Europe and beyond

Green Colonialism

La città mineraria e la montagna di Kiruna, Svezia

In Sweden’s Arctic, a battle for the Earth’s climate rages, and a question looms: Are we simply trading out one extractive industry for another?

In this northern Swedish mining town of around 23,000, most people are used to the feeling of reverberating dynamite. But a newcomer may find themselves jolted awake, night after night.

The signs of the ground being hollowed out below are everywhere. Cracks run up the brickwork of houses and apartment buildings, and nearest to the mine, the land almost seems to undulate. This town is ever so slowly being pulled towards the mine like a tablecloth dragged from a table set for breakfast. Kiruna is breaking apart.

The Land Of The Future

Kiruna sits high up in the Swedish Arctic, a starkly beautiful place, surrounded by primeval forests, powerful rivers and rugged mountains. More than a century ago, industrialists named it “the land of the future” because of the rich seams of iron ore that lay beneath the earth, ready to be extracted.

But today, mining has carved out so much of the land that it’s caused deep, tectonic shifts in the Earth’s crust. Unlike the timed nightly rumblings from the mine, these are real seismic tremors that shake the town’s foundations without warning. It is as if Kiruna’s mountain, woken from its slumber, is trying to settle itself.

Carina Sarri, 73, can barely recognize the landscape today — it has changed so much since her childhood. The Kiruna native now lives in the south of Sweden, but recently returned for a visit.

“Two, three new mountains they have built, from the remains of the mine,” she said, describing the enormous piles of waste rock the miners have dumped, forming artificial mountains that dominate the skyline to the south of the city. She told me about the lake, once a treasured summer spot for swimming and fishing brown trout.

The Swedish state-owned mining company, Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag or LKAB, began draining the southern end away about a decade ago to stop water seeping into the mine. Now people are afraid that what remains is too contaminated to swim in, and the brown trout have become scarce.

Sarri is of Sami origin, a group that is indigenous to the region. Now retired, she helped found Sweden’s first Sami-language nursery school in Kiruna in the 1980s. Sarri told me she couldn’t help but think about how her hometown might look a century from now when there is nothing left to extract. “How will they leave this land?” she wondered aloud.

It’s an old question in Kiruna, where an iron mine first laid waste to the land in the early 20th century. It forever changed the lives of the local Sami people — indigenous reindeer herders, native to northern Scandinavia and northeast Russia, who have lived alongside nature in these lands for millennia. But today, the question has taken on new meaning amid the modern-day green transition.

Across Kiruna’s region of Norrbotten, companies have staked claims here for pioneering new carbon-free ways to mine iron and make steel. They also want to dig up a rich treasure trove of rare earth elements and precious metals to help power our mobile phones and electric cars. In 2021, the region even became the prospective locale for a drastic intervention that could bring down global temperatures but could also cause cataclysmic disaster — a proposal to dim the sun.

Ebba Busch, Sweden’s deputy prime minister and minister for business and energy, believes northern Sweden could help reduce the speed at which the world is heating up. “Sweden really has the answer to the million-dollar question of whether it’s possible to have very high set climate goals and then at the same time have a strong economic growth,” Busch told me. “The Swedish answer to that is yes.”

There’s a prevailing sense in Kiruna that swathes of this beautiful, resource-laden land should be turned over to industry — sacrificed on the altar of a green transition in order to phase out fossil fuels. But for the region’s residents, the tradeoffs are more complex than simply embracing a more sustainable future.

“There’s a prevailing sense that swathes of this beautiful, resource-laden land should be turned over to industry — sacrificed on the altar of a green transition in order to phase out fossil fuels.”

Environmentalists, Indigenous groups and academics say that what politicians and energy executives are really advocating for is a technofix for the climate crisis: simply trading out one extractive industry for another without challenging the systems that got us here in the first place. And it could bring untold collateral damage upon one of nature’s last refuges in Europe, alongside the Sami, the region’s last Indigenous culture.

