What the world can learn from Nordic countries.
Marco Visscher| March 2007 issue
In the 1960s when Stuart Schlegel went to live among the Teduray, a tribe that made its home in the Philippine rainforest, the American missionary found a society he called “radically egalitarian.” Men and women, children and adults, shamans and basket weavers: All operated as equals. The effect on Schlegel was dramatic. He returned as an anthropologist to study the tribe, discovering that the Teduray knew no violence, no repression and no hoarding of wealth. Childrearing was equally divided between parents. Decisions were made by consensus, balancing the welfare of everyone in the community. In other words, the whole society was built on co-operation, non-violence and equality.
In Wisdom from a Rainforest (University of Georgia Press, 1999), Schlegel analyzes the results of his fieldwork, offering pointed commentary on American society when he compares it to the culture of the Teduray and sounding wistful in his yearning for primitive societies. Schlegel’s tone is understandable since in 1972, the 120-member community he studied was caught in the crossfire between the government and Muslim rebels and wiped out. Its values also seem at risk of extinction.
But the professor emeritus in anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz should be pleased to see that such values are beginning to take root in modern societies. In her upcoming book The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics (Berrett-Koehler, 2007), sociologist Riane Eisler outlines the recent emergence of these “female” values in a world in which the emphasis on competition and violence have had disastrous effects. She calls a society like that of the Teduray “a partnership system” as opposed to “a domination system,” in which men consider themselves superior to women and promote individualism over co-operation.
According to Eisler – known for her feminist bestseller “The Chalice and the Blade” – Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland are leading the way. In these countries, she says, the poor and the rich both benefit from the higher quality of life, and a remarkable degree of equality is enjoyed by men and women, both inside and outside the family. In the political arena, some 40 percent of Nordic parliament members are women, a higher percentage than in other parts of the world. In the professional sphere, three-quarters of Norwegian women work, with a good chance at equal pay. There, a controversial emancipation law prescribes that at least 40 percent of board members at the 550 largest publicly traded companies should be women. Since the law was adopted in 2002, the number of female board members at large companies has tripled – though many firms still have not achieved the target percentage.
Eisler writes: “As the status of women rises, so does the status of caregiving, non-violence and other traits deemed inappropriate for men in dominator societies because they’re associated with ‘inferior’ femininity. In partnership-oriented cultures, men can value these traits and activities in themselves as well as in society because women are no longer subordinate.”
What does this kind of shift in values mean for a contemporary society? In The Real Wealth of Nations, Eisler describes the effects within Nordic countries:
Peace. Nordic countries led the way in legislation banning domestic violence involving children. They also created the first peace studies programs, when the rest of the world only had military academies.
Family. Tax incentives support activities like caregiving considered more feminine in nature. For instance, the government subsidizes child care and a generous scheme for paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers.
Environment. Not only do Nordic countries have far-reaching environmental laws but the corporate sector enacts green measures on its own. In 1989 – long before “corporate social responsibility” became fashionable – the Swedish scientist Karl-Henrik Robrt founded The Natural Step to help companies become more sustainable. The Swedish furniture giant IKEA was among the first to embrace the model.
Solidarity. Nordic countries spend a higher-than-average percentage of their gross domestic products on aid to the developing world. In spending those funds, the emphasis is on fair economic development, environmental protection and human rights. Corporate sector. Sweden and Norway were among the first countries to experiment with “economic democracy,” whereby employees have more authority in the workplace as well as increased responsibility. Additionally, co-operatives – associations of producers and consumers who are both members and owners – play an important role in Nordic countries’ economies – fueling the growth of wind energy, for example.
An emphasis on care and co-operation does not have to weaken a country’s economy. In the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual global competitiveness report, the Nordic countries are invariably among the top-ranking regions, even with high taxes. At an interview held at the presentation of the 2005-2006 report, the WEF’s chief economist Augusto Lopez-Claros said:”If the high tax rates generate resources that are then used to deliver world-class educational establishments, an effective social safety net and a highly motivated and skilled labour force, then competitiveness is boosted, not undermined.” Various studies also show that Nordic residents are happy. In the United Nations’ Human Development Report they score high in the “quality of life” category.
In The Real Wealth of Nations, Eisler contends that the northern Europeans’ high level of fulfillment demonstrates the potential of every modern society to advance, thanks to greater appreciation for female values. Under such a definition of “progress,” the world stands to become a nicer place.