* * *
“The town and the mine live in symbiosis,” says Kiruna’s deputy mayor, Niklas Sirén. “There is no town without the mine and no mine without the town.” Sirén is almost right. The town and the mine are indeed symbiotic: Without either one of them, the other would be pointless. But at the risk of pedantry, the town isn’t there because of the mine—it’s there because of the iron. Without the iron there would be no settlement; without the settlement, no mine. These semantics are important. To say that the mine was there to begin with is to say that the iron was waiting to be extracted. But that’s not true.
Sirén makes the town/mine dynamic sound like an unwanted pregnancy: a relationship between equals that got out of hand, resulting in a major upheaval. It may look like that now, but it wasn’t always so. In the beginning was the iron. What developed thereafter was a system of causality that the sociologist Andrew Pickering calls a “dance of agency.”
Consider, as Pickering does, the Mississippi River: a behemoth that, once upon a time, fashioned its own three-foot banks of sediment. Occasionally prone to be overtopped, these natural levees by and large did a good job. But when the European settlers founded New Orleans, they decided to raise the levees. Flooding couldn’t be a rarity; it needed to be impossible. But the plan didn’t work. In response to the epic feats of human engineers, the water levels began to rise. And the rise has been remarkable.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Pickering reminds us, first noticed that the Mississippi was suddenly 30 feet higher than the river into which it runs. They attempted to regain control of the situation by building a giant weir. But when storms hit, the weir was battered. Soon it wasn’t merely the water and the levees that were rising, but costs—and, with them, concerns. (And we all know what happened next.)
The iron is Kiruna’s Mississippi; the mine, its artificial waterways. At a certain point, the mine began to threaten the very thing it was supposed to support. In the dance of agency, the mine took the lead; now, humans are wrestling it back.
* * *
Kiruna doesn’t look like it’s about to move. There are no cranes—at least not that I could see. No people in high-visibility jackets taking measurements along the streets; no piles of boxes accumulating in the central square. Behind the glass-covered balconies I imagined the people of Kiruna packing kitchen utensils, or taking picture frames from their walls—one a day, maybe one a week—in slow preparation.
That’s not how it works, of course. There won’t be one moving day; there will be thousands. Like a child, the town will change in increments. One day, people will look at it and notice that everything has changed, and wonder when that happened—how it could have happened like that, all in plain sight.