Scientists from Finland, Russia, and the United States discuss collaborative research in the Circumpolar North.
However, no policy-makers in either East or West have adequately addressed the problem from a holistic ecological perspective. Instead, both economies have devoted most of their attention to a drive to accumulate capital, expand production, and develop greater technical means of exploiting nature. Indeed, the recent demise of the Soviet Union can be traced in part to its failure to accumulate at a rapid pace, resulting in serious consumer shortages and a loss of political legitimacy. Under such circumstances, the effort to limit economic activity damaging to the Arctic comes in direct conflict with the requirements of continued growth essential to capitalist development.
If this analysis is correct, the obvious solution to the problem of environmental destruction caused by past and present development practices in technically advanced Arctic-rim countries is to reduce the present 'ecological demand' at both the input end (economic growth) and output end (waste). However, success in such an endeavor requires a basic transformation in the economies of these countries whereby the profit motive is diminished in favor of one more broadly attuned to the needs of the civil society and the environment in which its members reside. Given this magnitude of change at this point in time, such an effort is difficult even to envision.
Instead, government and industrial leaders promote the view that new technical knowledge will eventually overcome our ecological problems thereby enabling the continuation of economic growth with fewer environmental penalties. But even a brief look at the past suggests that in many instances, the seeking of scientific breakthroughs - rather than solving problems associated with a deteriorating environment - actually distance us from addressing those problems. While technological improvements are certainly to be encouraged, they appear not to offer a final solution to the problem of how best to develop northern resources. Thus, the search for other alternatives continues to be important.
One substantial effort in this regard is the enormous attention being directed to the concept of 'sustainable development' - referred to in the oft-quoted 1987 United Nations report, Our Common Future, as development which "...meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." A particularly appealing feature of the concept is that it brings together in a common framework the limits which nature imposes on human beings and the potential for new directions in social development that is contained within those limits. On the negative side, there is a strong tendency to view this process as a simple compromise between economic growth and environmentalism, a perspective which largely disregards the fact that sustainability entails societal as well as natural limitations.
Sustainable development is also a rather ambiguous term open to numerous interpretations with varying degrees of compatibility. Indeed, quite different rationales often underlie commonly stated commitments to promote sustainable forms of natural resource utilization in the North. Under such circumstances, satisfactory resolution of conflicts associated with environmental policy decisions requires that these differing rationales be recognized and addressed - including discussion of the premises and special interests that help to shape them.
The most common rationale underlying present-day approaches to sustainable development is the perceived need to balance economic growth with protection of the environment. The appeal of economic growth for governments is multifaceted: It clearly serves as a crucial bulwark for the maintenance of national power. It also reduces the pressure to reallocate national income to combat social deprivation. Thus, as stated by the economist Herman Daly:"It offers the prospect of more for all with sacrifice for none" - a rather attractive proposal, particularly in these times of increasing economic insecurity.
A more culturally-oriented rationale for the sustainable utilization of the arctic's natural resources can be found in statements of northern indigenous groups such as the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. As referred to earlier, their 1992 position paper outlining a Comprehensive Arctic Policy, emphasizes that: "Northern development must refer to more than economic growth. It must allow for and faciliate spiritual, social, and cultural development." This emphasis on the spiritual, social, and cultural, interjects a new human ecological perspective to environmental issues often lacking in other approaches associated with sustainability. But it still does not address the finiteness of arctic resources. As the economist Robert Costanza stated in 1991, economic growth, which is an increase in quantity, cannot indefinitely be sustained on a finite planet.
He went on to suggest that a distinction be made between growth and development in which the latter represents an improvement in the quality of life without necessarily causing an increase in quantity of resources consumed. This cultural approach provides a worthy challenge to the mainstream views of sustainable development in the Arctic and elsewhere. But for it to have any chance of success, it must also be viewed in relation to the other major problem referred to earlier - the formidable unequal distribution of wealth drawn from the region's natural resources.