"America is the awesomeist awesome that ever did awesome!" Expect to see something like that in every US presidential candidate's stump speech, over and over, in one form or another. American Exceptionalism is a must, the notion that somehow, fundamentally, America isn't just quantitatively exceptional -covering vast stretches of land with 315 million people - but that it's somehow qualitatively different. Whether it's the landscape, natural resources, cultural properties, historical properties, or whatnot, somehow, America is different, in a way that's better than everyone else.

Your average politico attempting to argue for American Exceptionalism will pull out a bunch of random factoids or snippets to try to argue their point. So I'm going to do just the opposite and pull out a contrast. Since my home is Iceland, how about we look at Icelandic exceptionalism?

(Above: Traditional Icelandic homes like these were based on the old viking homes and were in widespread use up until the early 20th century)

Unlike the overwhelming majority of countries, when Iceland was settled, there was no indigenous population to ethnically cleanse. While most of Europe was still languishing in post-Roman decline, this was the age of enlightenment for the vikings. They settled a loose empire stretching from western Siberia through Iceland to the eastern seaboard of Canada and possibly the US due to their advanced shipbuilding and navigation technologies. In particular their understanding and usage of optics seems to have been exceedingly advanced, such as using light polarization filters to find the sun in a cloudy sky and the construction of aspheric lenses good enough to use in a telescope, long before Galileo. Literacy was widespread among the vikings in general, but particularly in Iceland. The early Icelanders founded what is (arguably) the world's oldest extant national parliament.

(Above: Reykjavík, with a view toward Esja)

The largest city, Reykjavík, is the northernmost capital of a sovereign state in the world. While relatively small, Iceland holds the wettest spots in Europe, glaciers (one of which is the largest by volume in Europe) which receive over 10 meters of precipitation per year - yet parts of the northeast of the country are borderline desert. Iceland contains Látrabjarg, the westernmost point in Europe, which also houses the largest bird colony in Europe and one of the largest in the world. Iceland also is covered in waterfalls, including Dettifoss, often called the most powerful in Europe. While whether or not it exceeds Rhine Falls depends on how you measure, there's no question that its peak flows far exceed any other waterfall in the modern world. A couple thousand years years ago, about 900,000 cubic meters per second of water flowed across the falls and through the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon system. To put this into perspective, the Mississippi River's average outflow ranges from 7,000 to 20,000, and the average wet season outflow of the Amazon River (by far the largest in the world) is only 200,000 cubic meters. But you don't have to go back 2,500 years to see massive floods in Iceland. In 1755, Katla, who is threatening to erupt again, unleashed a 300,000 cubic meter flood down her hillsides and into to the sea, and has done smaller "jökulhlaups" since then (indeed, the scientific term for "volcanic flood" is an Icelandic word). Should it be any surprise that the world's largest sandur (outwash plain - also a scientific term taken from Icelandic) is in Iceland?

(Above: Ásbyrgi, carved in a matter of days by two jökulhlaup in the past several thousand years)

If it sounds like there's lots of water in Iceland, it should. Iceland ranks solidly #1 in the world in freshwater per capita at 532,000 m^3 per person per year, orders of magnitude higher than most other developed nations. But the resources hardly stop there. Iceland sits in the middle of one of the world's richest fisheries, new exploration suggests 250-500 million barrels of oil and 100 billion cubic meters of natural gas in just two blocks of Icelandic waters (worth about $300,000 per Icelander at today's prices), and unimaginably vast renewable energy resources. Iceland is only one of five nations in the world to use essentially 100% renewable electricity. And it's cheap. While even the smallest of the aluminum smelters Iceland uses to "export" power consumes more energy than all of the homes and businesses in the country combined, Iceland still has only touched about a quarter of its large hydro and conventional high temperature geothermal. These resources are vastly exceeded by small hydro, low temperature geothermal, enhanced geothermal, wind (this windy country is finally building its first two wind turbines - there's just been no need), wave (huge resource potential), tidal (huge resource potential), etc. While most of the world searches desparately for energy, especially low CO2 power, Iceland is awash in it.

(Above: Swimming inside the warm caldera of Askja)

This geothermal energy comes from Iceland's truly exceptionally active geology. While the exact reasons why Iceland is so volcanically active are still unknown, Iceland is estimated to have been the source of 1/3rd of the world's lava since 1500 A.D.. This could be seen perhaps most dramatically in the 1783/84 eruption of Laki, a 23-kilometer-long fissure volcano whose 8-month-long eruption killed 6 million people (the deadliest in recorded history). While not a record-holder in terms of lava released (Mt. Tambora exceeded it), it released a staggering 120m tonnes of SO2 and 8m tonnes of hydrofluoric acid (normally a trace gas for a volcano). These figures are more typical of a supervolcano than a regular volcano; Tambora, by contrast,released only 22m tonnes SOx while Mount Saint Helens released a mere 1.5m. The deadly cloud was even capable of directly poisoning tens of thousands to death in the UK. Yet Laki isn't even Iceland's largest. Iceland also has other unusual volcanic features, like Þríhnúkagígur - the world's deepest (and only readily accessible) uncollapsed volcanic magma chamber - right by Reykjavík.

