Arctic Sustainability Transformation – What Is It, What Can It Be, and What Does It Need to Be?


In our collaboration within the Arctic Five Chair initiative, we have set out to explore what sustainability transformation means in various Arctic regions, sectors, and cultures. Both the notions of sustainability and transformation have commonly been accused of denoting universalized ideas that disregard historical, cultural, and geographical particularities.


By Janina Priebe, Arctic Five Chair in Environmental History, Associate Professor, Umeå University


Without attempting to find a definitive answer, we brought together researchers who look at Arctic change from different angles and disciplinary perspectives, and at different scales of change. To start with, what does Arctic sustainability transformation actually mean?

We have entered a new phase in how we consider and seek to govern the fate of the planet in these increasingly unpredictable times. Everywhere in the world, relationships within societies and environments, and between humans and nature, are rapidly changing. The notion of sustainability transformation generally captures both the challenges of these disrupted relations and the profound solutions to restore them at a global scale, but the Arctic in particular is seen either as a hotspot for hope and possibilities, or as a social and ecological flashpoint under increasing pressure of resource use. What, then, is Arctic sustainability transformation? And what can or does it need to be?

The call for sustainability and the goals of making resources last longer and distributing them equally is not considered enough. The new call to arms is for “transformation”, which can be understood in two different ways. In its first interpretation, the word “transformation” is used without reference to a specific end state or solution. Here it is often understood normatively, describing ongoing and deep changes in societies in order to make their relationships with environments less damaging, less exploitative. These changes are not about improvement and development of what is already there, but about taking a new direction, a change of means and attitudes. The second interpretation considers the word “transformation” to refer to the fact that societies and environments have already been fundamentally altered because of climate change and ecological crises brought on by industrial activities. From this perspective, transformation is viewed as a new reality of radically changing, often unpredictable conditions resulting from profoundly altered forms and functions of human and animal life.

The first lesson we draw from the researchers' reflections we collected is the need to rethink sustainability and sustainable development from the many Arctic viewpoints. While covering primarily work in and with Arctic societies and environments in Northern Europe and North America, we were amazed to see the variety of entry points researchers use to better understand sustainability challenges in the Arctic. This includes reflecting on our own disciplinary boundaries and the need to be radically interdisciplinary when working in and with Arctic issues. For people living in Arctic regions, the lofty agenda of sustainability transformation is, as some researchers describe it, not perceived as actionable. What would be truly transformative would be a fundamental decolonization for Indigenous communities, and with it, a focus on the needs of all communities.

The second lesson is that change in the Arctic can take the form of a particular blend of tradition and modern technology, such as in reindeer herding, and whale and seal hunting in Greenland. By adapting to new conditions, traditional livelihoods are kept alive, not distorted. Moreover, living in and with the cold is a special condition for all people living in the Arctic, and changes in the cold and how it can be used for livelihoods and recreation will affect lifestyles in all communities.

The third lesson is that justice is a major concern in all communities and across all geographic scales. Justice is needed in local and national infrastructure, such as energy, roads, and transportation. It is not only about access to such infrastructure, but also about who owns it and who has the right to control it. In the Arctic, these infrastructures are avenues for development and the lack of it, or the injustices that result from it. Justice is therefore even more important in determining what the sustainability transformation will look like.

The diverse scholarly backgrounds of the researchers who joined our effort to reflect on Arctic sustainability transformation mirror the complexity of the actual challenges Arctic societies face. We hope that the perspectives offered in our joint booklet open new ways of thinking – not only about what Arctic sustainability transformation currently is, but what it can be and what it needs to be to ensure that transformations are truly sustainable.

Read the booklet:

With thanks to booklet editors Hanna Lempinen from Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) and Hanna Vikström from Luleå University of Technology