Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"you can’t die in Svalbard"

If you travel across the Barents Sea from Yamalo-Nenets, you’ll arrive at a Norwegian archipelago called Svalbard. It is an otherworldly place, inhospitable to most life yet starkly and sublimely beautiful. Roughly 2,600 intrepid people, most of them adult men, live here. But you can’t die in Svalbard. No, inhabitants are not immortal. Rather, their life cycles are abridged in mundane ways: Norwegian officials forcibly evict the sick, disabled, and elderly, shipping them back to the Norwegian mainland to end their days. You can’t be born in Svalbard either. The governor orders women in their third trimester to leave. Svalbard is not, as citizens call it, a “life cycle community” — no concessions are made for birth and death, and only able-bodied working adults are welcome. Those verging on dotage are reminded that 20 retirees could bankrupt the town, a message reinforced by the hospital’s scant number of beds and its sole doctor. An elderly person who resists leaving home in the settlement of Longyearbyen is threatened with deportation.


I meet an administrator in the nave, who blinks quizzically when I ask for directions, and then directs me 300 meters along the Platåberget mountainside: don’t cross the bridge, she warns, and don’t pass the white house.