Scandinavians have it all. Universal public healthcare and education that is the envy of the world. Reasonable working hours with plenty of paid vacation. They have some of the highest levels of happiness on the planet and top virtually every ranking of human development.
The Nordic model stands as a clear and compelling contrast to the neoliberal ideology that has strafed the rest of the industrialized world with inequality, ill-health and needless poverty. As an antidote to the most destructive aspects of free-market capitalism, the egalitarian social democracies of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland inspire progressive movements around the world.
These countries are worth celebrating for all they get right. But there is a problem. They are an ecological disaster.
You might not notice it at first glance. Their air is crisp and fresh. Their parks are free of litter. The waste collection works like a charm. Much of the region is covered in forests. And Scandinavians tend to be environmentally conscientious.
But the data tell a different story. The Nordic countries have some of the highest levels of resource use and CO2 emissions in the world, in consumption-based terms, drastically overshooting safe planetary boundaries.
Ecologists say that a sustainable level of resource use is about 7 tonnes of material stuff per person per year. Scandinavians consume on average more than 32 tonnes per year. That is four and a half times over the sustainable level, similar to the United States, driven by overconsumption of everything from meat to cars to plastic.
As for emissions, the Nordic countries perform worse than the rest of Europe, and only marginally better than the world’s most egregious offenders – the US, Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia. Yes, they generate more renewable energy than most countries, but these gains are wiped out by carbon-intensive imports.
This is why the Nordic countries fall toward the very bottom of the Sustainable Development Index. We think of these nations as progressive, but in fact, their performance has worsened over time. Sweden, for example, has gone from 0.755 on the index in the 1990s down to 0.328 today, plunging from the top seven to number 143.
For decades we have been told that nations should aspire to develop towards the Nordic countries. But in an era of ecological breakdown, this no longer makes sense. If everyone in the world consumed like Scandinavians, we would need nearly five Piles of the earth to sustain us.
This kind of overconsumption is driving a global crisis of habitat destruction, species extinction, and climate change. You will not see much evidence of this in Norway or Finland, but that is because, as with most rich nations, the bulk of their ecological impact has been outsourced to the global South. That is where most of the resource extraction happens, and where global warming bites the hardest. The violence hits elsewhere.
Of course, Scandinavia is not alone in this. Many high-income countries pose just as much of a problem. But as we wake up to the realities of ecological breakdown, it becomes clear that the Nordic countries no longer offer the promise that we once thought they did.
It is time to update the Nordic model for the Anthropocene. Nordic countries have it right when it comes to public healthcare, education and progressive social democracy, but they need to dramatically reduce their consumption if they are to stand as a beacon for the rest of the world in the 21st century.
The good news is that the high levels of welfare for which Nordic countries are famous do not require high levels of consumption. Happiness in Costa Rica rivals Scandinavia with 60 percent less resource use. Italians live longer lives with half the resource use. Germany has higher education levels with 30 percent less resource use. Of course, wintry climates require slightly more materials, but there is still much room for improvement.
A recent study by a team of environmental scientists lays out a detailed plan for how Nordic countries could cut their material footprint by nearly 70 percent: scaling down fossil fuels, shifting to plant-based diets, retrofitting old buildings instead of constructing new ones, requiring consumer products to be longer-lasting and repairable, and improving public transportation. In Finland, scientists have rallied around similar measures as part of a call for “ecological reconstruction”.
The good news is that all of this can be accomplished while improving human welfare and advancing the cause of social democracy. But it ultimately requires shifting to a different kind of economy – one that is not organized around endless GDP growth.
According to new research findings, which I reviewed with a colleague in the journal New Political Economy, it is not feasible for high-income nations to reduce their resource use and emissions fast enough to get down to sustainable levels while at the same time pursuing economic growth. More growth means more resource use and more energy use, which makes ecological objectives ever-more difficult to achieve.
Politicians talk about making growth “green” – but scientists reject this strategy as inadequate. The evidence is clear: the only way to build a truly ecological economy is to stop chasing GDP growth.
The first step is to abandon GDP as a measure of progress – as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently pledged to do – and focus instead on human well-being and ecology. There is a strong scientific consensus forming around this approach. A new paper signed by more than 11,000 scientists argues that high-income nations must shift to post-growth economic models if we are going to have any chance of preventing climate breakdown.
Nordic countries can lead this transition, renewing the Nordic model for the 21st century, or they can continue to remain among the world’s worst ecological offenders. They have a choice to make.