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Published: 2023-03-09 Updated: 2023-04-20, 11:59

Environmental history perspectives on transformation and sustainability in the Arctic

NEWS Janina Priebe, Arctic Five Chair in Environmental History , presented environmental history perspectives on transformation and sustainability in the Arctic at the Arctic Science Summit, February 20-24, 2023.

The Arctic Science Summit is a major conference on Arctic issues where scholars and policymakers from across the globe get together. It is a spotlight on the most critical issues facing the Arctic.

Why did you want to go to the conference?

I traveled to this conference to meet new potential collaborators, and to present my own research as an Arctic Five Chair. Together with my colleague Hanna Lempinen, from the University of Lapland, I also proposed and chaired a session on sustainability transformation in the Arctic. Our goal was to highlight social science and humanities research on this intense but also complicated phase of change that is currently occurring across Arctic regions. As a historian of ideas, I am of course also interested in understanding the historical entanglements and earlier visions of change, as they have a bearing on how we think about the future and develop policies, too.

What exactly did you talk about at the conference?

In my Arctic Five Chair presentation, I talked about my ongoing collaboration (https://arcticfive.org/2022/06/10/priebe/). We look at transformations related to the energy transition in different Arctic regions that are "peripheral" in the sense that they provide resources for needs and demands elsewhere. At the moment, this dynamic of resource use is all about clean energy, for instance in mineral exploration in northern Sweden or transitioning away from traditional peat energy in northern Finland. My own case is about hydropower in Greenland. It is the most important source of renewable energy in Greenland and provides more than half the population with energy in the larger settlements along the coast. Recently, people have talked about hydropower not only as cheap energy that finances economic and political autonomy from Denmark but also as part of Greenland's global responsibility to contribute to sustainability. It becomes a lever at another level because cheap, clean energy can attract industrial activities needed to support global sustainability goals. I examine the historical visions that have been connected to hydropower in Greenland, visions that have circulated since the 1920s - about 70 years before the first hydropower station was built.

This research is part of a larger project, "Peripheral Visions" (https://www.umu.se/nyheter/10-miljoner-till-projekt-om-framtida-energiutmaningar-_11192034/), in which we explore energy transition in peripheral Arctic areas. These areas are now in the spotlight of public and political debate as the new centers of the North. However, energy resources and materials from these locations are used to supply demand and needs elsewhere, either directly (in the form of energy production) or indirectly (in the form of batteries or metal). We want to bring together narratives of transformation from different Arctic regions, such as northern Sweden and northern Finland, in our Arctic Five collaboration.

My colleague Hanna Lempinen and I chaired a session about various aspects of sustainability transformation, and we had researchers present their work on topics such as transforming economic relations in Canadian and Greenlandic communities. Other speakers talked about how knowledge co-production models between science and society can help make communities more just.

What was your impression of the conference, and how did it go?

I was impressed by the level of discussion and thoughtful engagement at the conference. I received very positive feedback and invitations to pursue common research interests. I'm especially glad I got in touch with researchers who pointed out how my work is related to other issues I hadn't considered before but that clearly come into play when I examine the history of large-scale infrastructure in peripheral Arctic areas. These are intriguing avenues to investigate for potential collaborations and research questions in order to obtain better results and more comprehensive insights from the research. Experiences like these—the exchange of thoughts after a presentation, for example—are so important aspects of face-to-face conferences, and they so often fall away in online conferences when the audience logs out of the Zoom meeting.

Travel and attendance costs were covered by the Arctic Centre's strategic funding.


Janina Priebe