What landscapes are for and for whom?

About the necessity of a new collective understanding of landscapes in times of a green energy transition.

This essay was made for the IBA Thürigen publication, StadtLand Perspektiven Für eine neue Raumkultur.
Published in May 2023

Sliding images
︎︎︎Midsummer celebration in Leksand, Sweden. By Bengt Nordenberg, 1854.
︎︎︎Landscape + Windpark, France. LABLAB 2022.
︎︎︎Power station in Jämtland, Sweden. LABLAB 2022.

︎︎︎Mindmap + Discourse analysis. LABLAB 2023.

Landscapes are visible, multi-layered and complex systems. They communicate meaning, experience memory, progress, extraction, destruction and reproduction. With images such as paintings, photographs, calendars, postcards or posters of landscapes staged in our private lives as well as public spaces and monuments of collective memory, we surround ourselves with the idea of landscapes and the expectation of them. It is this historical, emotional and collective record that makes landscapes touch upon us! The registered historical images in our societies are communicative matters, a visual materiality that is expected to provide orientation and belonging. Nevertheless landscapes are always transforming, and in times of climate change they are about to face drastic and rapid transformations due to a broken global energy system that urgently needs to be replaced. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure the inclusion of a landscape literacy in the discourse, assessment and implementation of the green energy transition.

With the promise of a sustainable future, landscapes will inevitably be transformed or lost when turned into new energy landscapes as part of the transition to green energy. To meet and deal with a community’s emotional dilemma facing the prospect of a transformation of its surrounding landscape, a design and activation of communication models and processes need to be developed.

Because, what happens if we do not consider the historical, emotional and collective record of landscapes in the urgency of an energy transition? What social movements may surface due to the lack of considering the importance of landscapes? These are pivotal questions in times of raised conflicts between green movements with planetary understanding of climate change and reborned nationalistic nature propaganda with the goal of protecting those natural resources that are considered “national” as well as reinforcing the connection between body and soil.

Hence, in times of climate change and the need for a rapid energy transition, a similar scenography is evolving where landscapes once again are expected to play a key role when contributing to a future beyond CO2 emissions. However, the transition still requires space and if landscapes are to provide that space it means that the transition is also about cultural and ecological values. All together it becomes a question of negotiations between actors with different power resources and their perspectives on the meaning of landscape.

Reindeer herding, Sápmi
Statistic from Sametinget (2020), Länsstyrelsens (2019)
Grafic: LABLAB

︎︎︎Commercial from Den Svenska Gruvan [red: the Swedish Mine] at the metro in Stockholm, 2022. LABLAB

︎︎︎Brown coal field in Lausitz, Germany. ©LABLAB 2020.


The traces of Modernity are undoubtedly visible in most European landscapes. It’s a history of traces and scars such as the Ruhr coal-mining districts, the brown coal fields in Lausitz activated, the coal mining industry in the UK, hydroelectric power plants flooding landscapes or the drying up of Lilla Sjöfallet (one of the largest waterfalls in northern Europe before the 1920s) when being transformed into a hydroelectric power station in the north of Sweden, the constantly growing mines in Sápmi - Samiland, and the relocation of the Kiruna town due to an never ending expansion of the iron ore mine.

In the case of Sweden, a country where large-scale energy production for industrial production has long benefited the country’s development, struggling discourses are suggesting/revealing different actors have different ways to interpret landscapes. On the one hand it should be understood as a progressive moment due to the inclusion of other perspectives in the public debate on what landscapes are for and for whom. However, it is still a horizon embedded in the language and infrastructure of Modernity and thus suffering from a center-periphery mind-set where the hegemonic discourse continues to define the purpose of landscapes. The clashes between Sápmi communities and the Swedish government accompanied by the mining and energy sector is probably the most infected dispute about how to interpret and to design landscapes in times of transition.

