Kestävän kehityksen tutkimusprofessori
YTT Monica Tennberg

Towards Sustainability in Northwest Russia? An Analysis of the Transition

The question of a transition to sustainability in Northwest Russia and the obstacles it faces can be approached from many angles. Instead of proceeding from theories of international environmental cooperation, I would like to draw on a rather new research initiative known as sustainability science. The aim of my presentation is to introduce basic ideas of sustainability science, and discuss its potential and problems in our regional context. Sustainability science has yielded many important concepts for further research on the challenges of sustainable development, but, at least to my mind, it has also made a number of unrealistic promises regarding the role of scientific knowledge and researchers in policy-making.  I will illustrate some of the critical points of this scientific debate with examples from my research on and in Northwest Russia.

Science for Sustainability?

Sustainable development has been the catchword for global environmentalism since the late 1980s. Two years ago, a world summit was convened in Johannesburg, South Africa, to evaluate the progress towards sustainable development; the result of that assessment was mainly negative. Despite some signs of progress, there were many observations of unsustainable  trends around the world. The principal outcome of the summit was its Plan of Implementation, which called for more determined action towards sustainable development by all partners.

In 2000, in a conference near Stockholm, a group of established natural and social scientists from around the world spoke out in favour of the development of sustainability science as a new field. This call for more determined action by the scientific community to advance sustainable development through scientific knowledge and social learning signalled a very ambitious undertaking. The goal is to promote and implement social learning that will be essential in a transition to sustainability across the globe.

According to the original idea, certain core questions need to be addressed if we are to understand the interaction of nature and society and study the human ability to guide these interactions in a more sustainable manner. These core questions are:

Table 1. The Core Questions

1. How can the dynamic interactions between nature and society be better incorporated into emerging models and conceptualisations that integrate the Earth system, human development and sustainability?
2.  How are the long-term trends in environment and development, including consumption and population, reshaping nature-society interactions in ways relevant to sustainability?
3. What determines the vulnerability or resilience of the nature-society system in particular kinds of places and for particular types of ecosystems and human livelihoods?
4. Can scientifically meaningful limits or boundaries be defined that would provide effective warning of conditions beyond which the nature-society systems incur a significantly increased risk of serious degradation?
5. What systems of incentive structures – including markets, rules, norms and scientific information – can most effectively improve social capacity to guide interactions between nature and society towards more sustainable trajectories?
6. How can today’s operational systems of monitoring and reporting on environmental and social conditions be integrated or extended to provide more useful guidance for efforts to navigate a transition to sustainability?
7. How can today’s relatively independent activities of research planning, monitoring, assessment and decision support be better integrated into systems for adaptive management and societal learning?

According to the advocates of this new scientific programme, these core questions need to be studied through integrated scientific efforts. Local and regional studies are encouraged. Research on sustainability can be focused on the social and ecological characteristics of particular places or regions. The programme promotes methodological innovation since sustainability science will require new methodologies to combine quantitative and qualitative data. Finally, the proponents of the new programme call for policy relevance, with researchers, practitioners and stakeholders working together to produce reliable knowledge and sound decisions.

The rationale of this scientific programme has been criticised for many reasons. One has been that it represents a top-down approach emphasising the needs of science at the expense of other interests. It is based on a strong belief in scientific knowledge and the role of experts in finding solutions to extremely complex and conflictive issues. The programme has also been criticised for representing an engineering approach to complex societal, economic and political issues. It claims to produce policy-relevant information, but its point of departure is the development of the programme itself. If they are to  achieve scientific development, researchers need to solve problems relating to problems of scale, to find new methodological approaches, and to communicate over disciplinary borders. Finally, they need to meet the challenge of doing science that is at once high quality, policy relevant and of practical importance.

Despite the problems associated with the new approach, it is important to follow the discussion surrounding it: the approach provides some important concepts for research, such as transitions to sustainability, indicators of sustainability, stakeholders’ role in the production of knowledge and the development of institutions - legal, economic and political – that can advance sustainable development.  Although it has endeavoured to include stakeholders in its approach, the most striking aspect of the programme remains its lack of interest in the human agent.  The models advocated by sustainability science exhibit considerable shortcomings when it comes to the different systems of decision-making, administrative rationalities and institutional constraints that stakeholders have to act under.

I would like to illustrate these questions with some examples from my current research project dealing with Russian views and experiences of regional environmental cooperation in Northwest Russia. In light of these observations, I would like to suggest an alternative vision for developing sustainability science, one which would be more appropriate from the point of view of the social sciences. It would turn the priorities upside down. The main questions would be: 1) What do local and regional stakeholders think needs to be sustained? 2) What determines the vulnerability and adaptability of a region? 3) How do we describe a transition towards sustainability, and how can we evaluate it?

