Norway post-oil: Look to Sweden?

On the EDGE: An opinion column about current issues in Norway and the United States

Norway post-oil

Photo: Francois Polito / Wikimedia Commons
Västra hamnen in Malmö, Sweden, is Europe’s first carbon net neutral neighborhood.

Shane Murray
Oslo, Norway

The late Norwegian professor Frank Aarebrot used to say, “Norway typically copies Swedish policy after waiting five or 10 years.” Norway has made strides in waste management, biofuel usage, and its hydroelectric industry. However, it seems to be this space intentionally left blank regarding a plan that transitions Norway toward an integrated economic, societal, and environmentally sustainable future.

The populist mythos in Norway is that the interest from the $1 trillion oil fund will provide for Norway’s needs long into the future. However, critics from the International Monetary Fund point out that Norway’s aging population is likely to require withdrawals exceeding interest alone. Further, living off interest is not a plan; it offers no vision of how to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Norway seems to be experiencing a type of resource curse. A working definition of the curse could be summed up in contrast to Norway’s neighbor, Sweden:

Sweden is increasingly serving the fourth industrial revolution via exporting advanced knowledge, produced under increasingly sustainable conditions.

Norway is primarily serving the second industrial revolution via export of oil and fish and has no post-oil transition plan.

Both countries still need to compete under the orthodox global economic and political models that do not fully account for negative externalities, such as carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, and the conversion of natural resources into capital resources too often tucked away in tax havens that benefit very few of us. The orthodoxy requires growth in order to remain stable. As the joke goes, the only people who believe in infinite growth on a planet with finite resources are either delusional or (orthodox) economists. If humanity is going to make it in the long run, new political and economic orthodoxies are needed to ensure we live within the planet’s ecological carrying capacity.

Sustainable transitions are often focused on solving global problems such as climate change, reducing inequality, and biodiversity loss on a local scale. Such challenges are essentially socio-technical problems in which normally the greatest gains come from societal innovation, and education is used to help shift what society values. One example from Sweden: Swedes do not normally advertise their opinions, however, many front doors there now have a sticker proudly displaying that the resident uses renewable energy, and this is helping to set new norms.

Such innovation in Sweden is accelerated by urban living labs. One project in Malmö brought key actors in society together, including residents of the city, and converted an abandoned shipyard into Europe’s first carbon net neutral neighborhood (Västra hamnen). Sweden, along with several partners across Europe, has become a leader in sharing best practices in urban sustainable transitions via the EU-funded Governance of Urban Sustainable Transitions project (GUST).

Sweden has yet to offer implemented solutions that decouple the economy from a perpetual growth model. However, the country is continually pushing the sustainability envelope via testing new ideas in living labs and throughout society. Arguably, a critical innovation is Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for Climate and similar movements such as Extinction Rebellion. It should not be surprising that Thunberg comes from Sweden. Karl Marx thought a successful workers’ revolution would start in an advanced industrialized society. While Marx was wrong on that count, it may be that a successful sustainability revolution needs to start in a nation that is highly advanced in sustainable thinking.

Unfortunately, Norway is far behind Sweden in adopting urban living labs. Efforts are piecemeal and often lack strong integration with academia. Other cases, when looked at from the big picture, appear as greenwashing to make it easier for property developers to get their plans approved.

Meanwhile, Norwegian oil exports place Norway as the largest GHG emitter in Europe (about 44 tons of CO2 equivalent per capita annually between 1980 and 2017 as opposed to official numbers of about 11 tons). Of course, Norway blames the end user. This is the language of drug kingpins, but illegal drugs only impact a small percentage of the population, whereas GHG emissions impact the whole planet. In my opinion, if Norway wishes to truly be an environmentally conscious society, a shift away from fossil fuel extraction should be priority No. 1.

Such a shift into the future could be found by looking at Norway’s past. Over 45 years ago, Arne Næss was a pioneer of deep ecological thinking, whereby humans should behave as stewards of the planet rather than use it however we see fit. As an outsider in Norway, I feel like the oil adventure here has taken Norwegians far from their ideals. Imagine if Norway had adopted deep ecological thinking 45 years ago: Norway could have been a world leader in sustainability. Historically, Norway has been a social innovator in areas such as women’s rights, the labor movement, and peace studies. Perhaps Norway should rediscover its roots and make social innovation its primary contribution to the world, rather than oil.

Shane Murray holds a master’s degree in environmental management and policy from the IIIEE, served on the board of Expats in Denmark, is a co-founder of Dentists Without Borders (Tannhelse Uten Grenser), and has worked to improve the lives of immigrants and refugees in Norway. He has lived or worked in the three Scandinavian countries and is a dual citizen of Sweden and the United States. See the author’s professional profile at

The opinions expressed by opinion writers featured in “On the Edge” are not necessarily those of The Norwegian American, and our publication of those views is not an endorsement of them. Comments, suggestions, and complaints about the opinions expressed by the paper’s editorials should be directed to the editor.

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This article originally appeared in the May 31, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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