Volume 4 Number 3
A Life Without Walls
01 March 1991

Bjorn-Ole Austad investigates a Norwegian environmentalist who travelled as far as Samoa in search of: A life without walls

But it is possible!' is one of Erik Dammann's favourite phrases. When organizations like the World Watch Institute bring out gloomy reports, he will exclaim that the chances of creating a better world have never been so good. `There have always been "sensible" arguments in favour of the status quo and against high ideals - but not any more!'

Norway's Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and the explorer Thor Heyerdahl are the country's best-known environmental spokespeople. But few have done more than Dammann to raise Norwegians' awareness on these issues.

In 1974 he wrote a book called The Future in our Hands and founded a movement of the same name. I was then in my early twenties, and he embodied the longings of many of my generation for a break with a materialistic way of life. Dammann, who will be 60 this year, meets you with a quiet joy. He has time. He thinks aloud with you, deeply convinced of what he has worked out, but still searching and curious.

His quest for a new way of life brought him face to face with world problems. His first work was in advertising, the front line of the consumer society. That was in the Fifties, when `it was more about information than manipulation. But what really mattered to me in life conflicted more and more with the aims of my job.'

Contrasts and hardships
So he and his wife Ragnhild made a radical break with material security and spent nine months with their four small children in a remote village on a Samoan island in the South Pacific. They had to take out loans to pay for the trip, trusting that they could write articles when they returned to balance their finances.

`Why so far away?' I asked.

`I had to prove to myself that I was a free human being. I wanted to learn how to live, and to show that the impossible could become possible. We go for comfort in our society, and we become insensitive to the reality around us. Contrasts and hardships give a fresh appreciation of life.'

A good dose of hardship they certainly got, as they settled in to their new home, a palm hut with no walls. The cultural shocks of the first weeks took away any sense of being in a tropical paradise. In the Samoan way of life there seemed no need for privacy or to be alone.

On one of the first days a woman came into the hut to see what kind of food they had, and took a number of things away with her. But the Dammanns did not know how to protest at what seemed like stealing, and a few days later she came back and gave the family different kinds of food she felt they needed.

`The Samoans took pride in sharing their riches instead of competing for more. They taught us how to care for one another within a small community, a kind of enlarged family. This gave me a whole new picture of how the world could live, and made me reflect on family life in our own society. The well-known peace activist Eva Nordland once said, "We are seeing the first generation ever anywhere that has no responsibility for anyone but themselves." How do we learn to have that responsibility and love for one another? It always starts with the people we have a close personal relationship with. In Samoa I saw how this love for those closest to you could be extended to the whole community.'

When the Dammanns got back to Norway again, they found many people dropping in at their home because they loved its warmth and atmosphere. They included children from unstable families and parents at the point of separating. 'Ragnhild loves children,' Erik says, `and we are lucky to share the same ideals. Because of her, my ideas are rubbed against the reality of everyday life in the neighbourhood. Unless one's involvement is linked with people, it easily becomes theoretical and distant.'

He and Ragnhild have eight children between the ages of 21 and 34. Three of these are adopted, one of them Korean and another Liberian. Their presence focussed questions of global justice. `Eighty thousand children were dying of hunger and diseases every day. This was unbearable to us as we looked at our own two new children from these regions of suffering. We had to do something.'

Compelled by this inner urgency, Dammann and others launched The Future in Our Hands. `When we rented a hall for 2,000 people just outside Oslo for a meeting on antimaterialism, social responsibility and a just global distribution of resources and wealth, many thought we were crazy. But busloads came from many parts of the country, and 3,000 people crammed into the hall. A suppressed longing for other than material values did exist.'

The movement soon grew to 25,000 members, and within a few years politicians had to reckon with its influence on public opinion. In 1977 Dammann and the economist Jacob Bomann-Larsen wrote a book called The Political Parties at the Crossroads. In it every party was questioned on how to achieve global justice, preserve the environment and create a new lifestyle in Norway.

This brought criticism. Dammann's approach was too individualistic for the Marxists and too idealistic for the free marketeers. He appealed to common sense and goodness in men. For many that was naivety. How can the world change by people growing vegetables and accepting lower salaries?

Dammann and his colleagues went beyond such caricatures and brought into the public debate a sense of personal commitment and willingness to sacrifice for one's ideals. They proposed a choice of values, because the global distribution of wealth, preservation of the environment and lifestyle are woven together and are not just political issues.

After the launching of The Future in Our Hands he was caught up in a whirlwind of media attention and requests for speeches. Little by little he became cut off from the harmony he advocated. After a while his children wanted to disappear when a journalist turned up. Life was not easy financially: his income had dropped by 40 per cent when he left advertizing, and his family had grown.

In 1978 he withdrew to be alone for a while, and wrote a book called The Day is Yours. He wanted to break away from society's rat-race without having to live in some remote place to do so. He wrote about quietness, freedom, an overall purpose in life, how to live together, and especially how to be responsible for our own choices. Then, as now, he marvelled at life and nature, and at `God or some higher power' behind it all.

Next generation
This love of life is still apparent in his most recent book, Your Life or Your Money! He walks with his seven-year-old grandson through the forest, looking at the flowers, birds and animals. But then he looks at the dark clouds he sees over the boy's future. A certain heaviness seems to have entered his heart. `The damage to the environment is now so obvious. Our perspective on how much time is available to us has changed. In the Seventies we said the changes would affect future generations: but now it's the next generation we talk about, the children walking by our side.'

There is something prophetic about Dammann's passion and simplicity. He may at times seem one-sided in his criticism of the values of Western society. But don't all prophets need to be single-minded and uncompromising if they are to break through our mental defences?

Environmental issues are now accepted as a high priority. Dammann inspired a research project called, Alternative Future, which the Norwegian Parliament 'decided to help fund. It looks at the viability of sharing existing resources, and planning development within sustainable global limits.

He is now asked to speak in many forums which once did not take him seriously. He has been given the Right Livelihood Award, which has been dubbed the Alternative Nobel Prize. But he is still deeply dissatisfied, feeling that `environmental discussions rarely ask what is necessary to save the world from destruction'. They are `based on the rules of this present system and limited to what this system allows. It gives priority to competition, growth and profit for those who already have too much. It enables us to solve environmental problems on a local level, but not globally.

`The idea that everyone's self-interest will lead to the common good has resulted in an over-utilization of nature. This may have seemed useful as long as the urgent need for most countries was to get free of poverty. But the immoral principle which encourages selfishness is on a collision course with what the globe can sustain. There is no technological fix for such a moral dilemma.'

Yet he does not think we are moving inevitably towards a precipice. `I believe in man's ability to change before it's too late.' And he hopes for courageous leadership in the Nineties. `People long for leaders who dare to tell the truth.'

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