty in life and the fact Icelanders appear comfortable with uncertainty. Katrin responds by saying that during the 2008 crash the media kept banging on about uncertainty like a whip, trying to make Icelanders as scared as possible. They were supposed to be scared because there was huge uncertainty. But if we rewind a bit, she says, all we know of life is that the only certainty is death. The bottom line is people are easily scared and when scared make very subtle choices.

Being adaptable and living with uncertainty is part of being Icelandic. Earthquakes are a fact of life. Seeing massive building-sized blocks of ice twirling in the air, with the road in front of you swept away by a river, then you realise how small and insignificant you are in this world. That affects the way Icelanders look at things.

Learning to be courageous

Being brave, insists Katrin, is one of the most important things in life. Aristotle believed you can only get brave by being brave. She tries to choose to be courageous in moments when she has to be, which can sometimes be difficult for a lawyer. She teaches her students in the law department of the University of Reykavik that you can find out about law yourself from books, learn the tricks and the methods, but you have to learn to be courageous. You have to do it, and do it, and do it, and that’s how you become courageous. If you take the weak option and back down and don’t take a stance, say what you want, follow your heart, then slowly you become less courageous. And so many things in life are like that…contagious…like peace and war. The more peace you have the more peace you get, the more peaceful solutions you choose the more peaceful options are available to you – and the opposite.

The notion of choosing certainty is a certain death in a way. It sounds dramatic and may be a little bit simplistic, but we need to avoid others telling us to be scared because something is uncertain.

Lesley asks if this great capacity to embody uncertainty arises from the nature of the island, having joked earlier about the twelve earthquakes that day – and twelve earthquakes is a quiet day – with volcanic eruptions always predicted for the future with their impact unknown. Does this unique position make the Icelanders risk takers? Lesley asks. Has the need to be adaptable become part of their identity?

Don’t look back and take those mistakes as part of your future

Katrin agrees this is indeed the case. The Icelandic landscape with its glaciers and eruptions is very much a part of them, changing the chemistry of their being, in their DNA. They need to embrace and face up to the fact that they are merely bugs or little apes, not all that significant, with limited lifespans, and after them nature will continue. We need to stop allowing others to tell us to be scared because something is uncertain. Uncertain things can go well and turn out wonderfully, so don’t automatically assume that because something is uncertain it will be bad, because “that’s a stupid error in thinking”.

If Scotland gets independence, advises Katrin, don’t compare your new state with what you have already: you shouldn’t look back at how things were done. Don’t even think about it. Just get randomly selected people together and decide what you want, and it can be something completely different. You don’t have to build the same stuff again and repeat the same mistakes, so that it becomes version B of what you already have. Scotland has all the opportunities to take decisions to prove we can do things differently. You can do something crazy, amazing, that will change the course of us as a species.

Lesley agrees about the possibilities, saying in Orkney firms are flaring off all their energy as they are forbidden, under the present system, to have a grid connection. The whole of Scotland could have no bills for energy if we decided to do things differently, if we really wanted to do it and challenge the British market economy which people have accepted. We could actually have free energy, but no-one has looked at it that way, and the biggest equalising measure you could have is energy. It’s a lovely one to think about, she muses, but at the moment if raised “people think of you as a complete loon”.

First establish the values your society should project

Karen agrees, saying that people can’t object to the present systems even if they don’t like them because they haven’t got the alternatives written out and in their back pocket. The most important thing to do, say if you are writing an assignment for a new constitution or whatever, is to have the space and time to have meaningful conversations about where we want to go together as a group. In 2011 Iceland had a national assembly with 1000 people sitting down together for one day to discuss the values that should underpin their new constitution. “To be able to sit down with your fellow citizens whom you don’t know and talk about something meaningful – it’s like a religious experience”.

With a constitution you shouldn’t look back and see how things were done. That just replicates the problems. We need to reclaim the right to have indepth discussions. Choose what works, what you like, what you believe in. Don’t automatically let the system choose itself for you.

Now with the loss of meetings in public squares, and people using the internet, there’s no space, says Katrin. We need to reclaim the right to have these conversations. Even if they don’t deliver outcomes they have their own value in developing our brains and our community spirit. There are parallels everywhere. What you see in Iceland Scotland can take and use. Choose what works and what you like.

Listen to the podcast and be amazed at what a small place like Iceland can achieve and what we could learn from it.