Behaviour, Economics and Nature 2020-10-19

Living with the ‘new normal’

Exploring human responses to abrupt environmental change in the Arctic using behavioural and interpretive social science (New Normal project)

Arctic communities today face a ‘new normal’ of rising temperatures, retreating sea ice and thawing permafrost. These drastic, potentially irreversible, environmental changes – sometimes called regime shifts, are severely impacting Arctic livelihoods, for example through their effects on critical and culturally significant resources such as whales and caribou. But while the drivers and impacts of these changes are increasingly well documented, human responses to them are poorly understood. Yet, the ways in which communities respond to ecological change will shape prospects for their livelihoods and well-being, and carry vital broader lessons for sustainability in an Anthropocene era where abrupt change will be the norm.

Whaling festival in Wainwright, Alaska. Photo: Tracie Curry

The emerging research field of sustainability science suggests that scholars from different scientific disciplines should come together to work with communities in order to understand and devise sustainable responses to change. However, there remains little practical guidance on how this should be done in coherent ways, and how this might in turn generate practical solutions for the communities involved. The New Normal project will adopt a novel transdisciplinary approach, bringing together behavioural and interpretive social science – two approaches with contrasting perspectives on human action – with the overall aim to explore, together with Alaskan Inuit communities, their responses to drastic environmental change.

In particular, in collaboration with the people of Wainwright (North Slope, Alaska, USA), our objectives are to:

  1. Provide a space for the people of Wainwright to reflect, share experiences and devise strategies to live with change.
  2. Generate novel insights on human responses to abrupt environmental change in the Arctic.
  3. Provide and evaluate a ground-breaking contribution to sustainability science by showing how interpretive and behavioural social science can be brought together in a transdisciplinary fashion.

This three-year project contains two fieldwork phases and one shorter visit at the end of the project to communicate and discuss project results with the people of Wainwright. In the first fieldwork phase we will adopt an interpretive approach, using participatory photography (‘photovoice’) to enable participants to identify the ecological changes that matter most to them. In the second fieldwork phase we will adopt a behavioural approach, designing behavioural economic experiments to study the potential effects of the identified changes on behaviour. The work of the researchers, their interactions with the participating communities as well as the research team’s reflection on the research process (reflexive video journals) will be captured in film throughout the project. The filmed material will be used as a method of inquiry to evaluate the research project and process, and to create short films that will communicate project results to broader audiences, be used in transdisciplinary education, and provide the Village of Wainwright and the project team with documents of the research project.


Project team:

Researchers: Caroline Schill (Beijer Institute) and Simon West (Stockholm Resilience Centre)

Local research partner: Tracie Curry (Northern Social-Environmental Research, Fairbanks, Alaska, USA)

Filmmaker and visual communicator: Ingrid M. Rieser, Uppsala, Sweden

Study site:

Village of Wainwright, North Slope, Alaska, USA

Funding: Formas (#2018-01176)

Project’s start: January 2020 (3 years)

Fieldwork start: tentatively planned for summer 2021