Thursday, May 26, 2011

It is a cruel joke that a natural calamity or a disaster often stamps into people's minds what their teachers in school couldn't. A few years ago, the vocabulary of the world was enriched by a word: tsunami. In the last few years, many people became aware of a small island between the Atlantic Ocean and the Norwegian Sea.

An island famous for its volcanoes, it lives up to its name even today, as it reliably forces all international airline companies to shut shop every now and then, and shows man his true worth - that in front of nature, his best inventions are mere toys.

Iceland is an island formed completely out of volcanoes - the magma spewing from the Earth cooled and formed this rocky island of pristine beauty. Much of the early Earth must have looked like the Iceland of today. Over time, a thin layer of volcanic ash settled over the island. The rocks cracking with the expansion and contraction, together with the volcanic ash formed a thin crust of soil - a layer of cream on a tough cupcake. This thin crust caressed the plants growing in some areas of the island, and those places started to look like little replicas of paradise on Earth.

Some Vikings on one of their raiding tours would have noticed this uninhabited paradise, and sometime in 800AD, a few vikings started making this place their home. Here, they herded their cattle, and from here they raided richer lands like England. But life was never going to be easy on these islands. Windy, and with only a thin layer of soil which was rapidly leeched out of its fertility by the growing plants, they Vikings could never flourish here as they did in Mother Norway. But the were tough people, they survived. They survived the black death, they survived a smallpox epidemic which killed a third of their population, they survived the eruption of Laki Volcano which killed a fourth of their population and half their livestock.

From the middle ages, this raiding and herding community reinvented itself, and started supplying cod and crabs to most of Europe. Cod being a lucrative business, it had to take head on many bigger contenders like Britain - sometimes even having to skirmish them.

Iceland progressed from livestock to cod fishing, and then to becoming an banking success story. The per-capita income of the country, one of the banking capitals of Europe, touched some of the highest in the world, and this trend continued till the economic crash a couple of years ago. Thousands of Icelanders lost their jobs, and the country is now in turmoil. Never before has Iceland shook the world more than now - first with their banking system collapsing magnifying the effects of the depression, and then a series of volcanic eruptions bringing international airline transport to a standstill.

Although Iceland is seeing tough times now, they have battled greater crises than the current economic one it faces. Iceland's population has increased since the 1900s, with an annual growth of population varying from 10 to 20% per year; thanks to the cookies brought about by being a hub of European banking, they could manage to increase their population without having the natural resources to support them, and importing whatever was necessary. Iceland needs to revisit its history to draw lessons how their forefathers - the mighty and tough vikings - battled even harder wars against nature.

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