Malene Lundén: ”Vi bliver lykkeligere af at kunne indeholde både centrum og periferi”

These days, people talk about the magical attraction of the city – about our need to be in the center, to move away from the periphery. Yet what is it like to go against the tide, to leave the city and embrace the country? That’s what photographer and artist Malene Lundén did in 1986, when she moved from Copenhagen to the Danish island of Samsø. Today, she can reflect on that experience, about being conscious of the center and the periphery, and she believes that much development comes from the resources in rural areas.

When Malene Lundén moved to Samsø, it was difficult for her in the beginning. A little like when you get a burn. It was like the naked feeling your skin has after getting sunburned: “The upheaval was overwhelming. One of the reasons was due to the culture on Samsø. The culture has a a good portion of healthy skepticism combined with strong self-esteem. Believe it or not, the philosophy of the city as the true center of Denmark was stronger back then than it is today. Many of my friends just couldn’t understand why I wanted to live out in the country. In the periphery. Yet I felt marginalized in the city, and wanted to be somewhere that was much more simple, where I could be more visible in the community,” says Malene Lundén.

Autonomy was the response to centralization

Malene built the relations necessary to settle down on Samsø. She wanted to stay here, and she did. Today, Malene tells about a local community that, despite major global trends of depopulation and loss of identity taking place in many rural regions around the world, she created her own center with something that was bigger than the lure of the city.

Samsø is known both nationally and internationally for its reputation in terms of renewable energy. The energy transformation began in 1997, when Samsø won a government-sponsored competition to see which Danish island would be best at becoming Denmark’s Renewable Energy Island. The residents of the island created a master plan for the transition, and they were so successful that today Samsø is self-sufficient in terms of renewable energy. However, in 1999, a serious crisis occurred that placed pressure on the cohesion of Samsø’s residents.

“In 1999, we found out that the Danish Crown slaughterhouse, which at the time was the largest employer on the island, was going to close. One hundred jobs disappeared on the island, which had 4,300 full-time residents then. It was a catastrophe, and Samsø was in shock. Yet instead of being passive, the local residents chose to act and initiated a job training program for the laid-off workers so they could find new work. The decision to do this was taken collectively, through town-hall style meetings, open cafés, and bringing in employers to kick-start the creation of new jobs. This means that over the past 20 years, we’ve built up a feeling of autonomy. That’s something you can do in the periphery. Stand shoulder to shoulder when confronted with a crisis, and act. In the center, there are larger units to deal with, which makes it more complicated to solve a crisis.”

Isn’t the Earth the true center?

When you travel around the bountiful fields of Samsø, it may seem a paradox that in the debate about Denmark’s economic and human balance which has being going back and forth for years, the island is considered to be situated on the outskirts. In the periphery. “Yet isn’t it really the Earth that should be our true center?” asks Malene. In reality, it’s incredibly egocentric that we consider people and the city to be the center, when all of the city’s primary resources are generated in the periphery. Without the country, cities would starve, both in terms of food and energy. Development often comes from the periphery, including political developments. Yet with the crisis we’re experiencing, with the increasingly bigger division between the center and the periphery, it’s not just about crops and physical resources. It’s also about learning to evolve from an either/or mentality to a both/and mentality. Our world is becoming increasingly polarized, so we only see the place where we are ourselves. Development accelerates due to stress and angst, which many smaller communities feel when they are deprived of their own ability to act. In such a situation, many people find it difficult to see what’s happening in the bigger perspective, which would otherwise enable them to work on solutions to the crisis.”


Rubin’s vase and the regaining flexibility

Malene calls this condition “being captured by the figure,” referring to the famous illustration of Rubin’s vase. The drawing shows either a vase or two faces looking at each other in profile, all depending on if the viewer is focusing on the foreground (the figure) or the background. The human eye is not able to see the two scenes at the same time, and is forced to see either one or the other.

