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The town wolf and the country wolf

How the wolf became a symbol of anti-urban sentiment in Norway, representing a broader denial of ecological and environmental responsibility in the Nordic nation.

Seth Piper
7 February 2017

Eurasian wolf at Polar Zoo in Bardu, Norway. Wikicommons/Mas3cf. Some rights reserved.Norway’s plan to cull two-thirds of its tiny population of wolves recently made international headlines and was widely condemned by environmentalists. From outside, this decision from a supposedly progressive green nation is mystifying. What may seem like a symbolic issue is in fact indicative of the high domestic political stakes related to the country’s environmental responsibilities. Understanding attitudes to wildlife among voters and politicians can tell us a lot about the state of Norwegian society leading up to the general election in September.

The wolf is indigenous to Scandinavia, but hostility from rural populations led to a national policy of extermination of this and other predator species in the late nineteenth century (when Norway was also busy decimating the world's whale populations). The wolf has for a long time been the archetypal predator in the minds of Europeans, cast as a sinister figure in countless stories and songs. Changing attitudes have led to a situation where a very limited number of wolf families have been permitted to live on just 5% of Norway’s geographical area. Today the wolf population is estimated to be just 67 and the species is listed as critically endangered in Norway, although numbers in neighbouring Russia are notably higher.

Predator culling is an issue that crosses political boundaries with vocal proponents in all of the dominant parties, and is deeply connected with the Norwegian national self-image and culture. A comparable debate would perhaps be fox hunting in the UK, or even gun control in the US, where arguments are heavily loaded on both sides and rational discourse becomes difficult. While the clear majority in Norway are in favour of preserving or increasing the number of wolves, disproportionate emphasis is placed on the wishes of a small but powerful minority who favour aggressive culling. Some politicians even question whether Norway needs to respect international biodiversity agreements and maintain a wolf population at all - a populist message which sadly resonates with many rural voters.

The most negative attitudes to wolves are found among farmers, hunters and rural landowners, while the typically more educated, urban demographic tends to be positive about making space for the predator species. There is no reason to doubt the fear in the minds of people living in remoter areas, though researchers assure us that wolf attacks are extremely rare; two hundred years have passed since the last fatality. Only a very small number of livestock are taken by wolves, and farmers are generously compensated. 

One small politcal party has been the main driver both of anti-wolf sentiment (as well as "distriktspolitikk" — more on that later): Senterpartiet (the Center Party), the country’s agrarian political force. While it has received only between 5.5 and 7.9 % of votes in any national election for the last two decades, it has leveraged its power successfully through a combination of being placed in the middle of the political spectrum as its name suggests, so being able to bargain with both sides and doing so shrewdly, as well as the luxury (or smart strategic choice) of having only a few policies they care deeply about — rural jobs and infrastructure, farming subsidies and the reduction of the wolf population — being happy to trade away anything else to get results on these. While they are outnumbered by wolf friendly parties, for these lupine policy rank lower in a more crowded field of priorities.

Gotta catch ‘em all?

Perhaps as a result of the outcry and pressure from NGOs, environment minister Vidar Helgesen has now reversed the decision and withdrawn most of the wolf hunting licenses, safeguarding a minimal but sustainable population. The response from the anti-wolf lobby was dramatic, with accusations of incompetency levelled at Helgesen, large demonstrations in front of Parliament, and one former agriculture minister even calling the development ‘fascist’ and ‘grossly oppressive’.

The Pokémon Go-loving leaders of the ruling coalition parties are so far standing firm: the days when the wolf population was kept close to zero seem to be over. To appease critics, Helgesen agreed to more GPS tracing of the animals, which are now being hunted by helicopter and tranquilised. The protection of the wolves is good news for those fighting for biodiversity, but of course it has only marginal consequence for Norway’s fast-eroding reputation as an environmental champion. Norway has prided itself on impressively high levels of clean power, electric car adoption and recycling schemes. But there is a pressing need for policies which can address the troubling fact that wealthy Norway is virtually alone among European countries in that climate emissions are still rising year-on-year. And yet Norway’s leading politicians remain paralysed with fear at taking environmental action which voters might not like.

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The current government coalition was very close to collapsing at the end of last year during the annual budget process. The sticking point was cuts to emissions – this time taxation of motor fuel. Ambitious goals for emission cuts by 2020 have been quietly dropped. Conservative MPs were caught joking that the climate element of the budget was so weak that they would have to ‘put lipstick on the pig’ and spin it by pointing to new goals for 2030. There is an over-reliance on emission trading – effectively an attempt to buy the country out of its responsibilities. Ministers have been scraping the barrel trying to find friendly, non-invasive green initiatives, but keep coming up short. The aforementioned high level of renewable energy production means there are few low-hanging cuts available which often account for the big reductions in other nations such as the decommissioning of coal plants.  

There is broad support for the polluter pays principle among Norwegians – in theory. But in reality, the introduction of green taxation is always met by critics who capitalise on the outrage of voters refusing to recognise that their own behaviour is the cause of (and solution to) the climate crisis. Because Norwegians are so rich, taxes that attempt to alter climate-damaging behaviours need to be correspondingly high in order to have any effect. It is difficult to implement green taxation with enough precision that it can alter the behaviours of those who pollute the most – often the wealthiest – without those in the lowest income bracket being disproportionately impacted. Resistance to action on emissions is often strongest from older, more conservative voters who typically live away from the urban centres. Unfortunately for environmentalists, these voters demand to be heard, and there is no shortage of populist politicians willing to tell them what they want to hear in exchange for power. 

