At Arctic conference, a call for social science for a changing region

Sharman Haley

"Ability to change destiny is more important than money," observed Chief Joe Linklater of Canada's Vuntut Gwich'in, speaking in a keynote address to the Eighth International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences held last month in Prince George, British Columbia. Linklater was reflecting on his people's negotiation of aboriginal claims with the Canadian government and their decision to reject a "final" offer that included land and money but not self-governance, which paid off for the Vuntut Gwich'in. Their village of Old Crow, British Columbia, is now thriving, and youths with higher education are moving back to the village.

With a theme of "Northern Sustainabilities," change and adaptation were at the forefront of many discussions during the five-day conference, which drew more than 350 participants from 26 countries to the University of Northern British Columbia. Nearly 100 sessions and panels were organized around a dozen fields of interest including arts and culture, language and humanities, law and international relations, education and health, renewable and non-renewable resource development, sustainability theory and methods. More than half dealt with resource development and sustainable communities.

Another of the conference's keynote speakers, Dr. Alexander Pelyasov, discussed the future of the economic and social development of the global North, sharing the vision of an "Arctic Mediterranean" where countries with a common interest in the region engage in friendly competition marked by intellectual cooperation and exchange, learning from each other's experiences.

A leading expert in the political economy of northern development in Russia and the circumpolar north, Pelyasov acknowledged his debt to Alaska economic scholars and statespersons, including "The Circumpolar North" authors Terrence Armstrong, George Rogers and Graph Rowley; former Gov. Wally Hickel, author of "Crisis in the Commons: The Alaska Solution"; and Pelyasov's longtime friend, mentor and collaborator Vic Fischer.

"Natural scientists often create a mess in the field of Arctic social science when they work alone," Pelyasov said, encouraging attendees to collaborate with one another rather than take a more solitary approach.

Pelyasov offered his own perspective based on 25 years of experience forecasting northern development. He said he has learned that you cannot extrapolate from linear trends or regular cycles; development is complex and occurs in "fits." One needs to think about the dynamic contradictions, not just the external drivers.

He identified several current contradictions in northern development, illustrated with examples from the Russian North. First, Pelyasov said, climate change is opening up new frontiers for development in the Arctic Ocean and seabed, while the governance structures lag behind. He discussed the role of knowledge creation and communication in northern development, arguing that these do not eliminate the dependence on natural resources but do change the spatial geography of development, favoring concentration of activity in enclaves and urban centers.

Several speakers noted the increasing recognition in science and policy circles of the importance of Arctic social sciences and humanities in addressing issues. Gail Fondahl, the outgoing president of the International Arctic Social Science Association, noted the multiple challenges facing the Arctic, including climate change, resource development, rapid social change, and evolving geopolitical interests.

"Social science and humanities scholars have a key role to play in identifying ways to deal with these challenges," Fondahl said.

Another speaker, Roberto Delgado of the National Science Foundation, also emphasized a role for social sciences in addressing the changing Arctic.

"Most research funding goes to natural and physical processes, but these have little value without understanding the impact on humans," Delgado said.

Alaska was well represented; 30 Alaska social scientists presented their research, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks had the largest delegation of any university.

One highlight was a presentation by Alaska economist Lee Husky who said non-renewable resource development is inherently unsustainable. Communities, he said, have essentially three strategies to sustain themselves when industry declines. With a nod to the bestselling book and popular movie of a similar name, Husky called these strategies "eat, love, pray."

"Eat" means to use some combination of saving, investment, mobility and new economic conditions to create new sources of livelihood. "Love" means that if communities create a place where people love to live, they will come. "Pray" means ask for help from above -- the state or federal government.

In a later presentation, Alaska economist Gunnar Knapp pointed out that all Alaska regional economies, especially Western Alaska, are already heavily dependent on state and federal spending, and these funds are declining.

Other Alaskans talked about factors that help communities become more resilient and sustainable. In separate papers, Marie Lowe and Doug Cost talked about the role schools and higher education play in fostering resilient communities. Diane Hirshberg and Ute Kaden are investigating factors that contribute to high teacher turnover in rural schools. Jim Magdanz and co-authors are exploring how subsistence food-sharing networks strengthen social ties and contribute to food security. Tracy Burke looked at the importance of subsistence foods in food-insecure households. And Amy Lovecraft and Doug Cost are working on two related scenario-building projects to help communities in North and Northwest Alaska identify key uncertainties and manage risks.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the University of Alaska Anchorage had the largest delegation.

For the Daily News