In reporting this story, I met climate scientists, mining executives, Sami leaders and Swedish politicians. Among them, I found no absolute heroes or true villains. Everyone was searingly aware that the climate is in danger, but each person had drastically different ideas about how to fix it.

Some politicians, like Busch, say the solutions to the climate crisis are in the ground, ready to be mined, while the Sami believe the answers have always existed in the quiet teachings of the natural world. This far-flung northern region is a crossroads of technologies, ideologies and ambitions for the planet. Kiruna is, as one scholar put it, “a microcosmos, like a magnifying glass under which you see all the problems of the world.”

Going Underground

This past October, I went to the mine myself. From a platform three-quarters of a mile below ground, I watched as an electrified train approached, moving autonomously along the tracks and letting out a shrill whistle. Carriages passed by filled with black rocks — some like gravel, some as big as watermelons. When they reached the loading shaft, the bottom of the carriage flew open and pieces of iron ore fell into the abyss with a screech and a roar. From there, my guide explained, they would be crushed, turned into pellets and eventually melted down into steel.

Anders Lindberg, a spokesman for LKAB, Sweden’s state-owned mining company, drove me down into the Kiruna mine in the company’s four-wheel drive SUV. Cheerful, bespectacled and passionate about mining, he kept up a constant stream of chatter as we rolled through the unfathomable warren of underground tunnels, caverns and railways. As we approached 4,000 feet below ground, the mine’s deepest level, my ears started to pop and it got hotter — we were getting closer to the Earth’s core.

“Whatever you do in your daily life, it has started in the mine,” he said as his headlights flashed across the roughly hewn rock of the tunnel wall. “The tools you use, the chair you’re sitting on, the bike you’re riding on your way to work. The pens you’re writing with, the computer, your mobile phone. It has all started in the mine.”

From Kiruna, the iron is taken by train to ports in Norway and Sweden, where it is refined into steel or shipped to LKAB’s clients. At least 80% of iron ore in Europe comes from LKAB’s mines. The company says its products can be found in mobile phones, bikes, strollers, electric cars, roads and buildings all over the world.

When Lindberg took me to see some of the miners, I expected pickaxes and dusty faces, but instead I found men and women sitting in state-of-the-art underground offices — with computer screens, water coolers and even a canteen. It turns out that a lot of the mining now happens remotely. I watched as one woman, Ingela, picked up piles of rock and moved them using joysticks and an Xbox controller, before a huge curved screen.

Most iron mining and steelmaking today is otherwise not very modern: The pelleting, refining and smelting process is typically powered by fossil fuels such as oil and coal. Globally, the steel industry is responsible for about 8% of carbon emissions. But LKAB says they can transform the whole process from mine to end-product by using electricity generated by water and wind instead.

“This far-flung northern region is a crossroads of technologies, ideologies and ambitions for the planet.”

Ahead of COP 28 — the global climate conference taking place this week in Dubai — the UN warned that we’re on track for global temperatures to rise 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. The UN estimates that an average of 21.5 million people have been displaced by climate disasters each year since 2008. Without drastic changes in the way we live, we’ll see more and more hellish weather events, deadly heat waves, forest fires, drastic flooding and millions more forced to leave their homes — the world as we know it will be even further transformed.

We’re already living through these consequences, but stopping the worst effects will require overhauling nearly every industry. We must reduce our carbon emissions, but the question of how to do that hangs heavily in the Arctic air.

When Meta Came To Town

Until the last decade, Sweden’s northernmost county — Norrbotten, home to Kiruna — wasn’t such an exciting place. Unemployment levels were among the highest in the country, and people were moving down to Stockholm in search of work. But a new chapter began when Facebook came to town.

In 2011, Meta (then Facebook) began building an enormous data center in Lulea, a small city on the Baltic coast, about four hours south of Kiruna. Run on hydropower and cooled naturally by the frigid Arctic air, the data center called attention to northern Sweden’s potential as a place with an abundance of renewable energy. More server farms began setting up shop and wind farms were erected in the vast forestland.