Unsustainable development in our neighbourhood

One of the most striking gaps in level of development is that between the Nordic countries and the Russian Federation, as seen in our immediate neighbour, Northwest Russia. It is still a long way to sustainability in the Russian Federation. The Russian idea of sustainable development has yet to take shape, despite a number of action plans at the government level in the 1990s to advance the principle. The challenges to sustainable development there are still numerous, despite regional cooperation since the late 1980s that has actively sought solutions to the area’s many problems. In the national report of the Russian Federation (1999) on sustainable development in the country, the main obstacles to sustainable development were legal uncertainties, lack of environmental funding, frequent administrative reforms and ineffective use of international assistance.

To date, I have done some 50 interviews among Russian participants in regional cooperation organisations. The interviewees represent regional authorities and non-governmental organisations working in the area. In most cases they actively participate in one or more of the forms of regional environmental cooperation in which I am interested. 

Table 2. Interviewees in Northwest Russia






 St. Petersburg 























I have talked with the interviewees about their views on the challenges of sustainable development in their region and heard the successes and failures of cooperation as well as assessments of Russian and Western partners in cooperation. The research project is ongoing, so the ideas that I present here are in no way final results and conclusions. In fact, this is the first time that I have presented any results of this project to a larger audience. 

I  What do local and regional stakeholders think needs to be sustained?

Most of the existing frameworks for regional environmental cooperation take as their starting point a particular understanding of sustainable development. In some cases, such as the work of the Arctic Council, the idea of sustainable development provides an umbrella of sorts for all kinds of activities. In others, the approach to sustainable development may be extremely practical, examples being Barents and Baltic cooperation. In the Northern Dimension, sustainable development is divided into sectoral questions and actions on energy, the environment and other issues.

In some of the regional debates, complaints have been heard that Russian needs and interests have not always been accommodated. The question becomes what is to be sustained; or, to be more precise, what needs to be sustained by Northwest Russian stakeholders? In my research on the situation in Northwest Russian, I have asked my interviewees to name the challenges of sustainable development in their region. In some cases, the word “challenge” has been difficult for the interpreter to translate, but in most instances my interviewees have been able and willing to describe the situation in the area according to their understanding of what sustainable development is and, especially, what needs to be sustained.

I would like to present the Northwest Russian understanding of challenges to sustainable development in the form of a triangle. One corner of the triangle is the rich natural resources of the region; the second is the aim of economic development; and the third is  the need for domestic and foreign investment in the region to promote industry and environmental protection. 

I would like to call this the Northwest Russian dilemma of sustainability. It has few if any environmental dimensions other than the use of natural resources. If there is a dimension other than the economic one in this dilemma, it is the social. The social dimension asks how the benefits derived from the use of natural resources should  be divided among different stakeholders, that is, domestic and foreign companies, regional governments and the local people. Do the local people have any chance of benefiting from development in the region?

It is understandable why sustainable development is seen in these terms in many cases among  Northwest Russian stakeholders. They seem to think that in the current economic situation taking care of regional environmental concerns is a luxury they cannot afford; it will be possible to take care of the environment later, after the economy recovers. When the more urgent economic and social needs in the region are solved, it will be time to take care of the environment.  None of the interviewees, not even those representing local environmental NGOs, questioned the aim of economic development. For the Russians, the current problems are so severe that there is no chance for long-term commitment to sustainable development, especially in the northern parts of Northwest Russia.  The time perspective of the stakeholders is very short: there is no - or very little - discussion of what will happen when the oil resources are exhausted or of alternatives to existing economic and environmental practices. And there is no challenge to the idea of economic development to find other forms of development. In such a situation, it is difficult to discuss the opportunities for a managed route to sustainability and alternatives to current, unsustainable practices.
II What determines the vulnerability and adaptability of the region?

In a transition to sustainability, one needs to focus on the vulnerability and adaptability of local and regional stakeholders. Clearly, stakeholders differ in their analysis of the situation. The stakeholders identify the problems, their importance and the responsibility for solving them in different ways. In the interviews, I have been able to identify at least four local and regional discourses on sustainability, vulnerability and adaptability in  Northwest Russia.

These discourses follow the categorisation by John Dryzek, which focuses on ontological and hierarchical assumptions concerning the nature of problems of sustainable development, as well as assumptions regarding agency in tackling problems. The discourses could be termed “Vulnerable Russia” (risk discourse), “More and better legislation” (legal discourse), “The Russian national interest” (economic discourse) and “Information for all” (participatory discourse). In each of these discourses, the problem of sustainability requires different solutions - more scientific  knowledge, better regional and national legislation, more  investment, or more public participation. 

Table 3. Four discourses on sustainability in Northwest Russia

  Risk discourse Legal discourse  Economic discourse  Participatory discourse
Ontology Chaos of problems  Loopholes and missing pieces of legislation  Lack of investment  Complexity of the problems
Hierarchy Human health  Rules of the game  National interest  Information
Agency Experts and researchers  Courts and national and regional decisionmakers Domestic and foreign companies and state officials  All societal actors

Each of the forums for regional environmental cooperation defines certain critical issues as the focus of its activities. Doubts are occasionally voiced as to whether their work overlaps and whether there is a need for more coordinated action between different forums. Clearly, it has not always been easy to make the idea of sustainable development work in practical projects in terms of achieving viable funding solutions and concrete results.

