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Letter from Stockholm: Sweden Goes Shopping
Alan AtKisson, 7 Mar 08

A two-page spread in one of the several free city dailies in this formerly
Nordic, lately Mediterranean and snow-free city provides a snapshot of life
here today. (For the Swedes tracking this, see the daily "Stockholm City,"
fredag 7 mars 2008 sida 4-5.)

First, the good news. I have earlier complained about the current
government's abdication of Sweden's decades-long leadership role in
environmental and climate policy. More and more climate-watchers here are
scoffing at this Center-Right gang with increasing dismissiveness. Swedes
can outdo the British in being dismissive, so this is not good. But other
parts of the country industrial and governance systems are not so clueless.

"It's nice to fly green," says one headline. Apparently, Sweden is unique
in the world for practicing a new pattern of landing that is essentially the
same thing as taking your foot off the gas pedal and coasting into your
driveway. Coming into Arlanda Airport, the Boeing 737s flown by SAS power
down, and glide. They have done this 2,000 times so far, and discovered
that (1) it saves them money on fuel, (2) it saves tons of CO2 (if all of
SAS did this it would be like taking 20,000 petrol cars off the road), (3)
it reduces noise, and (4) most fascinating of all, it improves the
reliability of on-time landings. How this happens is not explained, but we
like reliability here in Sweden, so this benefit is mentioned twice in the
article. Sweden also has closer-than-average business relationships with
China, which likes to look at Swedish models, perhaps because we practice
something a bit like the Chinese model of socialist capitalism. China plans
to build 50 new airports, and they've been studying this glide-landing
technique.

Okay, it's not going to save the world, but it is a nice little green
innovation, and it started here.

The rest of the two-page spread is, however, not so encouraging when it
comes to the vision of a climate neutral and sustainable 21st century
society.

Stockholm is going through a spasm of new mall building. Economic forces
are trying to stuff new mega shopping experiences into various nooks and
crannies, until (in at least one case) a local neighborhood movement rose up
in one corner of Stockholm to stop the latest mall project with the message:
"We really don't need any more shopping opportunities here. We can already
everything we need, and then some."

But that does not stop the great mall factories that are putting up new or
expanded malls and shopping centers everywhere, including a huge new complex
planned for mid-way between Stockholm and Uppsala, near the airport. This,
I would assume, would be Sweden's answer to "Mall of America," which many
people might forget was a great innovation in its time, and successfully
drove (and drives) traffic to Minneapolis Airport simply to go to a really
big mall for the day.

In my suburb alone, we've gone from one local food store in a medium size
mall, to three local grocery stores within a stone's throw of each other, in
just two years -- in addition to three new or expanded malls just ten
mintues away, with Wal-Mart-style big box retailers as the anchor tenants. I
have a hard time believing that there are enough homes tucked into these
woods to house shoppers for all those stores. Weirdly, the parking lots are
always full.

But do the people here really want "Mall of Sweden"? Sadly, yes -- if the
poll on page 4 of Stockholm City is to be believed. Seventy-four percent of
readers answered "Ja!" when asked if more shopping centers were needed.
Most of them, by the way, also wanted access to anti-fat pills. "I don't
suffer from being fat myself," said "Olessia," in a typical quote, "but I
still want it. So that I don't put on weight."

Olessia has good reason to attend to her appearance with high technology
solutions. Looking, dressing, and especially living "snyggt" -- which is a
Swedish all-purpose word for "good-looking" or "done with style" -- is an
absolutely essential part of life in the bigger cities here. I joke often
with my friends and family about "the snyggt patrol," that feeling that one
is being watched and judged on these terms and that one absolutely must
prepare even a plate of noodles or a bowl of pretzels with alacrity and a
sense of style. You can't just open a beer and a bag of chips with your
friends; it's all got to be presented "snyggt".

This is one facet of a cultural trait that especially reveals itself in the
Swedish fascination with home decorating and renovating. "Tear out the
kitchen!" says the only headline on page five, the rest of which is full of
"snygga" pictures of wine glasses, plates, and fresh-tiled, black and white
cooking stations, all on sale for twenty percent off at IKEA. People buy
whole kitchens here in Scandinavia the way people in other countries buy a
new coffee pot. And kitchen stores -- as in, stores specializing in selling
entire kitchens -- are a popular part of many new malls. Some kitchens have
even earned a Swan mark, meaning they are a certified
environmentally-friendly product. IKEA's kitchens are nice, cheaper, and a
bit on the green side (though not eco-marked) if the corporate messaging can
be believed, and the IKEA store we go to is the first, the original, "The
Temple" in local parlance. And yes, we redid our own kitchen a few years
back. Half was hand-built (and half of that by us); but the other half came
from IKEA. And I have to say, it's really snyggt.

Snyggt is a universal, cross-gender thing, but not everything crosses
genders well here. Usually, here in the capital of gender equality (half
the parliament is women etc. etc.), one sees crusading articles in a daily
free paper like this (Sweden sort of invented the free daily paper, the
Metro chain started here and is all over the world now) about continuing
gaps between the sexes, especially in wages. And goodness, I am always
amazed at how "gubbig" some aspects of this culture still can be,
considering how much truly impressive equality there is between the genders
in globally relative terms. "Gubbig" means, roughly, "old boy-ish," though
the word is impossible to translate. But if I tell you that the recent
banquet to celebrate my friend Amory Lovins' winning of the Volvo
Environment Prize (he also won the Blue Planet Prize that year, the guy is
on a roll) was very "gubbig," you can picture what I mean: there weren't a
lot of women around those fancy dinner tables. And the men-in-suits had
that comfortable, middle-aged, part-of-the-power-structure look to them.

I tried to point out the lack of females to various conversational partners,
but received only polite responses this like: "Yes, well, I just got back
from some important meetings in China ..." Swedish has a great phrase, a
kind of mini-dialog, to describe ridiculous, non sequitor, nonresponses like
this. It's called "Good Day! Axe Handle!" I heard a lot of "Axe Handle!"
that evening.

Unfortunately, these unconscious walls of power and privilege also affect
the environment and sustainability communities, which can also be pretty
"gubbiga." (The "a" makes "gubbig" plural.) So I was glad to read, for
once, that "Women are beyond men in salary" when it comes to being city
managers. The women in those position, says an article on page four, earn
about $125 per month more than the men, on average. Why? Most of the women
city managers are newly employed, explained Stockholm City. And it seems to
be "a job that suits women." There was no explanation for that interesting
explanation.

Finally, there was a sad little article about a couple in their 80s, both
handicapped and unable to walk without the popular, rolling walkers used by
increasing percentage of elderly here. They got trapped in their apartment
for two weeks because the elevator in their building was broken and left
unrepaired. Their children are bringing them food and such, climbing six
flights of stairs. "Broken elevator is making them prisoners" says the
headline.

In consolation, it's certain that when the elevator gets fixed and they
finally do emerge, there will be a new shopping center to visit, somewhere
in the vicinity. Whole kitchens will be on sale for twenty percent off.
Even handicapped 80-year-olds really ought to tear out that old kitchen and
build a new one that's "snyggt."

Especially them.

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Comments

Terry Pratchett's novel 'Reaper Man' had a running backstory about shopping malls being a parasitic life form that preys on cities.


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 8 Mar 08



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