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Snowden-Inspired Lessons From an Icelandic Hot Spring

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Two weeks ago, I waded into the opalescent azure water of the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa in Iceland. This outdoor hot spring, about the size of two football fields, is one of the top tourist attractions in the country. Bathers from around the globe slather Blue Lagoon mud on their faces and necks, hoping to absorb its healing effects on their skin. The water is warm, but for added heat, visitors make their way to the back of the pool. There, a steaming hot funnel of liquid gushes from a stack of lava rocks, soothing the brave and olfactorily tolerant. Because along with the mineral-rich water, the pungent odor of sulfur clouds the air.

It's a small price to pay to experience the medicinal powers of one of the self-proclaimed "wonders of the world." Interestingly, this international wellness destination was discovered accidentally about 40 years ago. In the mid- 1970s the Blue Lagoon was formed during operations at the neighboring Svartsengi power plant. On approach to the Blue Lagoon, one can see the smoke and steam from miles away; it's coming from the power plant, not the hot spring.

To many Americans, the idea of physically immersing oneself in a pool of water emanating from the same underground source that's being used to fuel a power plant would be tantamount to drinking a cup of water tapped near a fracked well. There's a visceral aversion to it, a suspicion that the water might be tainted.

In a country that purports to declare its citizens innocent until proven guilty, Americans are slowly becoming a nation of doubters, a place where we see the glass half empty, rather than half full. In contrast, the socio-political outlook of Icelanders is one of positivity, tolerance and trust. This attitude was evident the moment I set foot on Icelandic soil.

Passport control consisted of a clerk opening my passport, stamping it, and handing it back to me. No scanning of the passport to check whether I'd been flagged by Interpol. No interrogatory exchanges about the purpose of my visit. Around Iceland, police presence was nominal. I did not see a single cop in the three days I spent in the capital city of Reykjavik. I drove over 2,000 miles and saw one police officer during the entire trip. He waved at me.

For over 1,000 years, Iceland has embraced the emblematic freedoms of a democratic society. The Althing, Iceland's parliament, is the oldest extant democracy in the world. It started in 930 A.D. The site of the creation of this social construct is Þingvellir, just outside of Reykjavik, in a valley right on top of the Mid-Atlantic Rift. At the exact point where the movement of tectonic plates is literally splitting the world apart, a government which espouses a collective of equal voices and opinions was formed. It's doubtful that the original members of the Althing knew about the government's symbolic geological location. It's something we can appreciate today, centuries and centuries later.

In comparison, America's democracy is young. The New World, as "discovered" by Christopher Columbus, was a romanticized destination, a utopia. It was a place to where our Founding Families could start anew, scrapping the tyrannous monarchy of Great Britain. But before John Smith, before Columbus, Icelandic explorer Leif Ericson made landfall in North America in about 1000 A.D. There's an awesome bronze statue of Ericson in front of the Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland's most celebrated church. The statue was a gift from the United States.

In recent months, Iceland has been mentioned as potential haven for NSA-leaker Edward Snowden. And had Mr. Snowden made his infamous declarations while in the country, he likely would have received the long-term asylum he continues to seek. More importantly, in the scheme of Iceland's socio-political tolerance, the country's most recent prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, was the world's first openly gay head of state. She left office in May, 2013. No doubt Iceland has an impressive past which reflects its liberal attitudes towards social and political freedom.

But history alone is not responsible for Iceland's peace, love and tolerance. This small country has a population of about 320,000 people. That's one one-thousandth the size of the United States. It's small, and the population has little ethnic variety. In Iceland, 94 percent of the population is classified as a "homogeneous mixture of descendants of Norse and Celts."

Homogeneity of a populace seems to breed happiness, as measured in a number of reports. Consider the "Better Life Index" as recently defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It identified Australia as the happiest nation in the world. Even though the country boats close to 22 million residents, the Australian Bureau of Statistics doesn't provide an easy-to-find breakdown of ethnic groups in the country. That's because there is very little diversity. 92% of Australians are white. The second happiest country is Sweden, and they don't seem to measure their ethnic diversity either.

The OECD study and others like it use several indicators to measure the happiness factor for a country's citizens. Metrics like education, income, civic engagement, life satisfaction. These principles echo words from our own Declaration of Independence, which assert that we have ". . . certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

If happiness is measured by a presence of democratic principles, it seems counter-intuitive that the happiest places lack diversity. Democratic nations, at least how we think of them, are not supposed to persecute individuals for their differences. All citizens are to be treated fairly, as ". . .all men are created equal. . ." We'd like to think that democratic nations welcome differing groups because the United States is the ethnic melting pot of the world.

The concept of ethnic homogeneity and its impact on democracy was summarized in a recent article in the Washington Post. The discussion included this somewhat disturbing comment:

"The idea is that in more fragmented societies a group imposes restrictions on political liberty to impose control on the other groups. In more homogeneous societies, it is easier to rule more democratically since conflicts are less intense."

This is the part where Edward Snowden jumps up and down and says, "I told you so!" Mr. Snowden's revelations about the U.S. government's surveillance programs are proof positive that our diverse society has spawned political factions which seek to monitor and control the actions of our citizens.

It's a tragic irony that America's diversity, a critical aspect of our national pride, might contribute to the destruction of the freedoms we treasure. Over the next few decades, America's population will become increasingly diverse. Projections show that by 2043, there will be no ethnic majority in the United States. If the encroachment on our civil liberties continues to correlate to our growth in diversity, America will operate a virtual police state by 2050.

In order to avoid this Kafka-esque fate, the American mindset requires a quantum shift. We must earn each other's respect through positive behavior. We must spend less time online, and more time on inter-personal, community-related activities. We must educate ourselves about our differences so we can appreciate, not discriminate. And probably hardest of all, we have to re-learn how to trust our neighbors, not suspect them.

After my visit to Iceland, it seems clear that the country's demographic simplicity is not the only contributing factor to its civic liberalism. There's something in the water, on the land, in the air. And maybe we, as freedom-loving Americans, can learn from it.

Iceland, about the size of the state of Kentucky, is one of the most geologically diverse countries on the planet. A glacier that covers 3,100 square miles is located just a few hours' drive from the volcano that erupted in 2010 and brought European travel to a standstill. Snow-covered fjords are visible from black sand beaches. Geysers and sulfuric mud pits reveal the power beneath the earth's crust. And then there are the waterfalls. Hundreds of glorious waterfalls, big and small, present in every corner of the country.

Could Icelandic tolerance be a cultural by-product of its inhabitants' exposure to a harmonious environment comprised of extreme geological diversity? Maybe. For Americans, it's a conceptual philosophy worth considering. If nature can peacefully bring together so many varied factions in one place, then we as a nation might strive to do the same thing. A country as wonderfully diverse as the United States is bound to have a few eruptions and quakes in its evolution. But with the right approach, our differences should become our strength, not our downfall.