Within a few years, industry leaders and politicians spoke of the area’s potential to help revamp age-old, carbon-heavy steel production into new eco-friendly processes. Meanwhile, Kiruna’s space center — a rocket range and satellite station — was becoming an important European hub for monitoring climate change and space weather.

Signs of this new industry of sustainability — and its profits —  are everywhere now: LED screens on the university campus and at the airport invite people to “become the green transition.” Someone handed me a newspaper that proclaimed northern Sweden’s green transition will “save the world.”

The need for a change in the way we live and treat the Earth is also plain to see here. Every winter feels a little shorter than the last. The snow, once soft and easy for animals to dig through to reach food beneath, is now melting and refreezing as the temperature fluctuates unpredictably. The region’s reindeer are moving about ever more erratically, in constant search of food.

Alongside the “land of the future,” this place has another alias — “Europe’s last remaining wilderness.” There’s truth to the name: These vast boreal forests are home to the brown bear, golden eagle, Arctic fox, lynx, wolf and beaver. It’s one of the least inhabited places in Europe. But the Sami don’t like the term. For them, this isn’t a wilderness, and it isn’t empty. The land is replete with cultural heritage, with the traces of thousands of years of living alongside nature, herding reindeer, fishing, hunting and storytelling.

“If you read a map now, you can see Sami names all over, every mountain, every lake, every river, all have Sami names. It’s our ancestors’ land,” said Anna Sarri, Carina Sarri’s cousin who runs a nature tourism business in a village outside Kiruna and comes from a long line of reindeer herders. “It’s a culture.”

Land of the brown bear and the reindeer, northern Sweden is home to some of the largest remaining tracts of boreal forest in Europe. (Frankie Mills/Coda Story)
The world’s largest underground iron ore mine and its smokestacks loom over everything in Kiruna. (Frankie Mills/Coda Story)

In January of this year, the city of Kiruna laid out a lavish welcome for the European Commission to celebrate the start of Sweden’s six-month leadership of the Council of the European Union. Donning a blue LKAB hard hat and protective clothing, Busch, Sweden’s deputy prime minister, gave a speech inside the belly of the mine to mark the occasion.

“I don’t know what comes to mind when you think of Sweden. Some of you might think of the Swedish musical miracle like ABBA, Roxette or Swedish House Mafia. Maybe you’re thinking of Astrid Lindgren or those red-painted wooden houses. Untamed wilderness,” Busch said with a smile. “But I’d like to add another entry to that list. LKAB, the Swedish mines.”

She went on to announce that in Kiruna, just north of where the LKAB is currently mining, is a second enormous underground deposit of metals, containing not only iron, but also Europe’s largest quantity of rare earth metals. This second deposit, she said, would be a treasure trove of much-needed materials for making magnets that power electric car engines and help convert motion into electricity in wind turbines.

“It’s only shit talk, this green transition. It’s only a way to extract even more. You can call it green colonialism instead. That’s more true.”
— Tor Lennart Tuorda

Anna Sarri was in her village when she first heard the news. Announcing the deposit without consulting the Sami first, and doing it on the grandest possible scale was a “dirty trick,” she said. In reality, the mining company has known about the deposit for over a century. They simply hadn’t categorized or publicly registered its geological makeup in detail until now.

But the international media immediately bought the political calculus, hailing the deposit as a new “discovery.” The fanfare suddenly made it a very difficult thing for the Sami — or anyone else — to oppose the opening of a new mine. Doing so would mean being on the wrong side of the climate change debate.

“It’s a way of working which always puts the reindeer herding society in a situation where you are almost forced to say yes, and if you don’t, you are an enemy to society,” said Nils Johan Labba, a Sami politician who I met in Anna Sarri’s village.

The mining company says that according to geological reporting standards, it had to make a large public announcement so all parties were notified at once.

Talk of untapped treasures lying beneath the earth in northern Sweden is nothing new, especially to Indigenous people like Sarri and Labba. In the early 20th century, a eugenicist named Herman Lundborg traveled to Kiruna to meet the Sami and classify them. He measured their skulls and photographed people naked, a project that was privately backed by the founder of Kiruna’s mine and the LKAB mining company.

