Thursday, June 23, 2016

Happiness on Samsø

Post by: Laura Berry
4th year student at College of the Atlantic

50 metres up in the air, the island of Samsø unfolds below us as we cling to the top of the wind turbine. From up here, you can tell why the people of Samsø have utilized the power of the wind for centuries – in the past to mill grain, and now to generate enough electricity to power the entire island. As the wind whips across my face and the turbine sways below me, I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time.

 My journey to Samsø was more stressful than expected – a delayed plane from London meant that even though I eventually arrived in Copenhagen, my backpack did not. Disconcerted from the jet lag and the sun shining at 9PM, I stumbled off of the ferry wondering if this week would end up being all about the technology that allowed Samsø to become the world’s 100% first renewable energy island.

What I didn’t expect – or let myself hope for – was the way that the staff at the Energy Academy and the other people we met talked about the transition not as a matter of technology or market economics, but as a long process through which a community of normal people worked together and eventually embraced renewable energy as a positive thing in their lives.  

I’ve known for a long time that sustainability isn’t only about the energy you consume or the amount you recycle. Although reducing consumption is key to environmental sustainability, the only way to help people become conscious of their effect on the environment requires them to reconnect both to the places and to people around them. But especially in the context of climate change and the pressing need to reduce carbon emissions from our energy system, it’s difficult to explain to people that sustainability isn’t an ends, but a means – and the only process through which long-term change is possible.

Samsø and the work of the Energy Academy is a proven example that top-down, government or corporate sustainability efforts will never be as effective or long-lasting as projects that are decided upon and owned by a community. As we explored the island over the week, it became clear to me that Samsø represents a way that people used the framework of environmental, social, and economic sustainability to truly make their lives better – and isn’t that the entire point?

At the same time, without the leadership of “firesouls” like those at the Energy Academy, and the supportive institutions and legislation of the municipality, the Danish government, and the EU, it’s very likely Samsø’s energy transition would have never been possible.

As I looked out across Samsø’s agricultural landscape now dotted with wind turbines, it became clear that even when located on an island, communities will never be able to completely isolate themselves from global issues. Especially in the context of climate change, these problems can only truly be solved effectively and equitably on a local scale by normal people who care about the places and people around them. But in order to be successful, we have to be willing to use economics and policy, not just technology, as tools to help encourage different and creative solutions that work because of the people who live there, not in spite of them.