(Above: Inside the magma chamber of Þríhnúkagígur)

But it's hardly only the history, resources, and geology that make Iceland exceptional.

When it comes to competition, tiny Iceland with only 321,000 people performs staggeringly well. Iceland ties the US for having won the most strongman competitions, taking 8 of the 35 gold medals in the World's Strongest Man competition's history. When it comes to chess, Iceland has 9 grandmasters, giving Iceland a per-capita rate 150 times higher than that of the US and even 26 times higher than Russia (the Icelandic language even has a verb, tefla, meaning specifically to play chess - and only chess). In 2008, Iceland took the olympic record for being the smallest country to win a team medal, a very difficult record to achieve because it means having many players good in the same sport at the same time rather than a single rather exceptional athlete here or there. Yet unlike many nations, Iceland provides rather little national assistance for developing a strong Olympic team.

(Above: Table for chess by the side of the road in Reykjavík)

In accordance with its strong literary tradition, Iceland has one of the world's highest rates of nobel laureates, the author Halldór Laxness. It's arguably the highest. Concerning the others with claims to be higher: the Faroese winner, Niels Ryberg Finsen, was an Icelander born in the Faroes, which were then part of Denmark and still not fully independent, who then was educated in and spent most of his life in Denmark. Arthur Lewis and Derek Walcott were born in Saint Lucia, a British colony, but were educated and lived overseas. Jules A. Hoffmann and Gabriel Lippmann, both credited to Luxembourg, were both French and were educated and lived in France. While Laxness lived for short periods of time overseas, he was born to an Icelandic family in Iceland, raised in Iceland, and primarily lived and worked in Iceland.

(Above: Icelandic bookshop)

Indeed, to this day, Icelanders publish more books per capita and artists as a share of the workforce than anywhere else. Iceland also probably has one of the highest rates of musicians per capita - the country has 90 music schools, 400 choirs, 400 orchestras and marching bands, vast numbers of rock bands, etc. One can pick any random tiny town (say, Dalvík) and find a music school with half dozen or more instructors. Unsurprisngly, Iceland hosts one of the premier indie music fests in the world, Iceland Airwaves.

(Above: Skálmöld performs at Iceland Airwaves)

There's much in national statistics that's impressive as well. For example, lifespan - despite eating a rather Americanized diet, Iceland is #1 for men and #4 for women. Iceland has the highest rate of union membership in the OECD. Iceland also has the most peaceful nation on Earth, with the world's lowest percentage of GDP spent on the military.

(Above: Friðarsúlan, the Peace Tower, on an island just offshore from Reykjavík.)

Iceland was ranked by Save the Children as the best place in the world to be a child and the second best to be a mother. Oh, sure, the combined 9 months of paid parental leave (which they're looking to raise to 12) could have something to do with it, but either way, it shouldn't be surprising that Iceland swaps regularly with Ireland for the highest national birth rate in Europe status. Thankfully the parents don't have to be married to enjoy parental leave, because Iceland was the highest of 14 surveyed nations in the rate of out of wedlock births; marriage isn't seen as particularly important for childrearing here. But whether a parent or not, women in Iceland can point to having the world's lowest gender gap and the 4th highest rate of women in parliament in Europe (#10 in the world), along with a lesbian head of state and a large portion of women in top cabinet positions (the US, by contrast,ties for #78 with Turkmenistan). Iceland was also the first nation to have a woman directly elected as president.

(Above: Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world's first directly elected female president.)

Despite having one of the world's lowest population densities (among countries, only Western Sahara and Mongolia are distinctly lower) and sitting on some of the most rugged, unstable volcanic terrain in the world on the middle of an island in the North Atlantic, Iceland boasts the 9th best rate of broadband connectivity in the world. And it's not just general "broadband"; 98% of Icelanders can get basic broadband (144kbps), while 50% homes can get superfast (>30MBps), generally 50 or 100MBps fiber. And while one may want to credit this to an "everyone lives in the same place" effect, only 1/3rd of Iceland's population lives in (still rugged, spread out) Reykjavík, and as for the entire capitol region, representing 2/3rds of Icelanders, it is still only average population density for a nation. Iceland also has the world's highest percentage of its population on Facebook. And just to emphasize the computer literacy aspect a bit more? Internet Explorer is only the third most popular web browser in Iceland. ;)

(Above: Coffee at Café Paris in Reykjavík.)

Finally, some miscellany. Heard the old wives' tail that coffee stunts your growth? Well, Iceland is #3 in per-capita coffee consumption, yet has the world's second tallest adult males. And that's not the only thing that's big about them. ;) Of OECD nations, Iceland has the highest acceptance of evolution. It also has, according to an annual study, among the world's happiest people.

Originally posted to Rei on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 06:51 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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