The role of regional cooperation in promoting sustainability is highly valued by Russian regional stakeholders. The discourse of this cooperation is the discourse of projects. Current regional environmental cooperation takes the form of projects, proposals, applications, and searches for partners and funding bodies. This is the reality of cooperation for the regional stakeholders. Naturally, the stakeholders are more eager to tell stories of success than stories of failure. Failures are defined as projects that only produce more paper. The question of the effectiveness of joint projects was raised many times by different interviewees. It is clear that the Russians prefer to have projects with practical results. However, many agree that in some times the value of cooperation as such is more important than practical projects. In most cases, the stakeholders seem to think that the regional cooperation continues “normalno” – Russian for “as usual”.  Despite this expectation of cooperation as usual it seems that there is a regional difference among Russian participants in discourses of cooperation. The “northern” discourse emphasises  problems in regional cooperation more than the “southern” one does. The interesting question for a researcher here is whether there are any particular reasons for this -  for example, ones that can be found in the history and development of the cooperation. 

It seems that administrative changes, with decreasing funds for and a lack of specialists in environmental protection, are one of the critical trends in Northwest Russia. Lack of money for environmental protection is a recurring complaint in the interviews. It affects regional environmental cooperation. However, my understanding is that this problem is not a question of money as such but a complex issue of power, authority, agency and expertise, all of which require funding. The most critical trends in the Russian Federation are the parallel trends of regionalisation and federalisation, which both weaken and strengthen the  transition to sustainability. They imply conflicting trends involving the decentralising and recentralising of not only political but also financial power between centres and peripheries in the Russian Federation. These critical political and economic trends complicate further organisation for sustainability in Northwest Russia.   Sustainable development is a complex policy issue requiring extensive cooperation between federal and regional authorities, as well as between ministries and other actors in civil society.

III How do we describe a transition towards sustainability and how can we evaluate it?

According to the advocates of sustainability science, any assessment of a transition to sustainability will require, first, specification of what is to be sustained; second, specification of the scale of change; and third, understanding of the critical connections between human activities, human conditions, and environmental conditions. This last requirement is the most difficult, and scientists have been working on aspects of these connections for years.

Should political scientists try to assess the role of regional environmental cooperation in supporting sustainable development in Northwest Russia, several alternatives suggest themselves. They could study the regional organisations as such and determine how well these fulfil their commitments in the process; they could ask either the participants themselves or outside parties  to evaluate the success or failure of the organisation. These assessments could also use some external criteria. What is most difficult is to assess the impact of cooperation on the state of the environment, that is, to show that there is some causal relationship between regional environmental cooperation and the state of the regional environment in some reasonable time frame. This is very difficult to show, and may well be impossible to measure.

However, despite these difficulties in measuring a transition to sustainability in general, and in international environmental cooperation in particular, I think the question of transition to sustainability is a valid one. After a decade and more of international and national efforts to advance sustainable development in Northwest Russia, we ought to address the question of the relationship between cooperation and the aim of sustainability. Accordingly, my questions are: What have been the achievements of regional environmental cooperation in  Northwest Russia? What are the stories of success and failure? Are there any signs of a transition to sustainability in the region? These questions call for using the expertise of social scientists to complement the stakeholders’ analysis  of their situation and to create an overview of the situation and changes towards or away from the principle of sustainability.

For a political scientist, the  critical question is whether regional environmental cooperation can guide the transition to sustainability in the direction advocated by sustainability science. I have my doubts about this. Social learning includes new awareness and idea for action as well as new practices for implementing these ideas. Social learning for sustainability is in many cases a slow, complicated  process where scientific knowledge with its uncertainties may be used by different stakeholders for their own political purposes and to support their own agendas. In terms of social learning, regional stakeholders might actually be more interested in advancing sustainable development through new ideas and practices than the federal authorities are. Regional stakeholders see the impacts of “unsustainable” development projects and are concerned for the future of their region.


Northwest Russia offers a particularly interesting case of a transition to sustainability, or, perhaps better, of the difficulties such a transition entails. The region is very rich in natural resources, has a fairly large and well-educated population and has stable structures of governance. It also has economic potential and Western investors are increasingly interested in it. In light of this potential, the future should look bright; yet, there are many difficult environmental issues. As a political scientist, I am particularly interested in those aspects of stakeholders’ perceptions of sustainability, vulnerability, adaptability and transition that relate to institution building, political agency and action. Despite many regional efforts, the transition to sustainability is taking place very slowly. The reasons for this are more internal than external: the parallel trends of regionalisation and centralisation, in both political and economic power, clearly limit the prospects of a timely transition to sustainability.