Frequent and unpredictable extreme weather events in Siberia and Alaska destroy infrastructure and threaten the livelihoods of circumpolar peoples. Local responses are inventive and flexible. However, the distinct politics of post-Soviet Siberia and Alaska play a key role in the pragmatics of strategic planning. The Arctic is a planetary climate driver, but also holds the promise of massive resources in an ice-free future, producing tensions between ‘environmental’ and ‘development’ goals. Drawing on material from Siberia and Alaska we argue: (i) that extreme events in the Arctic are becoming normal; material demands are in a state of flux making it difficult to assess future material needs. We must consider material substitutions as much as material reduction; (ii) local-level responsive strategies should be taken into account. Core/periphery thinking tends to assume that answers come from ‘the centre’; this is, in our view, limited; (iii) we suggest that ‘flexibility’ may become a core survival value that is as important for city planners and public health officials as it is for Siberian reindeer herders. In this, we see not only the simultaneous need for mitigation and adaptation policies, but also for a concerted effort in promoting such capacities in young people. This article is part of the themed issue ‘Material demand reduction’.