When I first learned of Svalbard’s unusual laws, one of which is that no one is allowed to die there, my wife and I made plans to visit and learn. Unfortunately, the COVD-19 pandemic put those plans on hold.
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Artic Ocean midway between continental Norway and the North Pole. Svalbard is the northernmost year-round settlement in the world and its capital, Longyearbyen, is home to 2,400 people from over fifty countries. Having visited southernmost Antarctica in 2019, it made perfect sense to us to make northernmost Svalbard our next travel destination.
Svalbard has been part of the Kingdom of Norway since 1925. However, administratively it is not part of any Norwegian county. It is an unincorporated area administered by a governor appointed by the Norwegian government and subject to the special jurisdiction of the Svalbard Treaty (1920), and the Svalbard Act (1925). These treaties established Svalbard as a free zone and demilitarized economic zone.
Svalbard’s permafrost and year-round low temperatures made it ideal for the installation of the Global Seed Vault which stores nearly a million seeds from across the globe as a reserve in case of a global catastrophe. The warmest temperature ever recorded in Longyearbyen was 70.3 F and the coldest -51.3 F. Winter brings three to four months of night, and temperatures often dip below that breathtaking point where Fahrenheit equals Celsius at minus 40 degrees.
Longyearbyen’s multi-ethnicity is due to the fact that it is an open border society where citizens of any country are welcomed to settle in Svalbard without a visa as long as they have a job and a place to live. The Svalbard Treaty includes a unique nondiscrimination clause requiring that no distinction be made between Norwegians and foreigners.
The treaty also requires that Svalbard must not tax its residents more than the minimum needed for government operations. Currently this is an eight percent income tax– well below Norway’s nearly forty percent tax. In Svalbard’s unique version of gun control, anyone who leaves the city limits must carry a rifle for protection. This is because Longyearbyen’s human population of 2,400 is complimented by a population of some 3,000 polar bears.
Most interestingly, in the 1950s, when scientists exhumed corpses of those who died in the 1918 flu pandemic, it was discovered that the bodies had been preserved by Svalbard’s permafrost and had not decomposed. Scientists were then able to retrieve live samples of the deadly virus from the preserved bodies. Since then, dying in Longyearbyen has not been allowed given that there are no options for burial. Residents close to death are flown to the Norwegian mainland to live out the remainder of their days.
Not only is dying not allowed, but neither is giving birth. Pregnant women within a few weeks of their due date must travel to the mainland to give birth.
But this is not a travel column, and Svalbard is certainly one of the world’s most inhospitably environments. I bring Svalbard up because there is much we can learn from this audacious society. A key political proposition for us in the United States today revolves around the questions of: In what numbers, and on what political and cultural terms should peoples from other countries be allowed to come to the United States?
In Svalbard, societal membership is based on residence and consent, and not on birth or descent.
Faced with the extreme difficulties of this environment residents from over fifty different countries must embrace new views over their old, calcified prejudices.
For 100 days each year Svalbard’s residents are plunged into a darkness they call their polar night. Living in Svalbard must be like E. L. Doctorow’s description of writing “… it is like driving in the night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
To live in a place like Svalbard one must detach past from present and welcome the discomfort of doubt over the comfort of conviction. This should be our intellectual aspiration on immigration.
Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Liberty for Beginners.”
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