In 1919, Lundborg wrote that there were “dormant millions” in profits underground in northern Sweden and that because the Sami — which he believed to be racially inferior — did not extract those resources, they should “give way to clean Swedish [industrial] interests.”

At the time, Lundborg’s influence served as the backdrop for the state’s displacement of Sami communities during the industrialization of the north in the early 20th century. Racial ideology — and assimilation policies forced on the Sami people — painted the Sami people’s traditions and philosophy around land use as incompatible with Sweden’s prosperity.

Sami politicians and community leaders told me that to them, the green transition feels like a continuation of what they have experienced for centuries: more extraction, more sacrifice of their land. The undeniable threats of climate change on one hand and the constant acquisition of land by mining companies on the other, feel like an existential Catch-22; they can lose their land to green development, lose it to climate change or, potentially, lose it to both.

But these rare earth metals are here. And they could help human beings keep using the tools and technologies we’ve come to depend on, without doing quite so much harm to the planet. Should the Sami have to give up their way of life to make way for these mines — when they had little to do with destroying the climate in the first place? I put the question to LKAB’s Lindberg.

“You cannot look at the Sami population and say, ‘They’re a small group that’s not part of the society,’” he said. “We have Samis working in the mine. Reindeer herders are using motorcycles, snowmobiles, helicopters, drones, mobile phones. They also need these metals. They are also using fossil fuels, being part of the climate change.”

A Culture Of Silence

The mineral-rich land here may contain real answers to the climate crisis. But there’s also money to be made from these rare earth metals — and a lot of it.

The state-owned mining company has not yet put a price on how much that second deposit in Kiruna’s potential sister mine — the one announced during the European Commission visit in January — might be worth. Along with 700 million tons of iron ore, LKAB believes the new deposit contains about 1.3 million tons of rare earth elements.

One metric ton of neodymium, one of the elements found in the deposit used for powerful magnets and electronics, is currently priced at around $70,000. The total profits here — of iron for traditional industrial use alongside valuable mining byproducts in the form of rare earth metals that go into our phones and EVs — could be astronomical.

“Signs of this new industry of sustainability — and its profits — are everywhere now: LED screens on the university campus and at the airport invite people to ‘become the green transition.’”

But some locals are skeptical about what all this mining is really for and who really stands to gain from it, especially given the cost of eco-friendly steel production. At a pub in Lulea, where locals were competing in a Swedish-style pub quiz over plates of meatballs and lingonberries, I met workers who had just flown in to lay fiber optic cable in the Baltic Sea. They chuckled when I mentioned the green transition. “Ask the companies how much electricity it will need!” one of them said.

It is a good question. LKAB, along with its partners — a steelmaking and hydropower company — is currently testing out a new way of making steel, which leaves behind the traditional blast furnace but requires a phenomenal amount of electricity. How much exactly? “We would need approximately 70 terawatt hours of electricity a year,” said LKAB’s Lindberg. He explained this would amount to roughly half the electricity that all of Sweden’s population of 10 million consumes in a year.

How could that much electricity be generated here in a planet-friendly way? Imagine 3,000 new wind turbines. That’s what must be built, according to Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson, Sweden’s former minister for business who now advises SSAB, the steelmaking company partnering with LKAB on their new fossil-free steel venture. Thorwaldsson is all for it, because the consequences of not doing it, he said, are too grave to think about. “It must, must work,” Thorwaldsson said. “There are no jobs on a dead planet.”

But wind farms come with issues of their own. “They talk about wind power,” said Johan Sandström, a mining expert at the Lulea Institute of Technology. “OK, some wind turbines might end up in the sea, but others must be on land. Whose land?”

For people in northern Sweden, this is the real million-dollar question. And it’s a hard one to raise in a place like Lulea — where almost everyone is somehow connected to the town’s industry and technology sectors. Sandström described an emerging “culture of silence” around challenging the new narrative of the green transition.

“As soon as you ask a question about it, you’re categorized as being against progress and sustainability,” said Sandström. “It’s like a silent consensus that we need to view this as a positive thing, period. And I think that’s unfortunate.”

