Ecology and SocietyEcology and Society
 E&S Home > Vol. 26, No. 3 > Art. 15
The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Chapin, III, F. S. 2021. Social and environmental change in the Arctic: emerging opportunities for well-being transformations through stewardship. Ecology and Society 26(3):15.
Guest Editorial, part of a special feature on Resilience and Change in Arctic Alaska

Social and environmental change in the Arctic: emerging opportunities for well-being transformations through stewardship

1Institute of Arctic Biology and Dept. of Biology and Wildlife, University of Alaska Fairbanks

The Arctic is changing in many dimensions, as described throughout this special feature. Many Arctic changes, such as climate change, mining, and oil extraction, are driven by economic forces that originate largely outside of the Arctic. Others, such as changes in Arctic flora and fauna, Indigenous cultures, and regional economy, are also substantially influenced by decisions made within the Arctic. Recent changes, wherever they occur, often have devastating consequences for local communities and contribute to public despair and disengagement rather than to concerted search for solutions. A new framework is needed to link identification of deep problems with motivation and strategies to seek innovative solutions. Stewardship is one such framework.

I define stewardship as the proactive shaping of social and biophysical changes to support the well-being of both people and nature (Chapin 2020). Stewardship recognizes that the well-being of people and nature are intertwined and interdependent, rather than requiring a choice between people vs. nature. It differs from some conservation approaches by emphasizing active intervention to enhance well-being rather than seeking to prevent potential changes. Stewardship accepts that change creates uncertainty in outcomes, so strategies for well-being must be resilient and responsive to emerging conditions rather than codified and inflexible. Given that many changes create both winners and losers, stewardship requires respectful conversations among stakeholders to identify synergies and trade-offs that can then be discussed and negotiated.

Change is inevitable, but some changes are more predictable than others. Path-dependent changes with long-time lags, such as human-driven changes in climate and culture, alter variables that change slowly (slow variables) and will likely persist long into the future, providing a basis to plan for relatively predictable changes. Specific events (pulse changes), such as introduction of compulsory education, oil development, privatization of fisheries, and COVID-19, are less predictable and can trigger transformations—both good and bad. Stewardship is a framework for imagining, identifying, and changing driving forces and interventions to shape changes toward pathways that are more just and self-sustaining. It allows society to imagine and pursue pathways that may never have existed or are only memories of distant times or places. It invites experimentation rather than seeking one-size-fits-all solutions.

This special feature focuses on Arctic change. Arctic stewardship addresses primarily solutions that can be facilitated by interventions within the Arctic or that disproportionately affect the Arctic. The choice of issues to address depends on local context and stakeholder goals. Here, I describe emerging opportunities that have frequently been suggested to me by Indigenous leaders in the Alaskan communities where I work and that capture elements of the stewardship paradigm:

Many transformative solutions are grounded in well-recognized past patterns or current trends in slow variables that provide a plausible foundation for future planning. Each of the issues mentioned above has been successfully addressed in one place or another. The challenge is to move toward stewardship, i.e., to shape trends in slow variables for the benefit of society and the nature on which it depends, while imagining events or actions that might trigger rapid transformative changes at broader scales. In many cases, institutions at larger scales constrain or facilitate opportunities for local-scale stewardship, requiring work by policy and social entrepreneurs to link institutions and actions across scales. The Arctic Council, for example, is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination, and interaction among Arctic nations. Indigenous people from each Arctic nation are permanent participants of the Arctic Council and, in this way, link the concerns and priorities of local Indigenous groups with international policy development. Analogously, the Innuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) is a multi-national Indigenous non-governmental organization with special consultative status at the United Nations. The ICC advocates for the human, cultural, political, and environmental rights of Indigenous peoples.

In summary, despite the rapid social and environmental changes occurring in the Arctic, there are many institutions, programs, and opportunities to foster transformative change toward sustainability through Arctic stewardship.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


Chapin, F. S., III. 2020. Grassroots stewardship: sustainability within our reach. Oxford University Press, New York, New York, USA.

Address of Correspondent:
F. Stuart Chapin, III
Institute of Arctic Biology
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Fairbanks, AK 99775
United States
Jump to top