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.”

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