Henrik Blind, councilor of the nearby town of Jokkmokk, said he feels the green transition has been “hijacked by the industry” that has continued to take away and exploit Indigenous land, but this time with a climate-saving label slapped on top.

When I met Tor Lennart Tuorda, a Sami photographer who works as an archivist at the Sami museum, he put it more bluntly. “It’s only shit talk, this green transition,” he said. “It’s only a way to extract even more. You can call it green colonialism instead. That’s more true.”

Dimming The Midnight Sun

Mining for the green transition will bring some harm to the land and the people who live on it. But its champions carry a healthy dose of realism about what drives the global economy and how our demands for everything from ballpoint pens to laptops affect the climate. They are pushing for more sustainable ways for us to keep living as we do.

Then, there’s a more radical crowd: scientists who argue that all options must be on the table, that we may need to look beyond the Earth itself to slow down climate change. They too found their way to Kiruna.

In 2021, a group of researchers at Harvard University wanted to study whether humans could one day bring down the Earth’s rising temperatures by dimming light from the sun. They predicted that if they could send a burst of mineral dust into the atmosphere, it would act like millions of tiny mirrors high in the sky, scattering sunlight back into space and potentially lowering temperatures worldwide.

The group set their sights on Esrange, the name of the Swedish Space Corporation’s rocket launch site and space base a 40-minute drive east of Kiruna, which has institutional expertise in atmospheric research, making it a perfect place to test their hypothesis.

“Sami politicians and community leaders told me that to them, the green transition feels like a continuation of what they have experienced for centuries: more extraction, more sacrifice of their land.”

The first step would be to come to Esrange, where they could test out flying a special mechanical balloon about 12 miles overhead. The sparsely populated Arctic landscape would make it an ideal testing ground. If successful, the balloon could one day be used to sprinkle the sky with those tiny mirrors.

One of the scientists on the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment, or SCoPEx for short, is David Keith, who is now a professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago. He told me that the first goal was simply to test the balloon, but the longer-term goal was “to do some stratospheric science, with a focus on solar geoengineering.”

Dubbed “sunscreen for the Earth,” solar geoengineering is one of the most controversial types of climate science out there today. If it works, it could have the potential to reduce global temperatures and save the planet from the worst ravages of climate change. But there are huge, potentially catastrophic, risks involved. Scientists say a mistake in the process could disrupt our climate system — even erode the ozone layer — and severely impact global drought and flooding patterns.

Nevertheless, the stage was set for the SCoPEx team to come to Sweden. They even announced their plans to the media. But then word reached Åsa Larsson Blind, who lives northeast of Kiruna and is vice president of the nonprofit Saami Council, a cross-border rights group that spans the Sami region.

Larsson Blind was startled by what she saw as the mindset of geoengineering — the idea that humans might one day be able to tweak the Earth’s climate to suit our own ends.

“Solar geoengineering is kind of the ultimate colonization,” she told me. “Not only of nature and the Earth but also the atmosphere. Treating the Earth as machinery and saying that we’re not just entitled to control the Earth itself, we will control the whole atmosphere is to take it a step further.”

The Saami Council launched a high-profile campaign opposing the project, releasing a video that challenged not only the proposed experiment but called for a complete global ban on geoengineering research. The video featured Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaking alongside Larsson Blind, other Indigenous leaders, scientists and environmentalists who called geoengineering “pollution for a pollution problem” and a “false solution” to climate change.

In his work, Keith talks about a stark future where the effects of climate change get so bad that it could become urgent to research geoengineering as a potential solution. He argues that it is important to understand the risks while we still have time to consider them soberly, rather than in some future climate emergency.

“The purpose of research,” he told me, “is to provide more information about how well these technologies might work and what their risks are.” But after the Saami Council campaign, the Swedish Space Corporation reneged on its commitment to the SCoPEx team — the balloon launch was called off.

Keith recalled Space Corporation officials telling the group that “there were enough different disputes over mining and other topics in Sami land; that from the point of view of the Swedish government, they just didn’t want one more irritation.”

