Sustainable Sweden

March 4, 2016

No society is sustainable because they want to be. Switching from a petroleum-based economy to one based on renewables is expensive and a big adjustment, and as a person who is still adjusting to living in a different country, I completely understand why big changes are scary.

So then why are societies making the switch? Yes, global warming has introduced and established the general paradigm that one day the earth is going to be too hot to live on and we’re all going to die, but there are still many societies (ours included) where people go about their daily lives as if this “impending doom” doesn’t exist. So what gives countries that final nudge needed to make a switch to start the investment in a more sustainable future?

Let’s start with Denmark. My initial view of this country from a sustainability standpoint was a bit of a utopia. In my mind, Denmark was this forward-thinking place, focused on creating energy systems that were sustainable so that this country could do its part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"To me, a true sustainable
society is one that has been
created with sustainability
at the forefront of every
decision regarding how
to build, power and
maintain that society."

Of course, this “great and sustainable Denmark of Oz” I created in my head had a less-impressive version of the country sitting behind a curtain. Even though Denmark produced the most wind energy in 2013, at the end of the day, this didn’t happen just because Danes are super into sustainability.

When the oil crisis hit in 1973, Denmark was importing 90 percent of their oil. As oil prices skyrocketed, the country realized it couldn’t keep using energy in the way it was used to, so it focused on increasing its energy efficiency and finding sources of energy closer to home. Some oil and natural gas was found in Denmark, but the best solution was found floating in the ever-blowing wind. Thus, Denmark’s current status as one of the more sustainable countries in the world didn’t come from a change in ideology as much as it did from need.

So what does this mean for other “sustainable” countries? The program in which I’m enrolled through the Danish Institute for Study Abroad gives me and my classmates two opportunities to travel outside of Denmark to learn more about our core course, which is Sustainable Development in Northern Europe. During our first trip, we traveled to southern Sweden, specifically to Malmö, Lund and Röstånga.

forest of Söderåsen National Park
The forest of Söderåsen National Park in Ljungbyhed, Sweden.


This trip undoubtedly gave me a biased view of the country of Sweden – a view filled with 100 percent renewable energy-run communities, permaculture-based elementary schools, waste facilities that make energy out of trash to heat homes, and enough national parks to keep all of the nature-loving Swedes occupied.

"After learning about how
even Denmark is not as
much a sustainable society
as a society that has
become sustainable, I knew
I had to be skeptical.
Nevertheless, my experience
in Sweden showed me that
even with very high levels
of energy consumption, a
type of equilibrium between
consuming resources and
sustainably replenishing
these same resources
can be reached."

However, after learning about how even Denmark is not as much a sustainable society as a society that has become sustainable, I knew I had to be skeptical. Nevertheless, my experience in Sweden showed me that even with very high levels of energy consumption, a type of equilibrium between consuming resources and sustainably replenishing these same resources can be reached.

To me, a true sustainable society is one that has been created with sustainability at the forefront of every decision regarding how to build, power and maintain that society. The Western Harbor of Malmö fits this definition. An industrial coastline area turned residential, the shore is lined with tall, white, modern apartment buildings, guarding the smaller, more warmly colored single family homes from the harsh ocean winds.

Touring this area during the middle of a weekday meant that most of the people who live in this upper-class neighborhood were at work, giving the community an especially utopian, if not eerie, feel, as if we had just stepped into a futuristic world where energy based on fossil fuels was a thing of the distant past.Despite this, I was amazed by Sweden’s willingness to integrate sustainability into their already nature-loving culture. Turning this old industrial area into a modern “green” hub is exactly the kind of sustainable development that could be easily pursued anywhere in the world.

The only thing stopping such sustainability efforts from going forward is a lack of motivation. It’s up to us to decide if we want to motivate ourselves, or continue our societies’ business-as-usual way of life until something, like an oil crisis, forces us to act.

European Village in the Western Harbor of Malmö
The European Village in the Western Harbor of Malmö, Sweden. All photos courtesy Madeline Fischer.


Madeline Fischer is a junior at UW-Madison from Blanchardville, Wis., double majoring in environmental studies and life sciences communication. While studying abroad for the spring semester in Copenhagen, Denmark, she will document her experience on a student blog, Bringing Bæredygtighed Back.