A City Dependent

Jul 10, 2015

In his book on the history of poverty in Stavanger, Norway from 1900-1940, local historian Gunnar Skadberg describes a city that suffered the consequences of being largely dependent on a single industry.

I had heard that the low oil price was hitting places like Aberdeen, Scotland, and Stavanger, Norway pretty hard. These are the two oil towns I grew up in, on opposite shores of the vast grey sea that holds the key to economies on both sides. But it is always different when the news starts to hit people you care about. When I went back to Stavanger in June, I had a chance to talk to many family members and old friends in and around the area and all of them had stories to tell of lost jobs - either their own or those of friends and family around them, of jobs about to be lost, and a deep uncertainty about the future. Everyone knew that the oil industry which made Rogaland wealthy wasn’t going to last forever, but this drop in price was not quite how it was expected to begin its ride off into the sunset.

The impact of the crisis affects Rogaland in the southwest particularly hard, with thousands of jobs gone, and it works its way across the local economy from the oil industry itself, to its various supporting industries, to the service sector via a drop in consumption, and then, via lost tax revenues, has already made itself felt, according to friends, in terms of teaching jobs and other public sector positions.

My favorite local historian in Rogaland, Gunnar Skadberg has written many great books on the region, but I recently had a chance to read a book he wrote for young adults on the history of “poor Stavanger” from 1900 to 1940. The title does a good job of highlighting the contrast between the poverty of the city in those decades and the incredible prosperity that the city has enjoyed in my lifetime.

When I reached the chapter on Stavanger’s economic crisis 1920s, however, I was struck the parallel it offered between Stavanger then, and now in one key way: Stavanger was a city almost completely dependent on a single cluster of industries. The canning industries were hit particularly hard years before the great depression as this industry collapsed. Today it is the oil industry. Then, and to a certain extent now, Stavanger’s fate does not well represent the economy of Norway as a whole, as the job losses and downturn today affects this region more, even though Norway as a whole is a benefactor of oil in a way that is simply not comparable to the regionally limited importance of the canning industry.

Gunnar has agreed to let me translate this chapter into English and add it to his website, where you can download a full copy of the original book in Norwegian. If you read it, keep in mind that it was written for younger readers in a clear style. I am left with the impression of a work that is designed to generate discussion in a classroom, which doesn’t surprise me given that Gunnar is a retired teacher whose writings show a desire to explore the challenges of difficult moral and political questions found all around us, even in the history of an otherwise deceptively postcard-pristine environment like the fjord-studded Rogaland region.

Here is the page for more info on the book (in Norwegian):

Poor Stavanger – A book about Stavanger 1900-1940, written for young adults (Fattig-Stavanger – En bok om Stavanger 1900–1940 skrevet for ungdom)

You can find my English chapter translation here:

The Economic Crisis in Stavanger, 1920-1930 – Louis on the move along the railway

There are of course huge differences between Stavanger in the 1920s and now. When unemployment hit Stavanger hard in that earlier period, it was those less skilled workers in the canning industry, not the highly trained workforce of today which found itself unemployed. It was workers often barely a paycheck away from starvation, something which is hard to imagine now in Stavanger. This is not only because the base of wealth is so much higher today, but thanks to the welfare safety net now in place, much thanks to the political victories of Norway’s socialists which begin to take hold nationally not too long after the defeats of the labor movement in Stavanger that we read about in this chapter.