I’ve been in Longyearbyen for a few days now, and it is an interesting city from almost any standpoint (at least my staindpoints). The thing that struck me the most after taking a short stroll through the city, is that parts of the community here could be used as a “stencil” for an idealised version of how universal basic income (UBI) might work.
I’ve previously written another post about UBI, and you can find it here:
To understand why, you need to understand where Longyearbyen and Svalbard started.
In the beginning, the primary settlements in Svalbard were mining communities. Svalbard has rich coal reserves, and the first settlements were hardworking people from different countries.
Over the years though, the primary “industry” has changed from mining to research, education in an Arctic setting and tourism. There is still mining activity, but nowhere near as much any more.
So in Longyearbyen, for instance, a small community of about 2100 permanent residents plus guests, there are a lot of amenities you would not expect in a rural mainland community of the same size.
One of the reasons is of course that Svalbard is so isolated, so they have to provide all amenities themselves. There is a new school, a new kindergarten, a youth house, a culture house, a handful of restaurants, and a hospital, just to mention some.
But another big reason why Longyearbyen has so many quality facilities, is that it has a relatively high earning population. A lot of staff are university professors and researchers, and they bring with them a certain expectation and standard of living.
Even the administration staff and technical services surrounding the residents are higher paid than the mainland. Electricians, IT-staff and technicians all earn a higher income due to the remote location of their job.
Then again, food is about 20-30% more expensive here, again for being so remote, but the wages do and should make up for that.
They also have their own power plant, the only coal powered power plant in all of Norway. More than sufficiently powered by, you guessed it, the last coal mine in active service in Longyearbyen.
One thing that makes Longyearbyen fail to model a community to strive for, is the lack of care homes.
There are no senior citizens in Svalbard, unless they are visiting family. Svalbard is unapologetically a working community. There are kindergartens and primary schools because staff bring their family with them, but you do not grow old in Svalbard. You do not suffer chronic diseases and live on social security either. If your condition is too serious or too complicated to take care of locally, they will fly you to the nearest big hospital in Tromsø, which is 958 km or 596 miles further south.
Despite that, I find myself enjoying Longyearbyen. The buildings are taken good care of (they have to be, polar winter and all that), and there are small response times to just about anything, seeing as I could walk from one end to the other in a little over half an hour.
You see people chatting with the person in line with them at the (only) grocery shop or mail office in town, because a lot of people know each other. They wish each other happy birthday, ask about family, or share plans about next week’s field trip.
When other people talk about small (well, small-ish), close knit communities, this is a lot of what I imagine it to be.
You didn’t think I’d make a whole post about Svalbard without mentioning the polar bears, did you?
I have yet to see one, except the taxidermy one at the airport, and the ubiquitous warning signs. Longyearbyen itself is considered a relatively low-risk zone, and people can walk around without guns.
Outside the city limits though? And they are well-marked, with signs and with maps they give out to people, you or someone in your group need to carry and be proficient with firearms. Being endangered, you should never try to lure a polar bear closer, and if they do come towards you, you need to try to scare it away. Killing the animal is the last possible resort, and the Svalbard guidelines posted at the airport and on tourist maps, reminds you that you are the guest here.
It is an attitude I wish more communities adopted. An acknowledgement that other creatures live with us, and we are merely visitors, or amiable neighbours at best. A reminder that we share this planet with other creatures, and they have as much right to live here as we do.
Oh, and if you do have a rifle and associated permits, you still need to sign in and out of the log book that tells your housemates you’ve left and when you expect to return. If you fail to report your return (or truly get lost), you can expect a full-on rescue mission engaging, helicopters, trackers and the whole shebang.
I know I am not hiding it very well. There is a great deal of idealism bleeding through in this post. Both Mr. E. and myself have been talking about how we really should try to be more vocal about our activism, idealism and want for change.
When I was younger, I would excuse myself with not knowing which end to start with. Especially being introverted and full of social anxiety (Hello, shelf-stable and canned food stored in my room, because my accommodation shares a kitchen with the entire floor of 30 residents!).
But these days, those excuses are really just that, excuses. It is about high time I try to engage more fully in the world to inspire the change I dream about, more than just doing my best to live by example and have meaningful conversations with people.
Perhaps it is… hold on to your hats people… about time to get out there and get political.
Because I wish every community was more like Longyearbyen in Svalbard. Close-knit, well-provided for, and with the amenities they need and people who look out for each other.