An American’s Visit to Another Planet: Iceland

Photograph Source: Josh Reid

Well, maybe not another planet–I’m speaking about a trip to a country that is often utilized to portray other planets in film. I’m speaking about Iceland, but what I’m going to discuss has nothing to do with the otherworldly geologic landscape. It has everything to do with the cultural landscape, that for all practical purposes, may as well be another planet when compared to the current United States.

Like most Americans, I don’t get out much. Cost, excessive work hours–all the reasons that keep one close to home are part of my world. A plan that started in 2019 allowed us to take a quick trip to Iceland that only materialized this summer. I was prepared for something radically different; I read about other nations (unlike most Americans), but the reality of seeing how other parts of the world live has made the return home all the more heartbreaking. To say we are off the rails in the United States implies there are rails to go off of (and we of course don’t want to pay for the infrastructure of any high speed rails in the US).

Where to start–well, for one thing the entire time we were there we did not see one homeless person. I’m not saying that in a Karen-esque–oh, thank heavens we didn’t have to view them. No, it’s a clear indication that they are a nation with an adequately functioning safety net, the likes of which we have given up on in the US. I’m 52 years old and (here we go….old person rant)–the increase in people being forced to live on the streets due to stagnant and unlivable wages, soaring real estate costs, mental health and substance abuse (because what the hell do you think will happen to people in a nation not caring for them?)….the difference in just my lifetime is staggering. It’s become a given that lots of people are living in the most dire circumstances. What a staggering difference. It’s a clear indication of a lack of soul in a nation. If you can’t care for your own or consider so many to be disposable, what are you as a people? It’s a question the right wing doesn’t want to consider because they are too anxious to impose a 100% fascist reality–that’s their desire for the soul of the nation and the liberal left will just frown about the sadness of it all, but not really consider the implication that this is a failed state.

Iceland has an amusing commercial that at first looks like an ad for some pricey bottled water–but the punchline of it is “just drink the tap water” because they have the most incredibly pure water. It would be lunacy to buy bottled. No Flint, MI flavoring here. The country is largely unpolluted and is almost entirely run on geothermal energy. I know what Americans will say…easy to do if you have hot water near the surface through volcanic activity! Americans will come up with every reason why pursuing renewables is folly without the most basic fucking realization of them all…..everything growing on our planet at this moment is thanks to our sun. But sure, it’s irrational to assume a renewable solution is out there. Let’s just continue to burn what the sun produced eons ago in the form of petroleum products and then descend into a Mad Max future. It’s a mindset given to us by those who profit from the current system and could care less that it will definitely kill off most of the planet without a change in course. Americans love to pretend they are adventurers and innovators, but they overall cling to the most basic stories told to them by authority figures. America thinks it’s Luke Skywalker but totally would follow the rule of law of the Empire.

Did I mention that Iceland is also on the vanguard of a 4 day work week now? America is now encouraging apps for gig jobs (how many jobs does one person need)….and this is still not enough for the average young person to ever dream about owning a home or achieving any measure of economic stability. The older generations that are still somewhat secure largely ignore the escalating cost of this capitalistic economy on the younger generations. The young are the ones paying the interest and principle on their parents’ and grandparents’ selfish decisions. Why would a decent society ever decide that it is fine to let the conditions degenerate so? Before anyone blames one party or the other I will share what I consider to be the best synopsis of our current Republican and Democrats paradigm. It’s been shared on social media that the Republicans are the Texas school shooter and the Democrats are the Uvalde, TX cops. That’s exactly it. To say we have any political party looking out for the future or the basic standard of living at this time in the US is pure folly. Egregious attacks on personal autonomy are going on, but the Democrats seem unwilling to fight much more than to tire their fingers writing pleas for more funds. Somehow the Republicans can enact hideous agendas with small margins, but the Democrats always have a Manchin or a Sinema to use as a convenient excuse when they have a majority not to fix anything. They simply aren’t fighting for anything except funding to continue their grift. During the bank crisis during 2008, Icelandic bankers actually went to jail. No politicians in the US made that happen here. And the fact that each and every American knew that wouldn’t happen is telling. We deep down know how deep the oligarchy goes.

A painful moment came when a guide in Iceland was describing the Viking era and how they were often in feuds, having violent conflict and almost constant litigious issues with each other. Then he added, “like America today”. The international group just nodded. They know.

On the day we left the Roe V Wade reversal had just come down and a group of college students at the airport were discussing not wanting to come back. They said they had met friendly individuals in Iceland and other parts of Europe who voiced concern about the situation in America. One British girl told them “it doesn’t look good where you are from”. The group told me they were there to study renewable energy, but sadly said they were headed back to a place with eroding rights for women and probably burning trash for future energy. That was on top of the already dismal circumstances of student loan debt, no liveable wage for most……not looking good is an understatement.

This is not to say that Iceland has no problems. Women had to strike in enormous numbers about 50 years ago to receive needed pay equity. But the thing is, that worked. It’s now rated as one of the most egalitarian countries in terms of wages, etc. between the sexes. And a guide told us that due to their cheap, renewable energy, they have corporate vultures like Rio Tinto showing up to process aluminum there. It’s not perfect, but the incredible difference I witnessed leads me to only one conclusion.

We live in a shithole country. No amount of fireworks can change that.

Kathleen Wallace writes out of the US Midwest. Her writing is collected on her Substack page.