“Denmark is a good example of a western country where living is incredibly fast these days. We have so many things to accomplish both in terms of work and at home that we can become paralyzed by the sheer volume of tasks, errands and chores. This blocks our ability to see both the foreground and background, which can be debilitating. Whether you’re either in the center or the periphery, you can’t see the whole, the entire picture, and as regular people we then have a serious problem. As a society, we have to get better at turning the vase so we learn to switch between the foreground and background. We built up this ability and flexibility on Samsø by among other things acting on our common societal crisis. We learned to improve our perception, knowing that reality is not static yet constantly needs to be acted on based on its background. On our island, we’re forced to see which opportunities arise in new situations, causing us to think: What if I lose my job and have to move to Jutland or Zealand? Or: The Samsø-Express commuter boat to Aarhus didn’t materialize this year, but no matter, we’ll find a solution. And then here on the island we have the most beautiful night sky full of stars, reminding us of how very tiny we are in the universe, that there is something different and bigger out there. It’s refreshing. Because if you’re able to switch between focusing on the center and periphery respectively, then I feel that we will be happier in the long run.”

Part of the problem is in the language

Since 2007, Malene has been employed as a project manager at Samsø Energy Academy. Part of Malene’s job deals with communicating local experience from Samsø’s transition as Denmark’s Renewable Energy Island, which clearly shows that peripheral communities can contribute to solving the world’s climate crisis as well addressing the global acceleration of centralization. Rubin’s vase plays a triumphal role: “It is an ideological desire of the center that we should start do something about climate change – but maybe there’s a lot in the periphery which hasn’t gotten to that point yet, and which views oil as being the best source of energy? There are many places in the world which have yet to ask themselves if sustainability is the way forward. In my line of work, we should recognize that not everyone has been placed on Earth in order to save the world. Why do we in debates, in the media, and in politics need to trivialize language in order to polarize and create tension between the city and the country?”, asks Malene, who feels that language is not poetic enough. The debate skirts across the surface instead of getting to the core of the opportunities and problems, which according to Malene deals with speech in particular: “The way we talk about the center and the periphery is very polarizing because of the words, terms and values we use. Even the term ‘periphery’ has a negative tone, while the word ‘center’ is positive. We could mention other examples such as ‘the edge of Denmark’ and the ‘rotten banana’ which in the choice of words labels rural areas as notoriously bare of human resources and opportunities, whereas cities as a rule are talked about with words that reflect a liberal model of economic growth. At the risk of not taking my own medicine, I’ll say this: What about using more poetic words instead, calling the country and city ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ respectively, ‘foreground’ and ‘background’, or ‘Ying’ and ‘Yang’? Opposites, where both words are considered beautiful and dependent on each other?” suggests Malene.

A positive change is taking place in the periphery

After living in the country for three decades, Malene has experienced how progress often comes from the periphery, both in terms of sustainable solutions relating to energy and raw materials, and socially. In rural districts, new ways of living are turning up, forming communities: “On an island such as Samsø, there’s a slowness which has healing powers. That’s how I experience the great physical differences of being in the country and the city respectively. I look up when I’m on Samsø, and look down when I’m in the city. In the country, I move more freely and my arms are farther from my body; I don’t have to pull in my antennas. In the city, my opportunities to move are more restricted. There are sidewalks and pedestrian crossings that lead the way so I can navigate safely and securely through the cityscape without getting hurt. These regulations are far less in the country. My body is more free on Samsø, and I talk less.”

A big question remains: What actually brought about the large movement from the periphery to the center? Is it a tendency we’ve created by articulating it? Are there larger economic reasons? Is it in the end about people’s need to move where the rest of the flock is? “There’s clearly a lack of perspective in the way we look at the center and periphery. What about all the room between the two poles, and what happens with its resources? Isn’t it really there that we should meet?” concludes Malene.

Søren Hermansen: On Samsø, we are cross-pollinating ourselves for resilience

– Interview with Samsø Energy Academy’s Director Søren Hermansen on the topic of resilience:

“Resilience has become a scientific concept that expresses a situation where you must survive an threat. So your ability to survive in relation to the outside threat shows how resilient your society is. The threat can be anything, for instance climate change. But it’s a permanent thing, it’s always been there, and so you can say it’s a natural threat. Then there’s the societal threat that comes from within, defined by the conservative protection of what we have in relation to what we are working towards. So what we have is a threat to something that can be better or different. That kind of resilience is negative, but it has the positive aspect in that you’re not just jumping away from something that you depend on to live to something that you do not know if you can live by. So it addresses fear, or the fear of change, and with the fear of change you reduce your resilience – do it less – while the desire for change makes increases it. You simply have ability to survive, you dare to do it, you move on to the next step without knowing whether you’re walking into a swamp or if there’s a firm foundation under your feet.

