Indigenous scholarship and social sciences need bigger role

Understanding the human perspective on a changing environment and sustainable societies and its link to physical environmental factors is crucial. Here, the village of Kulusuk, Greenland. (Photo Credit: Ville Miettinen/Flickr)

Opportunities for indigenous scholars are missing, which leads to a lack of knowledge on how sustainability issues are viewed by the affected indigenous people themselves and limits research processes.

Rapid environmental changes in the Arctic ask the question, how sustainability in and for the Arctic can be achieved. At the Arctic FROST annual meeting in Vienna, Austria, this autumn a number of Arctic scholars presented their newest research findings and attempted to give an answer.

A new research agenda

Andrey Petrov presented an article published in Polar Geography, which analyzes and summarizes the key conclusions of the white paper on the International Conference on Research Planning (ICARP) III. Researchers from the U.S., Canada and Europe present a new agenda for Arctic sustainability research, including future research directions and priorities, and point to knowledge gaps.

A human perspective

One of the gaps is due to the small role that humanities and social sciences play in sustainability research. Related, there is a lack of connectivity between social and physical indicators for sustainability. However, understanding the human perspective on a changing environment and sustainable societies and its link to physical environmental factors is crucial. Cultural and cognitive factors, motivations and the institutional framework have a great impact on sustainable development and regulations and can either contribute or impede sustainability.

Petrov presenting Arctic-FROST milestones. (Photo Credit: Emily Francis)
Petrov presenting Arctic-FROST milestones. (Photo Credit: Emily Francis)

Local ecological knowledge helps adaptation

Another human factor in sustainable development is how northern communities adapt to the changes. From their study of the community around the Kenai River Fishery in Alaska, Jim Powell and his co-authors conclude that individual and institutional learning are crucial in a community’s adaptive capacity.

This learning is determined by three factors: local ecological knowledge, institutional responses to climate change, and a social network, which connects all stakeholder groups. The article summarizing the findings will be published soon.

Gender inequality and cultural erosion

Building on the insights from current research, the book Northern Sustainabilities edited by Gail Fondahl and Gary Wilson will be published in December. Through the analysis of case studies, the authors look at multiple dimensions of sustainability in the Arctic and examine the factors that contribute to or challenge sustainability, such as gender inequality, generational dimensions, colonial dimensions and cultural erosion.

"Arctic exceptionalism" questioned

Despite its shortcomings, one strength of Arctic sustainability research is the importance attributed to the involvement of Arctic communities and the consideration of the locals’ perspective.

"Through this involvement, many communities are more self-conscious and have more political and structural opportunities",  says Peter Schweitzer, Professor at the University of Vienna.

This contributes to what is called "Arctic exceptionalism", referring to the belief of scientists that the Arctic is an exceptional case and difficult to compare to other regions. Schweitzer contends:

"The question is whether Arctic research is really one step ahead of other research or just ignoring research outside of the Arctic." 

Looking at Arctic sustainability research in the global context was the aim of the Arctic FROST meeting, subtitled:

"What can we learn from or teach the rest of the world?

What do the European Alps have to do with it?

To put Arctic exceptionalism into perspective and de-provincialize Arctic research were the goals of the Vienna Arctic Summer School (VASS) that took place before Arctic FROST in early September. It was the first summer school in Vienna that focused on the Arctic, following in the footsteps of last year’s FENOR (Field Experiences in Northwest Russia) summer school in St. Petersburg, which also toured through Arkhangelsk and Karelia.

The summer school brought international PhD students from a variety of disciplines in Arctic social science together for an exchange of research results and a comparison of the Arctic region with the European Alps. Both share many structural similarities of "remote regions" and are especially vulnerable to climate change.

Another commonality is the focus on the mining and tourism industries, which in the past were considered some of the few opportunities of economic development in both regions.