In Piteå, the biggest land based wind power park in northern Europe will have 750 turbines in production by 2026 claiming approximately 450 km2. In Kiruna, the process of moving the whole town area of 16.5 km2 is underway as the state-owned mining company LKAB claims more space in connection with its green transition to using direct-reduced-iron (DRI) also being called for sponge iron. For Kiruna it means that approximately 6,000 people have to move, their 3,000 homes together with 450,000 m2  of public and commercial buildings are being leveled with the ground, and a new town 3 km east of current Kiruna will be developed by 2035. In Boden, the world's largest facility for green steel, H2 Green Steel, is being built, claiming 500 km2 of land. All of these municipalities are located in Norrbotten, the most northern part of Sweden, covering 25% of the country. What Norrbotten has been experiencing and will continue to do, can partly be compared to the vast landscape transformation in the German region of Lausitz for the last 150 years, where we are able to experience the impact of large-scale traces from the old to the new energy system standing side by side.

These are but a few examples of how the transition affects Swedish landscapes both factually (spatially) and through the collective memory of both inhabited and not previously exploited landscapes, often belonging to the sami communities. The image of Swedish landscapes as part of its identity are of course important elements when reproducing its national identity. But this phenomenon is equal to other European countries and their landscapes. What makes Sweden stand out is the ongoing large-scale transformation of landscapes into industrial landscapes as part of progressing the welfare society. In other words, these landscapes are indeed crucial to the idea of Sweden, however they are in constant negotiation with the national project of progressing the welfare state. It has to be considered that the low population density in north Sweden (e.g. 2.4% of the Swedish population lives in Norrbotten) has become of great value for the national and the global green energy sector since these “empty” landscapes can be distilled into “empty spaces” and thus, claimed for exploitation in the green transition.

Many municipalities in Sweden share the vision of a green future but not necessarily all the elements in the governmental roadmap for the transition or the vision of the green energy sector. A report from spring 2022 by the Swedish Wind Energy Association illustrates an interesting communicative gap about the realization of the transition. According to this report the number of wind power projects rejected by municipalities, which (still) possess a veto on these matters, increased from 38 percent in 2020 to 76 percent in 2021. Reading these numbers makes it difficult not to raise the question of why actors have different opinions about how the transition is going to happen. Could it be possible that local and global dimensions on how to combat climate change are about to collide and if so, what kind of communicative mechanisms are necessary to activate in order to prevent or decrease the derivatives of such a collision?

Solor panel park in Lausitz, Germany.


In the spring of 2022 Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, concluded that the global energy system is broken, directly tying the fossil energy production to its consequences on the climate. He also highlighted green energy and technological progress as key factors to provide a sustainable future. This is a roadmap shared by the EU Commission with it’s goal of making Europe the first climate neutral continent in the world by 2050 using policy tools such as the European Green Deal where e.g. the European Climate Law is setting a legally binding target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050).

Yet, the green energy transition as a discourse still seems to be trapped in the same kind of paradigms that continue to separate energy production from spatial absorption, thus neglecting the implications of a broken energy system on landscapes. As the transition will crave space, on land and at sea, we simply have to raise the question: How much (green) energy production can the landscapes lodge?

The question is particularly relevant for green energy production because it is expected to become more localized, more around us and more visual too. Raising this question implies the question of what values are gained and lost when more landscapes will be incorporated in the new energy system and therefore transformed into new energy landscapes. With this in mind, it is equally important to take into account these landscapes as suppliers of “green electricity” but also more electricity due to digitalized consumption patterns and energy-intensive industries such as the mining industry, steel production, car industries, data centers, warehouses, etc… Future scenarios expect that the European Union is looking at an increasing electricity demand of 40–50 percent by 2050 compared to today.

To get a glimpse of the link amidst the growing friction between different interpretative prerogatives of landscapes in the Swedish context and the question of how much (green) energy production landscapes can ingest, it's necessary to look at the statistics. During the past ten years, Sweden's electricity consumption has been around 140 TWh. However, the increased electricity demand is forecasted 280–500 TWh by 2050.

In comparison, Germany (235.2 inhabitants/km2) consumed almost 600 TWh in 2021 , a country of 83.2 million inhabitants compared to Sweden’s 10.45 million (25.7 inhabitants/km2), also defined by Eurostat as having the lowest population density in Europe along with Finland. If we were to compare the total household consumption of electricity per country, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Germany has a total household consumption of electricity of 126.50 TWh in 2019 compared to Sweden at 43.85 TWh for the same year. But if we instead apply an electricity consumption per capita, the positions between these two countries shift: The average person in Sweden consumes 12.25 MWh in 2020 compared to Germany with 6.44 MWh in 2020.

