What is happiness?

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.