The Sterling College Sustainable Systems Global Field Program first traveled to Scandinavia in 2000 but has roots farther back in time.
Immediate impetus for the course dates from 1983, when Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland chaired the first UN Commission on the Environment. Her work prompted nations of the world to grapple with sustainable development…and grew out of the fact that living within ones means had challenged the Nordic countries for centuries.
Our own history as an immigrant nation was shaped in part by 19th Century ecological crises in Scandinavia, when thousands left their homelands to settle here. But one can argue that sustainability already became a sticking point as far back as the Viking Age, which was forced to confront the questionable practice of living off of others.
Starting in Iceland, this year’s class looked not only at model solutions to modern problems, but also at at this long history of conflict in Scandinavia. Stops icluded a high-tech interpretation of the Vikings at Jelling in Denmark—a sensory, touchscreen feast—complete with holograms of how to get into Vallhalla.
But even as we ventured back in time, the modern age was knocking down the doors of Europe. Images of refugees fleeing across borders gave a heightened sense of the magnitude of current problems.
This confrontation, though, provided perhaps the highlight of the trip. In discussing refugee issues, we met a modest yet extraordinary force for change. A remarkable Muslim woman, Asmaa, works on improving relations between the police and refugees in Denmark, a program called Project Dialogue. Her approach provided a positive response to the question history demands of us all: How do we learn to get along with each other without doing ourselves in?
Back home, now it’s up to each of us to answer that question for ourselves.
Erik Hansen is faculty emeritus and former Dean of Work at Sterling College.