“I think the Swedish government failed kind of abysmally on that score,” he said. “It is entirely legitimate for the Sami to oppose experiments or whole research in general,” Keith told me. “But their right to do so needs to be balanced against the rights of people in poor, hot countries.” He added that in his experience, people were more interested in geoengineering in the Global South.

Mattias Forsberg, a representative from the Esrange Space Center, said that it was not only opposition from the Sami that caused them to cancel the project. “Our core mission as a company, our reason for being in business, is to serve the sustainable development of humanity and our modern societies,” Forsberg said. “Since it quickly became clear that this whole topic around the SCoPEx project needed to be discussed more widely internationally before any related mission could be conducted, we took the decision to cancel our engagements with the project.”

“Solar geoengineering is kind of the ultimate colonization. Not only of nature and the Earth, but also the atmosphere.”
— Henrik Blind

I talked about the scuttled geoengineering project with Henrik Blind, the Sami politician in Jokkmokk. For him, the shutdown of SCoPEx’s balloon test in Kiruna — and the debate it sparked — seemed to capture the clash between nature-based solutions and techno-fixes to climate change.

“This is an example of how stupid it is, that we as one creature, among millions of creatures, think we can be larger than nature. It’s something that makes me laugh,” he said. “It isn’t the sun’s fault, and it isn’t the planet’s fault, that our climate is going where it’s going.”

We met by a frozen lake a few minutes’ drive from Blind’s office at city hall. He glided up to our meeting place in a pristine white Tesla, the tires squeaking on the snow. Dressed in a pink cashmere hat and bright red knitted mittens, he walked with a slight bounce, making quick progress around the lake.

Dusk was drawing in — it was October, and the nights were getting longer. Blind gestured at the twilight stillness around us, the sky turning the color of watery ink. “We call it the blue hour,” he said with a smile.

Jokkmokk lies just on the edge of the Arctic Circle, where the sun only just manages to peep over the horizon during winter. People in this part of the world have a singular relationship with the sun. It’s something that made the concept of solar geoengineering — the idea we can blunt the strength of the sun’s rays — feel particularly unsettling for Blind.

We talked about the strange reality of living mostly in the darkness for six months of the year, and with abundant light for the other six. “Of course it’s dark, but dark is also light in some way,” Blind said. “The light needs the darkness, to get the contrast.”

On the subject of contrasts, I asked Blind about the Tesla. Electric cars depend on metals and minerals often extracted in environmentally destructive conditions in countries in the Global South. “For me, it’s showing how hard it is to be a modern person. You want to do the right thing, but still, you are harming nature in one way or another,” he said. “It’s a conflict in the head. I know that an electric car has a lot of minerals in it, and it’s causing trouble in other places.”

Trouble Elsewhere

In the fight for a more sustainable future, climate campaigners say those in power are trying to fix the climate in precisely the same way they destroyed it. Those least responsible for climate change are forced to relinquish their land — and in some places, even their lives — in the race to fix the damage.

In Xinjiang, China, the Uyghur people are being forced to work in solar panel factories while millions more are surveilled, imprisoned and “re-educated” so China can consolidate control over the region’s vast resources of rare earth elements and precious metals.

In Mexico, Indigenous communities say their lives and livelihoods are being threatened by wind farm company land grabs. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, cobalt mines providing 70% of the world’s supply for rechargeable batteries in cars and phones are expanding rapidly, mines run on trafficked child labor, with spartan conditions as people scrape out the metal by hand using pickaxes and shovels.

It’s a far cry from the Kiruna iron mine, which LKAB dubs the “most modern iron mine in the world.” Victoire Kabwika, a mining technician from the DRC, now works here in LKAB’s mine. I met Kabwika and his wife Angel as they came out of Sunday service at Kiruna’s church, blinking in the slanting Arctic sunlight. He too spoke of contrasts. To Kabwika, mining in Sweden is night and day compared to back home.

