Obsessed with Arctic change? Moving from adaptation to transformation

26.8.2020 12:52

Arctic change, rapid change, globalization and modernisation in the Arctic – all popular buzzwords to capture the essence of the region. Research professor Monica Tennberg discusses this obsession to change from the perspective of transformative governance instead of only adapting to mostly externally driven changes and their multiple consequences locally.

Safariyrityksen moottorikelkkoja parkkeerattuna Kemijoen rannalla

Snowmobiles parked by the banks of the Kemijoki river. Photo: Monica Tennberg.

Much of recent debates about the Arctic focuses on complex, intertwined environmental, economic and social changes and their multiple consequences for local communities, their livelihoods and environments without forgetting the broader consequences of those changes and their implications beyond the region. The debate surrounds questions of Arctic change, adaptation and resilience with different conceptual variations. As a result, the Arctic appears as a place where many, mostly global processes and their effects take place, and the role of the region, its people and environment is only to adapt and try to be resilient in the face of these changes and their consequences. If any action to steer the change is to be taken, the gaze is directed towards national governments and their collaborative bodies in the Arctic and internationally.

While understanding change and its nature is needed, the discussion seems to stop here. How can the region and its actors be active in the midst of these changes and direct themselves and others towards any kind of more sustainable development or even sustainability? Let’s be clear here: sustainable development and sustainability mean different things. Sustainable development refers to a long-term goal and a process while sustainability refers more to the current situation and its main features and its evaluation with different criteria, such as environmental, social or economic or some combination of them. Transition to sustainable development requires long-term structural changes or transitions in sectors such as resource extraction, energy and mobility. In the literature, the transition is assumed to be governable including the needed, often multiphase and multilevel transformative changes in collaboration with different societal actors. While everything cannot be controlled and steered, “transition management” aims to organise and coordinate transition processes at a societal level better than earlier and tries to steer them to a sustainable direction.

The concepts of transition and its management has been criticized to be too optimistic in the possibilities for steering developments and its rather mechanistic understanding of needed transformations. Decisions about timing and responsibility as well as what and how transitions should be made are all questions of power. Governance of any transformation is a highly political endeavour. Transformative processes may be partially inclusive, contingent and potentially unstable as practices of change evolve over time and sometimes ungovernable. In general, the barriers for sustainable transformations, such as a lack of usable and relevant knowledge, inadequate resources and technology, unclear responsibilities and a lack of political commitment, are well known and studied, while the social and cultural dimensions remain understudied and poorly understood. Traditions and practices of national policy-making, administrative cultures and legal constraints matter. But the easiest solution, of course, is to avoid any discussion of governing transitions or transformations in the Arctic towards somewhat imaginary and contested goal and to focus on understanding the change itself. This allows the current, often unsustainable state of affairs, to continue.

See for example:

  • Loorback, D. (2010). Transition Management for Sustainable Development: A Prescriptive, Complexity-Based Governance Framework. Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions 23(1), 161–183.
  • Shove, E. & G. Walker (2010). Governing transitions in the sustainability of everyday life. Research policy 39, 471-476.