Keeping the wolf from the door

To understand how successive governments have failed to tackle domestic emissions, as well as clocked up such a poor track record on species conservation, it can be helpful to take a closer look at one of the central tenets of Norwegian society: ‘distrikspolitikk’, the ‘rural regional policies. This is an understanding that the state shall in all possible ways support a decentralised population by subsidising jobs, welfare and infrastructure in peripheral districts. Figures that show the full extent of the spending and tax breaks connected to the district policies are hard to find as the costs are partly distributed through health, transport, education, and even defence budgets. But estimates of tens of billions of kroner per year would be modest; a significant chunk of national expenditure. There is enormous spending on infrastructure projects which have no net positive economic effect, such as the gigantic E39 road and bridge-building project, to satisfy rural voters. The electoral system is heavily weighted in favour of those living in the districts; a voter from the northern county of Finnmark has in effect double the electoral influence of a voter in the capital, Oslo. This constitutional peculiarity has received international criticism for being undemocratic.

Norwegians may be proud of their distrikspolitikk, but there is a reason other nations don't maintain comparatively generous policies: they can't afford to. And yet urbanisation is a trend impacting Norway as much as anywhere else. The rural regional policies have led to more equal income distribution compared to other countries, but have not been effective in stopping continuing movement of younger people to urban areas, where jobs and emerging culture is found. The proportion of population living in urban areas has increased to a level similar to neighbouring Sweden, where there have not been similar policies of using huge resources to stimulate the peripheral regions. 

The rural districts also happen to be the parts of the country where per-capita climate emissions are highest, while people living in the larger cities have the lowest per-capita domestic emissions. But public support for the rural policies is overwhelming, and politicians know this. Almost any progressive policy or reform will be torn apart in the Norwegian parliament if it is seen to be ‘hostile to the districts’. Climate emissions are highest from the transport sector, but political efforts to curb them have been repeatedly hobbled with the justification that they would negatively impact the sparsely-spread rural population, who actually receive tax breaks corresponding to the distance of their commute. The current government coalition was forced to use enormous amounts of political capital to introduce a small passenger fee for aviation followed by a marginal increase in fuel duty, and were savaged by populist anti-taxation parties who each time came away strengthened. Yet climate researchers agree that these steps do little or nothing to bring Norway in line with its international pledges because the resulting emission reductions will likely be a fraction of what must be delivered.

But even Norway’s domestic emission embarrassment pales in comparison to its exported emissions, since the country has long been one of the world’s largest petroleum exporters. Perversely, it is once again partly due to the district policies that the oil industry will likely continue to dominate the Norwegian economy. Calls for controversial new oil field development in the Norwegian Arctic are justified by the need for rural employment. Criticising the development, whether on grounds of local environmental or global climate concerns, comes with a risk of being branded as an urban snob ignorant of the needs of the hard working, but supposedly less fortunate people in the districts. 

Sacred cows

Beyond petroleum, industry and transport, the agricultural sector has the fourth largest emissions in Norway. But because politicians are so afraid of introducing measures to reduce them, Norway is faced with the absurd situation of having to shield farming while making dramatic and wide-reaching cuts to every other sector, as these projections from The Norwegian Environment Agency illustrate:  

Climate gas emissions in Norway in 2015 and 2050.png

Norwegian leaders want us to believe that the country will be well on the way towards carbon neutrality in the coming decades, while insisting that food producers can continue as before. Somewhat counter-intuitively, Norwegian farmers find themselves in an undeniably advantageous position. Norway has the world’s highest agricultural subsidies, with 63% of farmers’ income coming from the state, and high customs tariffs on food imports. Surely this means the state has many tools which could be utilised for reforming the agricultural sector towards sustainability? Norway could for example look to China, which is planning to halve livestock-related emissions by 2030, or Germany, which has identified agricultural emissions as a ‘massive blind spot’ in policy.

But democratic representatives in Norway quickly find themselves in hot water if their talking points or policy proposals are seen to be ‘anti-farmer’. Farming has been ranked as the most trusted profession, and public criticism directed at the agricultural sector comes at a high price. Rhetorically, primary sector workers are often presented as victims or underdogs, at the mercy of ‘urban elites’, when in fact corporate food cooperatives such as Tine and Nortura have significant political influence and benefit from near-monopolistic market positions. The phenomenon of privileged interests playing the victim card and thriving on the narrative of ‘oppressive elites’ brings to mind Trump’s successful (if nonsensical) electoral tactics. 

The hunt for painless cuts

Taking action on emissions while maintaining electoral support is the gigantic dilemma faced by politicians in all democratic countries. Adding to the difficulties in Norway are deeply ingrained attitudes regarding exactly who should carry the burden, with distriktspolitikk likely to remain a formidable stumbling block for the next government and beyond.

Climate justice is a simple concept: those nations who have contributed most to the climate crisis must take the largest responsibility for cuts. All Norwegians are through their wealth, safety and freedom extremely privileged in a global context – also those living in peripheral districts. The current insistence on avoiding necessary behavioural changes for the sake of the environment comes at the expense of people in less privileged parts of the world – both rural and urban. Not to mention the wolves.

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