“In Congo, people are working with soldiers around. And weapons. Children are working. It’s not good,” he told me. Mining in the DRC to fuel the green transition is also ravaging the landscape, but there, people regularly pay for it with their lives.

More than 7,000 miles south of Kiruna, the Kolwezi mine is also causing nearby houses to crack apart due to the excavation below them. But there, soldiers are forcing people to leave their homes, marking them with red Xs and burning them down. Amnesty International found they’d even torched some homes with families still inside.

“In the fight for a more sustainable future, climate campaigners say those in power are trying to fix the climate in precisely the same way they destroyed it.”

For the Sami collective that currently herds reindeer here, it would mean yet another loss of land. And for everyone in town, it could mean more earthquakes.

Earth-Shaking Realities

At 3:11 a.m. on May 18, 2020, a 4.9-magnitude earthquake shook Kiruna, triggered by ongoing mining activity.

“I was in my bed,” said Zebastian Bohman, 51, who has lived in Kiruna for a decade. He remembers how his apartment shuddered: paintings fell off the walls and glasses tumbled from kitchen cupboards. His thoughts immediately turned to the mine: “Who’s down there? Who’s on the shift? You start to call.”

No one was killed. But the “minequake” was more evidence of how dangerously unstable the land had become — and would continue to grow if the mining company kept digging. Even before “the big one,” as locals now call it, plans were made to move Kiruna for precisely this reason.

So LKAB drew a big, red line down the middle of the town. Everyone on one side, around 6,000 homes, would have to move around two miles to the east, and the mining company would pay the cost — to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Most of the “old town’s” buildings are being bulldozed, replaced by new buildings in a “new town” center. But homes built in the traditional Swedish style — with painted clapboard and sloping, copper roofs — are being moved one by one, loaded onto trailers in their entirety and relocated. Residents often walk behind the houses, keeping a sort of slow-moving vigil.

In 2025 the city will move its immense Lutheran church. Made of wood, with soaring stained glass windows that bathe the congregation in Arctic sunlight, the architect constructed its pitched triangular shape to look like a Sami tent. The town will need to widen the road and demolish a railway viaduct to finish the job.

Since summer, the old town has largely emptied out. The land that’s closest to the mine has been turned into a kind of memory park, for the next few years at least, while the ground is still stable enough to be safe. It’s a place where people can go to process the loss of Kiruna as it was.

“People are grieving, mourning the old city,” Bohman told me. “I would think it will take a generation. They love their old city and the new one is not in their heart yet.” Alongside his wife Cecilia, Bohman runs a food truck just outside the mine where they serve up reindeer kebabs to miners, businessmen, Kiruna’s teenagers and anyone else passing by. In between shifts, Zebastian Bohman took me to his old apartment building, where he showed me a series of cracks, big and small, running up through the block from the basement.

Bohman and his wife moved out of the apartment last year, into their newly allotted home. They were pleased with the trade and relieved to be out of their old place, away from the booming, the juddering and constant worry about seismic activity.

But a month after their move, around the holidays last year, the Bohmans were sitting on the sofa late into the evening watching television, when they felt it. That familiar, sickening jolt: a mini-earthquake. The couple looked at each other as their new house shuddered around them. When the shaking stopped, they could do nothing but laugh. “We realized we were fucked,” Zebastian Bohman said with a chuckle and a shrug. “That’s what we realized. This is not the end. This is not a home forever.”

The mining company says they don’t foresee the new town having to move again. But the Bohmans believed, in that moment, that this wouldn’t be the last time.

As we imagine our future on this planet, we can all expect epic upheaval in the places we call home. But the stakes of change will be much higher for some than for others.

For people who are already seeing the worst of the climate crisis, the costs are extraordinary: their homes, their land, their lives. For those industrialists at the top of global supply chains, the fight to kick humanity’s fossil fuel habit will force a change in the source and size of their profits.

And for the people of Kiruna, the gains and the losses are as immense as the landscape itself. The fragility of this reality is felt every night, for now and for the foreseeable future, as the earth continues to shake.

Isobel Cockerell*|Noema| 7.12.2023

*Senior reporter at Coda

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