Anyone who’s been following our blog knows by now that I try to make sense of what I observe, even though I know I’m only getting the briefest glimpse—and often a distorted one—of the countries we visit. One of the most striking things about Sweden, to me, is how empty of people it seems to be. As cities go, Stockholm was quiet, traffic was light, suburbs end quickly in a sprawl of parks and farms. The country seems prosperous. Sweden is very well-developed, as you’d expect in a country that has been settled for thousands of years and has a tradition of building to last. Obviously, the climate and poor soil make farming a challenge, but in the post-industrial era Sweden produces plenty more than it needs and is a net exporter. Sweden maintains a policy of neutrality and has not been directly involved in a shooting conflict for nearly 200 years. Among European countries, Sweden is fairly open to accepting refugees and other immigrants. Unemployment is low and social services are among the best and most generous in the world.
Why, then, is the population growth rate less than one percent? Where is everybody?
I don’t feel I have a full explanation, but here are some of the answers:
- It’s summer. The cities have emptied out into the countryside and abroad. (But that doesn’t explain why the countryside seems so empty, too.)
- It’s summer. And even for summer, the weather is extraordinarily nice, which is giving me the wrong impression. Sweden’s weather is brutal.
- This is a Protestant country. The people don’t feel a religious obligation to go forth and multiply.
The result is subtle and interesting. Development appears to move along at a sane, measured pace, rather than a pell-mell scramble to provide housing, schools, roads, and services to an exploding population. There’s a breathtaking lack of fear and control because there’s plenty for everyone. There is a law here, called Allmansrätten—the right of every person to go wherever they please, as long as they don’t alter or harm the property. So, you can hike across someone’s land or pitch your tent for a night, without permission, as long as you treat the property with respect.
The law applies to property, but the attitude is pervasive. On the ferries, the locks, in hotels and restaurants, in parks, museums, and shops, you can wander around, touch stuff, make yourself a bed on the deck, and climb on things at will. No one is looking over your shoulder. You are simply expected to have some sense.
The other significant factor is that there aren’t packs of hungry lawyers looking for someone to sue. It’s amazing, the effect that litigation has had in the US. It makes us unwilling to trust, less generous, less willing to share. We expect the government to make everything perfectly safe and sanitized. But we pay the price for this in freedom.
I’m sure there are other ways in which Americans have more freedom than Scandinavians. Economic and social mobility, perhaps; cultural norms. I think Americans are blind, however, to all the little ways they’ve surrendered their independence, self-sufficiency, and access to what’s worth having.This entry was posted in Vacation 2014: Europe