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A Quiet Future on the Finnish Archipelago
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by Worldchanging Chicago blogger Patrick Rollens

Last month I traveled to Finland, and my visit happened to coincide with the country’s grand Midsummer holiday. Hopscotching around the country for the better part of a week, I eventually ended up attending a small, intimate dinner party at a summer house on Paskskar, a tiny, 30-acre island on the southern fringe of the Finnish archipelago. There, in the shadow of Old Europe, I found a sustainable sensibility that values practicality and independence over altruism and guilt.

A quick word on summer homes: The nature of Finland’s limited socialist government means that every citizen enjoys a relatively strong social net; no one needs to save for retirement because they know the state will provide for them. As such, they’re able to spend their savings and income on worldly items. It’s not uncommon for a Finnish household of modest income to own a seaworthy boat and at least one summer home.

Our hosts at Paskskar were Uwe and Siv. The island itself is wholly owned by the couple; Siv hails from a farming family that has historically laid claim to a number of islands in the archipelago, and she brought Paskskar as dowry into her marriage with Uwe several decades ago.

Located in the southern assemblage of landmasses, tiny Paskskar is a two-hour boat ride from the mainland. Uninhabited for most of the year, the rocky, forested island plays host to its owners only during the short summer months. In the 1970s, Uwe and Siv would visit and spend the night in canvas tents under the open stars. Later, Uwe began construction of a small summer cottage, but his naturalist predilections prompted him to make the construction project small and efficient.

During our quiet day on Paskskar, Uwe showed me the potential for sustainability on a person-by-person scale. His setup on Paskskar, for example, had minimal contact to the mainland. Water came from a shallow well—outfitted with a modern pump—in the center of the island. Electricity, what little he and Siv used, came from a nearby wind turbine and solar array. And a small sauna—the very essence of Finland—was attached the cottage, providing necessary warmth during the long, cold winter.

Uwe is a consummate hunter and fisher, though you wouldn’t know it from his bookish appearance. Nearly everything we ate that day—flounder and whitefish, mostly—was caught by him on the shores of Paskskar. If needed, he and Siv could likely live for most of the year on the island, requiring only basic supplies and staples from the mainland.

The archipelago area of Finland was one of the first regions of the world to have contact with Sweden’s Viking culture, and it’s easy to look out over the ocean and imagine longships racing through the salt spray, warriors gripping their axes with visions of pillage and conquest in their minds. And while Finland has changed, offering up market-leading companies like Nokia and embracing the European Union with gusto, the archipelago has remained largely unchanged for the past century. The only real addition has been GPS navigation equipment, which permits mariners a newfound level of reliability and confidence navigating the islands.

By 10 p.m. that evening, as the sun hung low in the sky and the sauna was nearly warmed up for use, I reflected on the secure, serene landscape spread out before me. While never far from the rest of the world—Finland received a dose of fallout from Chernobyl back in 1985 and shares a border with Russia today—the quiet archipelago nonetheless makes a fine place to pull up a chair, grab a mug of coffee and watch the future roll in.

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Hi, living in Finland I might have another view on things " one needs to save for retirement because they know the state will provide for them."

This I would say is a half-truth =o) if such thing exist, in today’s Finland you Can live from a state pension, which is btw cumulated as a % of everybody’s salary currently working, you yourself has been paying this during your active working life (saving of a sort?). As well as paying a fairly high amount of taxes. There has been quite a few discussions about pensions lately as a big age group (born after the second World War) are nearing their pension age and a smaller (currently) workforce will have to pay for their pension. If one would rely on a state pension in today’s Finland (for those of us that do not retire soon) I say one would have a very (relatively) uncertain future.

"As such, they’re able to spend their savings and income on worldly items. It’s not uncommon for a Finnish household of modest income to own a seaworthy boat and at least one summer home."

There was in 2006 475000 summer cottages in Finland with a population of 5276955 which would equal 11,1 persons/cottage. In Finland a family consisted of 2,8 persons in 2005, which would mean that every fourth family in Finland has a cottage. Which even though the calculation is very simple (there are probably a lot of factors that will affect that) I'd say sounds about right (25%).