“The balance is interesting, because it is not centralized, it is constantly based on moving parts that revolve around the things that really matter. For what it’s really about, we don’t want to go there, because it’s conclusive. Samsings would like to be where things are in motion, influenced by the outside, but still local. Yet it also means that we have to talk with the farmer over there. Even though I may think he’s stupid, he has some things I need to move forward, so we have to meet. This isn’t resilience, but more a kind of genetic manipulation, where we know that we have to cross-pollinate.

Even though we don’t like it, we do it because we know that working together it provides a better result. We go beyond the abstract more than we should. There are also some who say in relation to the animal world that when the lion bites the bison’s throat, the bison’s eyes have a peaceful expression because it knows that it is serving its purpose. It lets itself die because it has turned the grass it ate into something edible so that the beast of prey can live. In some sense the process has come full circle. It is very interesting to regard the natural state and accept its terms. And we do this as well. Resilience is a question of how much you accept and work with the terms. Today, we have a differentiated society where we’re not aware of the terms because we live in an isolated world as individuals revolving around our own lives with some self-defined projects that are not part of the overall societal development. I think that’s the core issue when we talk keep talking about resilience. It’s because we feel disconnected, not part of the whole, and therefore we are all in the middle where we actually don’t want to be.”

So, we are not part of the food chain like bison?

“No, we cannot peacefully close our eyes and say we have served our purpose.”

Regarding the farmer who chooses to approach his neighbor, even though he really does not like him, where does the capability come from where he sees that this is what he should do?

“I think that’s something you’re you need to inherit. Someone once told me that farmers used to walk in each other’s fields once a week. They got together and walked across the fields and looked at the crops; there was a very strong culture in the rural community. You talked about how the crops were faring and asked each other’s about their chores. This is how they shared knowledge; it was a kind of social group to share experiences – best practices – that worked because it was in everyone’s interest. Everyone got something out of it.”

What happened on Samsø didn’t happen on islands such as Læsø or Anholt. What makes Samsø so special?

“Yes, there are a lot of examples of the opposite of Samsø, because an island is also a vulnerable unit. If idealism is the driving force, then choose one leader or another. Do you believe in big change, or are you more conservative and traditional? On Anholt, you can walk into the community hall where one group is standing at one end and another group is standing at the other end is, because one group consists of people who come from outside and want to change everything, while the others feel greatly threatened. They are so threatened that they are afraid to do what they really should do, namely to reach out and say, ‘Let’s meet right now and see how the world on Anholt will look like in 10 years, because you bring something along with you. Similarly, those who have moved to the island and want change need to understand that they’ve entered a deep-rooted culture that is old and has many traditional values. They need to understand that they’re open doors to something that’s unknown, and some people are a little scared. We need to talk about it.’ So I think that what we have here on Samsø is a deep-rooted culture based on change and renewal, where other islands have been very isolated.”

In other words, geography plays a role?

“Yes, I actually think it does. Samsø has a very central location, between Jutland and Zealand and north of Funen. All ship traffic passes here, so we’ve always had people coming here and saying, “Why not do things this way instead?”

Is it true that the northern part of Samsø is more connected to Jutland, while the southeast side of the island is more connected to Zealand?

“It’s completely natural, it’s an old tradition, where people were connected to places they knew had good and interesting things. Down in the southeast village of Ballen, they spoke a Kalundborg-Jutlandic dialect because they had the ferry to Kalundborg on Zealand. It’s a force of renewal, because where does renewal come from? We connect to systems where we get a system check-up and say, ‘I like this better than that.’ Where does new inspiration come from and how do you adopt it? Samsø is also known as place of agricultural development, where someone might have heard of something they do in England, and then they just left for England to find out. That was never a problem. If you heard about someplace that had new initiatives in the field of artificial insemination, then you headed there with the veterinarian. These are the people who believe that we can achieve things. We are in a much more isolated world now that we can actually fly around the world, but where things have become much more expert-oriented, and where we get told more and more that we cannot do things ourselves on such a poor little island.”

“In the old days, many people on Samsø were skipper farmers. They had a ship where they sailed with goods, so they loaded their grain and sailed for instance to Norway and came home with timber and tar, and on the way they passed Aalborg and picked up lime. They also often brought farmhands and maidservants with them from the farm, who sailed on the boat. Understanding of new cultures were brought home in this way.”

