© Tobias Luthe

Change means chance

5 June 2018

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Sustainable Development Goals. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Melting glaciers, thinning sea ice, traditional subsistence hunters looking for new ways to survive: changes in nature and ways of life seem to be the dominant drivers in many Arctic communities. While this situation is dismaying to many, another way to look at it is that change means chance. According to TOBIAS LUTHE, flexibility, diverse social collabo­rations and being open to innovative economic opportunities could lead to greater resil­ience in Arctic communities.

ARRIVING on Disko Island, off the west coast of Greenland, you are stunned by its wild beauty and diversity: myriad floating icebergs in electric blue and white tones; abundant wildlife, such as whales, geese and polar fox; striking basalt rock cathedrals painted green by lush moss and framed by waterfalls. All of it is breathtaking.

But as you enter the island community of Queqertarsuaq, you get a different perspective. Life here can be tough, and place-based environmental changes are forcing residents to adapt. What makes a community like Queqertarsuaq more resilient and prepared to cope with climate and socio-economic changes? How can the sustainable development goals (SDGs) be met in such an extreme environment?


On a recent research visit to the island, I and my colleague Melanie Rottmann had the opportunity to meet and learn from Queqertarsuaq’s people and its natural environment. For example, we met a father and son who manage a tourism agency together, running a small guest house and restaurant and offering dog sled and hiking tours. The two had very different perspectives on the situation in their community—and different ideas about future opportunities. The father understood that climate change poses a threat to his dog sled business, since as the glacier retreats, there will be less snow year-round. But his son saw the warming climate as an opportunity for new tourism activities and other economic opportunities, such as research connected with the existing Arctic Station. He also speculated that with a warmer and more pleasant climate, more innovative, well-educated families might migrate to Queqertarsuaq and become entrepreneurs.

We also met a fisher/hunter who showed us how environmental changes are pushing residents to diversify their perspectives and skillsets, resulting in innovative solutions. For example, thinning and less stable sea ice means he can no longer hunt seals on the frozen water, which was once a major means of feeding himself and his family. Instead, he learned basic English and is now making his living as a tourist guide.

Like many people on the island, this resident faced a personal crisis, but used it as a chance to remake himself. He is just one example of innovation in a community that is being forced to transition from a traditional hunting and fishing economy toward a more connected circular economy. Designing a more adaptive, innovative community requires new ideas, more collaboration and openness to outside influences. For Queqertarsuaq, this move to a more circular economy is helping people cope with a new reality and prepare for a more resilient, sustainable future.


Despite these examples of successful social innovations, a number of challenges remain in addressing the SDGs in Arctic communities like Queqertarsuaq. Lack of employment opportunities is a key issue. The recently enlarged municipal governance structure on the mainland killed jobs in Queqertarsuaq and forced skilled people to move, leaving behind a less educated workforce. Many residents are hoping oil development on Disko Island will bring jobs—but a more diverse and connected economy doesn’t always mean a more sustainable community.

Take the example of a foreign company bottling spring water from Queqertarsuaq, shipping it to Switzerland—a country already blessed with glaciers and waters—and marketing it as the water with the “purest taste and quality.” Such an initiative may create jobs, but there are major downsides for the community, which loses control of its own resources, and for the region’s environment.

Queqertarsuaq is an example of a resilient Arctic community, but even so, it’s obvious there are still challenges. To build upon the many positive and encouraging social innovations we have already seen, the community will need to push further to design a circular, resilient and sustainable economy. The blueprint should begin with a vision for the future that meets and aligns with the SDGs. An example of a circular way to diversify the economy is to use the community’s existing social and human capital to focus on responsible tourism as a change-making industry. From there, new circular opportunities can grow that may lead to sustainable alternatives.

That would be a much better way to go than falling back on environmentally harmful economic activities involving non-renewables and extraction.

TOBIAS LUTHE IS a scientist, systemic designer and mountaineering guide based in Switzerland and Italy. He works with ETH Zurich and the MonViso Institute, where he specializes in sustainability science, resilience in social-ecological systems, circular economy, systemic design, and Arctic regions, among other focuses.