Out of Control When I Turn My Power On: Conduction of Swedish Hydropower

Stockholm, Julevädno, and in between, Genealogy of Swedish Hydropower

 

Sara Davin Omar

An ordinary morning in Södermalm, Stockholm. The scaffold outside the window blocks the daylight which would otherwise stream into the apartment. The building hoist moves vertically up the facade on the other side of my block, a building from 1968. Click. My hand on the switcher and the small apartment is bathed in light. I move slowly towards the coffee machine, connecting the cable to the power. Suddenly the whole apartment turns dark. Did I forget to pay the bill? What is going on?

Electricity’s omnipresence has made it invisible to a point that only its absence is noticed. Needless to say, electricity has been crucial for the consolidation of the Modern world and the capital-intensive urban realms. During the 1920s-1970s, when the political concept of folkhemmet (the people’s home) reigned in Sweden, electricity was not only fundamental in rationalizing the physical expansion of its welfare state. As in other nations on the verge of modernization, it also became a rhetoric figure for artists and architects. The authors of the Swedish functionalist manifesto acceptera, urged for example their colleagues to follow the steps of progress by designing for an electrified society (Asplund et. Al, 1931)[1]. After almost 100 years, the leitmotif is now power marketed as ‘green’, allowing for an uncritical proliferation of electricity. What are the origins of this ‘eco-friendly’ power?

Already around 1900, the gaze of the Stockholm-based state-authority Kungliga Vattenfallsstyrelsen was directed towards the northernmost parts of Scandinavia, resulting in the construction of manifold hydroelectric plants over the course of the decades. When innovations in long-distance power transfer were materialized in the more than 1000 km power line connecting Bårjås with Västerås (Vattenfall, 2022)[2], excess power from the northern rivers was directed to the southern parts of the country. Electric interconnectivity was now achieved on a national level and contributed to the metabolic rift dividing “wilderness” from “center” (Foster, 2000)[3].

Due to the proximity to energy-consuming mines such as the one in Girun (Kiruna), the choice of the northern rivers was strategic within a capitalist and biopolitical logic. The choice was also fueled by institutionalized racism towards the Sámi people propagated by Statens Institut för Rasbiologi (Hagerman, 2015)[4]. Subjugated through Christianization and suppression of the Sámi language, (Lundmark, 2005)[5] their lands were consequently perceived as vacant despite their having lived in the region long before the creation of the Swedish nation-state. This further motivated large-scale interventions which altered the ecosystems to a point that many were alienated from what constituted their means of production and an important part of their cultural identity.

Despite tying together north with south in a physical manner, these switchgears, dams, and power lines are not often understood as the colonizing instruments they are, accumulating profit to corporations far from the water sources. Instead, they are mostly seen as neutrally utilitarian or in some cases beautiful embodiments of national romantic or functionalist ideals. Asymmetric relationships between places such as Stockholm and the village of Bårjås (Porjus), one of the sites of the 15 state-owned hydroelectric plants on the Julevädno (Lule River), are a conditio sine qua non for the growth of the capital-intensive, congested realms, and consequently my own existence within such an environment. To portray this, the genealogy of Swedish hydropower is considered as a long site of interconnected socio-technical systems, zigzagging over various territories and temporalities.

“Next stop Hornstull”. Due to a signal error, I am late when I get off the crowded subway. A street vendor obtrusively blocks me on my way to Clas Ohlson. “With this deal you get cheap ─ and green ─ power. We have student reduction”. I take a flyer, but I am not sure I will consider the offer.

 

[1] Asplund, G. (red.) (1931). Acceptera. Stockholm: Tiden.

[2] Vattenfalls historia och kulturarv. (2021). Ett stamnät blir till. Available at: <https://historia.vattenfall.se/stories/hela-sverige-blir-elektriskt/ett-stamnat-blir-till> [Accessed 3 April 2022].

[3] Foster, J., (2000). Marx’s ecology. New York, N.Y: Monthly Review, p.ix.

[4] Hagerman, M., (2015). Käraste Herman: rasbiologen Herman Lundborgs gåta. (Dear Herman: the riddle of the racial biologist Herman Lundborg). Stockholm: Norstedts, pp. 82-83.

[5] Lundmark, L., (2005) The Sami: An indigenous People in Sweden. Stockholm: Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Consumer Affairs and the Sami Parliament, pp. 10-11.