Learning From The Norway Way
Wednesday - November 26, 2008
I went to Europe last summer: first to Norway for a week, then to Scotland for a second week. It was my first trip across the pond since 1963. Then, as a college junior, I’d studied in Germany.
So I hadn’t seen our Atlantic neighbors in 45 years, but was warned by my traveling friends. “It’s changed. I try to avoid Western Europe these days. It’s too much like the United States.”
I’m not sure about that, but Norway - at least - was certainly American in so many ways. Everyone, for example, spoke English. “We’re a small country,” said John-Morton Beyer-Arnesen, one of our hosts for the week. “We’re less than 5 million people. We know we have to speak another language.”
John Morton’s sister-in-law Gro Aasen is a reader and her library looked, it seemed to me, just like mine: All of her novels were in English.
And like every American in July of 2008, every Norwegian we met was fascinated by the American election. In my most unscientific sampling, all favored Barack Obama.
Norway is indescribably beautiful - breathtaking fjords, forests, glaciers, rolling hills and lovely valley after lovely valley.
But I was struck, in the midst of America’s skyrocketing energy costs and its two wars, and Oahu’s third debate in 30 years over transit, by Norway as a rational society. The cost of gasoline in Norway appalls an American - $11, sometimes $12 per gallon last summer. Despite its reserves - and exports - of North Sea oil, the Norwegian government levies huge gasoline taxes. In turn, it invests those taxes in public transportation.
Case in point: Our hosts, the Beyer-Arnesens, recently moved into a home on a beautiful, wooded peninsula that juts into the Oslo fjord. The views from their lanai were spectacular, but the commute into the city of Oslo was long, round-about and - given the price of gasoline - expensive.
Fortunately, they could leave their car in the garage. During one morning commute, we caught a bus a short walk from their home. Fifteen minutes later, it pulled up to the ferry dock where - in the space of five minutes or so - six or seven more buses from different routes on the peninsula pulled in. With all aboard, the ferry sailed up the fjord for the dock in the center of Oslo city. There public buses, taxis, a fast light rail system or a very pedestrian-friendly city awaited the morning commuters - no stress, one reasonably priced round-trip ticket, and less congested roads.
In Honolulu, we’ve argued over whether a city of 1 million will provide sufficient ridership to make rail viable. Honolulu boasts a population of 860,000 people; Oslo, 522,000. Add our daily tourist population, and we’re well over 1 million. Add the population of the greater Oslo fjord region, and they have 1.3 million.
Not a lot of difference, but there sure is in the quality of commute and the use of expensive, polluting gasoline.
Then there’s military service. While in the United States we have consigned a worldwide “war on terror” to a small part of our population - our volunteer armed services - Norway compels all males to spend a year in the military.
Magnus, the handsome 19-year-old son of one of our hosts, was just completing his post-high school year in the Norwegian army - three months early. “They never keep anyone more than eight or nine months,” he said.
Finally, health care. Like all the rest of industrialized world, Norway has a national health-care system. “When we moved out to the peninsula,” said John-Morton, “the government sent me a list of three doctors in the area. I can try any or all of them; if I don’t like them, I can always continue to use the doctor I’ve had in Oslo.”
Norway ranks 19th among the nation’s of the world in life expectancy. The United States ranks 45th.
The Economist 2005 quality-of-life index had Norway third, the United States 13th. With the application of a little Norwegian rationality, I think we could vault to No. 1.
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