In The Politics of Sustainability, Ulrik Pram Gad and Jeppe Strandsberg brought together well-known Arctic social-scientists to rethink and establish new ways of understanding sustainability. In doing so, this edited volume provides a constructive alternative to the way the basic and evasive political understanding of sustainability is used to promote one narrative – what is important to sustain, when and where – over others. The idea of sustainability helps structure these narratives about future political decisions. As the editors rightly highlight, differences over what should be sustained remain key to the struggles over rights and resources in the Arctic. These struggles vary depending on the context, yet patterns emerge as the Arctic becomes more integrated and institutionalized. The reconfiguration of sustainability through different lenses divides the book along three main lines (identity, space, and time). These three analytical frameworks are then neatly woven together to understand the complex and constant rearticulating of sustainability as a tool of governance.
The reconfiguration of identities is done through discerning the referent object of sustainability or, in other words, what deserves to be sustained. Individual or collective actors leverage political legitimacy and shape the discourse to sustain their own agenda. By analysing different sectors, such as fisheries in Greenland (Rikke Becker Jacobsen) and mining in Greenland and Nunavut (Marc Jacobsen), and the outside global vision of environmental sustainability in the Arctic petroleum development debate (Gerhardt at al.) highlight that the relationships sovereignty and power in affirming what needs to be sustained. Gerhardt et al. concludes that while Greenpeace has been able to bring the narrative of the pristine Arctic to the fore, their actions also triggered a backlash in targeted States where other types of sustainability (e.g. a fundamental commitment to securing the political sustainability of the nation state) are being prioritized. Another excellent example can be found in Ingrid Medby’s chapter where she provides a nuanced analysis of sustainability as a discursive legitimation of authority rather than a concrete praxis. In her study of Norway, Iceland and Canada, she demonstrates that a country’s ‘Arctic identity’ can be embedded within pre-existing national identity and imagined future narratives. In this way, speaking of Arctic sustainability is about sustaining a present object, or some its aspects (environment, cultures, economies), within a framed temporal dimension which in turn helps foster a broader national narrative.
The second dimension of this book is a reconceptualization of sustainability through space and the existence of a spatial dimension of the referent object in relation to a one specific environment. Sustainability is then articulated in terms of “scales”. In this spatial context, local and national geographical scales are being contrasted against the environmental scale of regional ecosystems and the global climate. As Gad and Stransbjerg argue in the conclusion, choosing one spatial scale often means prioritizing one dimension of sustainability over another. Temporality makes up the third dimension of this edited volume. The idea here is more to outline different ways of claiming responsibility and authority in the Arctic in relation to the sustainability of communities and ecologies. Sustainability narratives are again viewed as discursive tools to empower certain types of actors to act towards a sustainable future. As pointed out in the book, “sustainability narratives need to organize time to be able to credibility claim the environments which makes their preferred referent object sustainable.”
The Politics of Sustainability is dense and does not shy away from high-level theoretical discussions. It is a true tour de force that dissects every aspect of sustainability from a multiple of different angles. Written by well-established scholars atop of their fields in the broad world of polar research, this multidisciplinary edited collection not only achieves what its title suggests (i.e. a conceptual rethinking of sustainability a political concept) but, also provides one of the most complete academic analysis of Arctic governance under the umbrella of sustainability and sustainable development. As several researchers point out in their chapter (Keil; Wilson Rowe; Dodds and Nuttall), in mainstream political discourses sustainability is often conceived as a balancing act between social and economic development and environmental protection. However, there is a postcolonial critique of sustainability as a balancing act that needs to be added within this multi-layered framing to escape colonial ideas of indigeneity. Arctic sustainability is much more intricate than merely achieving balance between “ways of life” of Indigenous communities and what States want to do in the region. Along these lines, the book manages to distil and explain challenging and complex critical Arctic geopolitical researches in a way that is both understandable and highly impressive. Each chapter are kept short, but they all surely deserve a stand-alone glowing review. In spite of a hefty price tag, The Politics of Sustainability will without doubt be of use to social scientists and researchers involved in Arctic research as well as advanced graduate students.