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The Los Angeles Times, Op-Ed

November 19, 2018

Finland to President Trump: We don't rake the forest floor, but we do other things you should emulate

by Anu Partanen

Helsinki, Finland—When a natural disaster like the California wildfires inflicts such a tragic loss of life and land, you’d expect the president of the United States to respond with words of consolation. A show of empathy. A promise of help for the victims. But that’s not what Californians got from President Trump on Saturday as he toured the areas destroyed by wildfires in Northern California.

Instead they got this bizarre statement: “I was with the president of Finland and he said, ‘We’re a forest nation.’ He called it a forest nation, and they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things. And they don’t have any problem. Or what it is it’s a small problem.”

The absurdity of Trump’s comment, not to mention his willful blindness to California’s trauma, drew immediate ridicule from experts and laypeople alike. A particularly bemused response came from the people of Finland, which happens to be the country that I call home.

Finland, perched far up in Northern Europe, could not be more different from California. About a third of Finland’s territory lies inside the Arctic Circle, and overall it is a cold, wet and dark place. Finland’s landscape is dotted with lakes and swamps, which act as natural barriers to fire. The rain and wind conditions are also completely different from those in California. Indeed, the most obvious takeaway from Trump’s comment is simply that he chooses to remain thunderingly ignorant of the most basic sorts of environmental awareness that will be essential if any of us is to survive the 21st century.

Among Finns, though, what caused the most giddy outbursts of incredulity on social media was Trump’s suggestion that Finns have somehow avoided California’s fate by spending their time outdoors raking the forest floors. The hashtag #haravointi — raking in Finnish — quickly began ricocheting around the internet, with Finns posting mock photos of themselves posing with rakes in the forest. Some dug up old images of Finnish soldiers in the woods during World War II, added rakes and invented new farcical captions referencing Trump’s comment. Even Finland’s nationally beloved cartoon character, a cuddly marshmallow-like animal named Moomin, made appearances exhorting Finns to keep raking.

All this satire wasn’t intended to minimize the tragedy of California’s wildfires, of course. Finnish media and citizens had been following the fires with the same horror as everyone else. What Finns seem to have been objecting to is Trump’s ridiculous attempt to recruit them into the web of cynical fabrication he constantly tries to spin for political gain.

After Trump’s remark the Finnish media descended on Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö seeking clarification: Had Niinistö really discussed some sort of national forest-raking program, which most Finns had never heard of, with Trump? No. Niinistö thought Trump might have been referring to a conversation they had had in Paris a week ago at the ceremonies marking the centenary of the World War I armistice. Apparently the Finnish president had explained that Finland, a country covered by forests, has an elaborate forest management program in place. Niinistö’s recollected words: “We take care of our forests.”

The ironies in all this are rather profound. Finland’s entire approach to governance — including forest management and extending to the myriad ways that as a nation Finland takes care of its environment and its people — is completely antithetical to everything Donald Trump stands for. He claims to be fighting for everyday Americans, but if Trump actually cared about that goal, he’d be seriously considering the kinds of policies that make Nordic countries, including Finland, so successful when it comes to the levels of wealth and quality of life that are enjoyed by most middle-class and working-class citizens.

For starters, Finland’s forests are an essential pillar of its economy, so for Finns, government-led oversight of the timber industry is a no-brainer. And it’s on a continuum with smart social policies that invest in its human resources. Exactly the kind of high-quality, taxpayer-funded basic services that Trump and today’s Republican Party so abhor have made life immeasurably better for Finns and have strengthened Finland’s economic competitiveness: public education that is among the best in the world, universal healthcare that produces similar or better outcomes than U.S. healthcare at half the cost, excellent universal daycare facilities, generous parental leave policies, and so on. In fact, maybe in this sense Finland has a considerable amount in common with California, since the state has been fighting Trump’s nihilistic social and environmental attitudes at every turn.

There is a deeper and more frightening irony lurking in all this, however. Increasingly, cold, wet Finland may not be immune to forest fires. Last summer was one of the warmest and driest on the record in the Nordic region. Sweden, similar to Finland in climate and vegetation and located next door, suffered from its most extensive wildfires in recent history. Alarmed, Finns could conclude that it’s not our forest management that should be considered an example for California, but California’s wildfires that should be considered a caution to Finns.

Last month when the United Nations released its climate-change report, warning of extreme danger as soon as 2040 if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t further reduced, it seemed like the report was all anyone in Finland could talk about for days. Ordinary Finns and Finnish politicians alike proclaimed immediate changes to their ways of life and their political commitments. Even Finland’s beloved forests were implicated: An innovative bio economy is under development in Finland, built on wood-based biofuels as well as alternatives to plastic and even cotton, but now many Finns have asked if our forests shouldn’t be kept intact as a carbon sink instead. Compare all this to Trump’s response, which was largely to ignore the report.

The president would like Californians to go rake in the woods like good Finns, while our planet is burning up. As far as most Finns are concerned, if we and our governments do not do far more to fight climate change now, soon we will all be Californians.

Anu Partanen is the author of "The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life."