“Culturally, we also have had an estate here owned by the same family for hundreds of years that has kept some cultural traditions and a connection to the royal family, which used to be a very important influence in this context. So when the king was traveling he could stay here. Of course, this means that there was a connection to Copenhagen 500 years ago. We have been part of a network, a travel stop, and on the official level a connection to the king.”

So Samsø is anchored locally, with a hook in the surrounding society that is an advantage?

“Exactly, and that is what it’s about when we check in today. When we talk about sustainability, we also talk about the context, that we are not only doing this for ourselves, but as part of a larger whole.”

If we talk about the surrounding danger, we also have a current discourse about the problem between cities and towns, and peripheral communities in Denmark. Samsø is a quite vibrant society compared to many other peripheral areas. What do you think about that?

“This is just a guess, but I think we have had a self-sustaining operation based on the fact that we maintain contacts outside the island, so that we do not just become introverted and remain a vacation island. There is also a life outside of the summer holiday season. There are a lot of people coming from the outside, as it has always been: I remember from my childhood that we had people from Buthan who went to the agricultural school in Malling, and because my father knew the people there, they also came to visit on Samsø. And I was fascinated that the prince of a country in the Himalayas visited. We have maintained a position as Denmark’s center, also for people outside to come to the island.”

Is resilience latent in all societies, and something that just needs to be activated if it’s hidden?

“On Monday, I’m going to Snaptun to talk to citizen groups from Glud, Snaptun and Hjernø, which are tiny towns at the mouth of Horsens Fjord, and which were merged under the Danish government’s structural reform to create large municipalities. At that time, Samsø actually avoided becoming part of a large municipality, and it seems to me that large-scale municipalities deprived smaller towns of their own culture, their own understanding, their own postal code. Suddenly, they no longer existed, now that the old municipality has become a larger municipality, with the town hall far away. I think that if you talk about resilience, such an event lowers the resilience of the small town. The isolation, however, leads to a greater awareness of the loss of resilience, which activates someone to restore the will to survive as a community that we used to have. Someone might say, ‘We’re in danger now. The threat from the outside has suddenly increased, and we have to open up to each from within, because no one is coming to helps us. Indeed, the outside society has shown that they are not doing much to make us part of a larger whole.’ Administratively, of course, it’s much easier. The goal of Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who was behind the new structural reform, was not to strengthen communities; his goal was the overall administration which he wanted to be more efficient and cheap. That removes resilience from the system, as far as I see it.”

Can you build up resilience in a constructive way?

“Yes, you can talk about how things will progress. In that process, do not deal with what came before, because there are some old power structures that you cannot do anything about. Instead, you can bring about change by creating an ideological center where you say: ‘Change can be the part we’re talking about today, and then we can talk about another part tomorrow, and still more the day after tomorrow. And in the big scheme of things, this will be what we will be doing in ten years. Shall we agree on that?’ For that vision of the future based on what we know about the past, you need to bring in others who know something – all your neighbors – into this conversation. You need them to do it with you, otherwise they will resist you. So resilience is in fact both a force and a resistance, and you need to turn it into a force which you do by involving collective knowledge in the process. You’ll have a common platform to start from. Then you can go back home and that’s what makes the process viable. it doesn’t commit you to the meeting, it commits you morally, and you have actually started the process, which is based on everyone’s overall knowledge. There’s someone who pulls and someone who pushes and who is afraid, and together we move on to the next step. Building resilience requires a natural leader, one who is good at bringing people together, and such a person exists in all communities, someone who we trust, who is not biased. That’s how you create a more resilient community in practice.”

Is there a sense of resilience?

“There is a lot of seduction in the process where if you as a leader arouse enthusiasm with people and they commit themselves and say that’s a good idea, I would like to contribute so you can customize the process so that it becomes dynamic And moving. Here you will create an enthusiasm that can be felt in the body. Would I go to the next meeting? Yes, I really feel good.

How do we ensure resilience in the future?

“This is done by looking at basic things in Denmark, such as the agricultural sector, which is completely in debt, there is nothing to inherit, just a tremendous debt that young people have to drag along into their future. Instead of saying, ‘For this older generation, we’ll drink fewer bottles of red wine because we have put ourselves in debt, and we should take responsibility for it.’ So we should perhaps expropriate the land so that pension funds can buy them and subdivide them into small farm plots. But then we’d be tinkering with the much more business-oriented society of the Roman Empire, which is about market and power. We must have a more long-term strategy. That’s also a part of resilience.”