Iceland's government resigned this week and an interim government -- to be headed by the world's first openly gay prime minister -- is expected to take over by Friday. As I report my article in today's Christian Science Monitor, the new ruling party has called for a referendum on European Union membership for Iceland - a move long resisted because of the negative effect it is expected to have on that country's fisheries. Most sources agreed that EU membership was probably inevitable, as the country needs to replace its tarnished currency, but unless Iceland can win unprecedented concessions, its all-important fishing industry may be undermined.
The political crisis in Iceland has gotten far graver this week: protesters clashed with police, seriously injuring two with flagstones; the police used tear gas for the first time since anti-NATO protests in 1949. Yesterday, a small mob surrounded Prime Minister Geir Haarde's vehicle and pelted it with eggs. Today, Mr. Haarde announced he was stepping down, that doctors had just discovered he had a malignant tumor in his throat, and that elections would be held in May (instead of 2011.)
Given the severity of the political and economic crisis, you might expect that Reykjavik is becoming a Dickensian dystopia, its streets piled with the newly homeless and bankers jumping from the windows. Nothing could be further from the case, as you'll read in my dispatch in today's Christian Science Monitor. Iceland's robust social safety net is catching people well before they reach rock bottom, and sources don't expect that to change anytime soon.
The first of my Iceland dispatches is on the front page of tomorrow's Christian Science Monitor: an article, sidebar, audio clip, and "Reporters on the Job" piece focused on the causes of that country's financial meltdown -- the most profound in world banking history on a per capita basis, according to the International Monetary Fund.
As you'll read, hear, and see, Iceland privatized its banks and then allowed them to rapidly outgrow the economy and society that, ultimately, was expected to back them up if the worst happened. The worst did happen, leaving ordinary Icelanders to pick up the tab for the bankers' hubris.
Last month, The American Prospect ran a special section on the future of the oceans, including my piece on the current state of U.S. fisheries policy. Perhaps you'll be surprised to learn that many experts -- including Boris Worm, Daniel Pauly, and Callum Roberts -- say the United States is finally making some progress in improving the state of our commercial fish resources. (I filed the piece from Maine: the Portland Fish Exchange is in the lead.)
Having covered -- and written a book about -- the decline of the world's oceans, it's a welcome change to have some positive news to report. Unfortunately, must of the rest of the world is not nearly so far along.
Oh: and happy inauguration eve. I was living in D.C. during George W Bush's first inauguration; it was nowhere near as intense.
Those interested in the future of newspapers -- and Maine's newspapers in particular -- may be interested in my story in this month's issue of Port City Life magazine. Unfortunately, their articles are not available electronically (they want you to subscribe), but Mainers will find it at their local bookstore or newsstand. [UPDATE: Feb. 17 2009: story available online.]
I'm just back from Iceland (more on that soon) but had to hold off on filing my dispatches to break this story on how municipal officials here in Maine are destroying campaign finance disclosures. It's also my first radio piece, so it took forever!
Anyone here in the Portland area who is concerned about further destruction of local campaign reports, my wife has taken digital photographs of many of them and when I have a chance I'll be posting them on my website, since the city won't do so. [Link updated. 4/30/09]
Also in Maine: tonight I'm a panelist at this meeting on the future of Portland's political and urban planning processes. The corrosive (and largely untraceable) links between real estate developers and city councilors will be one of my talking points.
At my home in Maine - down at 44 degrees North -- we confront short early winter days, but Reykjavik is something else. Yes, I knew that here at 64 North, the sun would come up at 11 am and be gone by 4, but in actual experience it takes a lot of getting used to. Wandering around a city at ten in the morning and having it be positively pitch black just feels wrong. So too does being plunged into darkness at 4:30 (when the above photo was taken -- that's the moon.) It's also been raining and 45 degrees much of the time I've been here, so you never actually see the sun. The black sky just slowly turns to gray gloom and then, a few hours later, fades back to black. It feels a little like Blade Runner, but with better public services.
The week's other unexpected challenge was photographic, and not just on account of the shortage of daylight. For the first time in my foreign correspondent-ing career, I accidently left my camera bag at home on my desk, an oversight I didn't detect until going through security at Boston-Logan. With few options, I turned to the best camera retail outlet in Terminal E: an automated vending machine placed there by Best Buy. It runs on the same principle as the ones you buy potato chips and candy bars from: put in your money, pick a selection, and watch it be delivered to the collection slot. Swipe your credit card and - presto! - one Fuji J10 digital camera is yours.
Unfortunately, once in Iceland I discovered that the good people at Best Buy and Fuji didn't think through the needs of outbound international travellers. The camera came with a rechargable lithium battery (nearly dead) and a charger that only works on 110-volts. The battery is almost impossible to replace -- its a proprietary model only available at a Fuji dealer -- meaning anyone who buys one at Terminal E and then arrives in Iceland or any other 220-volt country is going to be very disappointed. (Most camera, cell phone, and laptop chargers are dual-voltage these days.)
Thankfully, the proprietor of this Icelandic photo shop kindly charged my battery in his charger. (If you ever need to buy a camera in Iceland, buy it here, and thank the owner again on my behalf.) This allowed me to get back to the work at hand -- more on that coming soon -- and actually have some images to adorn this posting.
I'm in Iceland this week reporting on the causes and consequences of that country's financial collapse for The Christian Science Monitor and on energy issues for The San Francisco Chronicle. I've reported from there in the past, but this is my first visit in some seven years; in the intervening period Iceland got much richer and, very suddenly, far poorer.
I expect Iceland's plight may provide the rest of us with a preview of what a 21st century depression in a rich western nation looks like. I'll be linking my dispatches to this blog.