Published 2018-01-04

This post is also available in Swedish

Mistra’s Arctic programme in retrospect

Mistra Arctic Sustainable Development held its closing seminar in November. During the seminar at the Nordic Museum, the results of four years of social science research on the Arctic were presented. The seminar was entitled ‘What did we find out?’

Well, Carina Keskitalo, Programme Director for Mistra’s Arctic Initiative, what did you find out?

‘What’s most interesting in the programme is that we take such a long-term historical view of Northern Europe, all the way back to the 13th century and earlier. There’s a discussion today about the Arctic developing late, but from a Swedish point of view it doesn’t look like that. We’re talking about well-established communities that are well integrated. A concept such as subsistence (self-sufficiency) isn’t entirely applicable here, either. For example, reindeer husbandry is integrated into the national economy.’

Why is the historical perspective so important? The programme’s title points to development.

‘It’s important to understand how various sectors have been built into society over a long period and they can therefore be difficult to change. Looking at forestry and mining, they have enormously long timelines, and we’ve managed to capture that in Mistra Arctic Sustainable Development. We think scenarios are not enough to try to get things to change. It’s important to understand history.’

Was it all about history?

‘No, we follow history up to the present day and discuss the future consistently too. For example, how are the various sectors managing climate change? But if you don’t understand the historical legacy in the institutions and what they do today, you can’t understand why some things happen or don’t happen in the future either.’

What is the Arctic?

‘That’s a question we’ve problematised in the programme. Since Sweden joined the Arctic Council, the border has moved back and forth a bit, and it’s largely political. The Canadians thought the border should be drawn at the 60th latitude — so just north of Stockholm. But Stockholmers don’t feel particularly Arctic. Another demarcation has been the Arctic Circle, but it has no relevance other than that North of it you can see the midnight sun at Midsummer. Finland has claimed that the whole country is in the Arctic — so even Helsinki. So it’s a political border, of course. Purely on the science, Sweden is not in the Arctic.’

How much international interest is there in Arctic research?

‘It’s been big, but maybe it’s starting to dwindle a bit. Climate change and the prospects of being able to extract natural resources in the area put the Arctic high on the agenda. Now that solar energy is beginning to be so cheap, it may not be as interesting to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic, so interest has cooled somewhat. But we in the programme have made large-scale outreach efforts to spread the Nordic and Swedish perspective in Northern Europe and the Arctic. And that’s interesting work not just from the Arctic perspective, but for understanding development generally.’

How will the programme’s ideas live on?

‘We’re releasing a book with the publisher Routledge in spring 2019, and then we’ll have a launch seminar. There’ll also be some special issues in journals. We have a network that’s up and running, and several ongoing projects that are tackling the programme’s ideas.’

Thomas Heldmark