Chasing Utopia in Sweden

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I consider Sweden my spiritual homeland. Not that I’m a very spiritual person– in fact I’m a bit of a lighthearted nihilist, which is, perhaps, why I belong in generally secular Sweden. Not that I’ve experienced it firsthand. No, everything that I know about Sweden, I’ve gleaned from extensive Googling and Ikea shopping. But I just know* it’s where I belong in the world. Whether the place lives up to my anticipation or proves to be a metaphysical disappointment, I have to go. I have to give it a shot.

Cosmic destinies aside, Sweden speaks to my professional aspirations. Since I was a wee babe, I’ve known I would make it my life’s work to improve the quality of life for the world’s poorest people in whatever way possible. I couldn’t imagine a career more important than helping the people who need it most. Yet, as clear as my objective is, my path has so far been somewhat circuitous.

A glimpse of Ireland, en route to Stockholm.

A glimpse of Ireland, en route to Stockholm

In high school, I had a grand scheme to start a vertically-integrated fashion brand which would create safe, fair jobs for women in Southeast Asia in the production of high quality clothing with minimal environmental impact. Eighteen-year-old me made arrangements to go to fashion school in New York, but circumstances intervened. I ended up spending the year after I finished high school in rural Senegal, West Africa.

Senegal was the first place I saw poverty on a large scale. I found that cash-poor people can create richness in other ways– through art and music, through social bonds, through ingenuity and resourcefulness. However, I also saw that the effectiveness of these compensations is limited by the infrastructure, healthcare, and freedom of self-determination available to impoverished people. I began to see that poverty and environmental degradation are huge, systemic problems. I saw how the two issues are really one, how they both create and perpetuate one another.

No longer content to design fair-trade organic cotton blue jeans, I started college with my same old objective– to help the world’s most vulnerable people maintain autonomy, health, and happiness– but this time, I put my scheming aside and let my questions guide me: what degree of foreign aid and intervention is ethical? Is poverty more effectively addressed by the public or private sector? Which devices for reducing poverty are effective, which less so? How can environmental protection be promoted or incentivized by economic development?

I came at these questions from a few disciplinary angles before I settled on one frame of inquiry– economics. Which brings me back to Sweden. I see my impending study abroad experience as a case study. The Swedish economic system is of a more socialistic approach than our American system– a valuable distinction to be investigated. Its comprehensive welfare and public services, extensive sustainable energy and waste management systems, low levels of income disparity, and famously happy population make Sweden an excellent example of how economic and public policy devices can foster high quality of life and low rates of poverty. I expect the lessons I learn in Sweden to provide insight for my future work in less developed regions.

This trip was going to happen, one way or another. It was meant to be. It took an awful lot of research, planning, logistical acrobatics and sheer stubbornness, but now my affairs are in order and I’m counting down the days until I sit nibbling Swedish meatballs atop a reindeer, frolicking around the fjords and forests of my self-assigned motherland.

*The term “know” is used here in the loosest possible sense.

(Written July 23rd, 2015)

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