Even though most cottages are "very simple" about 70% has outdoor dry toilets for example they are not always completely environmentally friendly. Diffuse drainage of wastewater is a problem currently on the agenda with both laws and regulations for summer cottages starting to be/being enforced.

About the electrification, reading your post you might get the idea that Finland is the model for solar and wind power =O).About 70% of "summer cabins" belong to the electric grid with another 10% getting their electricity from solar, wind and diesel generators.

In Finland 0,1% of all electricity is produced by wind, a total capacity of 82MW in 2004.
All this said I think Finland is one of the best countries in the world to live in safety, health etc. but Finns can sometimes be very stubborn against new innovative ideas, but we are changing!

Numbers from:
Statistics Finland

and Motiva

Posted by: Peter on 13 Aug 07

Thanks for the article on the most beautiful bits of our country. However, i urge you to check your details; more specifically the specks above your letters. Are you sure the island is called Paskskar and not, for instance, Påskskär? While the former doesn't really mean anything, it can liberally, using both of our national languages, be translated into "Cut in sh_t", or the kind of ice crust on snow that can be walked upon, except this one is made of, uh, man-made manure. Påskskär on the other hand would translate into Easter skerry, where påsk is easter and skär is a small kind of an island; a skerry or an islet.

The part about fishing struck a vibe of self-reflection in me. Of all the summers i've spent at the archipelago cottage, i never thought of fishing as hunting. It's just a way to get food; why buy fish when you've a whole sea in front of you? And it's a lot more satisfying to smoke your own flounders than buying them.

Technology is scattered around the archipelago though. Practically everybody has a cell phone and many people are hooked up with GPRS for doing part-time work or staying in contact (though most people visit the archipelago to avoid just that). A new wireless network standard currently being rolled out, "@450", which should reach even the remoter islands where GPRS coverage is unreliable. At the same time, i'm surprised that we don't have solar powered LED lighting in more cottages. Must be our inbuilt stubbornness Peter wrote about above.

Oh, and we tend to believe our government is chiefly social democratic, not socialist...

Posted by: Robin Laurén on 13 Aug 07

Thanks, Robin and Peter, for your comments. Most of my impressions were just that -- impressions, and I apologize if I inadvertently miscategorized portions of Finland's culture or government.

I'm aware that Finns pay upwards of 60 percent of their income as taxes, but still: to an idealistic American like me, your country is an example of how a social democratic state can function in modern society. I like it, and I wouldn't mind living there one day.

Finally, I couldn't figure out how to type Påskskär on my keyboard (several unique characters in the word), so I stripped it down to just its basic letters. Sorry if that came out sounding like sh*t (no pun intended). :-)

Posted by: Patrick on 16 Aug 07

re spelling Påskskär, try using HTML character entities. å = å, and ä = ä. Also, don't worry about too much about spelling stuff with an high-bit challenged keyboard, this is just me in a nitpicking/manical-enlightener mode :)

On a seriouser note, i too am very aware that i pay near-insane taxes. But i try to think what i'm getting for it. Toll free roads. Free education, all the way to a Master's degree in university (though you do have to pay for your books). Free lunch in primary school. Near-free high standard health care (including dentist) -- sometimes with pretty devastating queues, but if you're in dire straits, you will be taken care of. Social wealth, so even if you lose your job, you don't lose everything [0]. Subsidised medicine costs. Cheap (and good) daycare for the kids. With stuff like that, i think most of my taxes are pretty well spent.

Sure this place could be a better place but at least we don't regard our visitors as criminals and demand their fingerprints to enter the country ;)

[0] OK, this can go to extremes, where you have people that are subsidized to be unemployed "as a lifestyle", even to the second generation, but this is much to the lack of control, follow-up and organization of the unemployment benefit.

Posted by: Robin Laurén on 16 Aug 07



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