The point of such comparison is to unfold several critical questions about the Swedish green energy transition. At first it is necessary to ask how much space can be claimed from the landscapes of northern Sweden for the implementation of a green energy transition, meaning an expected increased electricity consumption among households and industry. This question is equally important for the European context when speeding up the transition in order to reach a fossil free future by 2050. However, we should also dare to raise the question if it is possible for the rest of Europe to aim for the same electricity consumption as Sweden’s current and predicted levels. If not, is it fair? Or is it necessary to activate the question of limits in order to ensure a fair competition into a common future between European countries. What if the 2 percent of land for onshore electricity production by 2032 in Germany is a limit that communicates the necessity of a transition, but also a limitation of how much energy production can be extracted from the very same landscapes. If so, can such a limitation work as a large-scale pedagogical framework, an educational package on planetary boundaries for European citizens and industries?

Postcard illustrating the Swedish Hydropower Harsprånget Reklam, 1952 by HJ Wollin. Tekniska museet.

Painting illustrating Njommelsaska / Harsprånget.
By Carl Svante Hallbeck (1826–1897)
Probably painted in 1856
Carolina Rediviva, Uppsala universitetsbibliotek.




A significant challenge for the green energy transition is how to secure social and ecological sustainability on a local level while tackling a planetary urgency. The challenge is also complicated by the tendency of framing the transition as mainly a technical and economic matter, albeit in combat with climate change, leaving the values of landscapes outside of the equation. This is further exacerbated by hyper realities and desinformation regarding climate change.

It is tempting to argue that this framing will not speed up nor support the transition since it automatically prevents what is needed to overcome these challenges, i.e. an extended landscape literacy. The obvious question of transition is not only about a solution-orientation mindset transcending via innovation and technological progress as it attempts to be framed, but rather about cultural and ecological values. Values, certainly of significant importance in order to generate social understanding and adaptation for those places that will be transformed due to a broken energy system. Nevertheless, there are also numerous linguistic elements that complicates the communicative action for a constructive dialogue aiming to generate a new language that holds the ability to intertwine cultural and ecological values while designing and implementing green energy infrastructure.

Illustration for a book: When the forest Dies.
John Bauer (1882 — 1918)
Jönköpings läns museum

GIS map showing forest deforestation in Småland, Sweden.
Statistic from the Skogsstyrelsen (2021) and Lantmäteriet (2019).
Graphic: LABLAB

An interesting and potential “linguistic element of complication” in the Swedish context is the term of “markanvändning” (land use). It is indeed a functional term with the goal of determining how land will or should be used, a term that according to the Statistiska Centralbyrån provides a direction on “how land in Sweden is used for various purposes and how land use has changed over time. Among other things, information is reported on how large areas of land are used for agriculture, forestry as well as buildings and infrastructure of various kinds.” However, it is also a term with a long history of practice in the Swedish context, which in times of energy transition is about to become a term paving the way for a solid institutionalized interpretation of land, an interpretation that hardly encompasses the full meaning of land as landscape in order to speed up transition.

Another element that obstructs a communicative action that is reaching for a constructive dialogue in order to embrace cultural and ecological values as part of the transition, is a new governmental language shaped and outlined in official documents such as the Swedish electrification strategy (Elektrifieringsstrategin). Published by the Swedish government in the spring of 2022, this is a document with high ambitions and clear directions for how to speed up what is already speeding up, namely an increased electrification of Swedish society and industry. It is also a document stating the necessity of removing obstacles preventing the speed for such a change. Nevertheless, in this 99-page governmental document with a significant power to shape the future, the word landscape is conspicuous by its absence.

As mentioned, landscapes are visible, multi-layered and complex systems. They communicate meaning, experience memory, progress, extraction, destruction and reproduction. Often landscapes are subject (or object) to feelings of nostalgia, where the nostalgic image fulfills a function in how we relate to landscapes, what surrounds us, defines us and of which we are a part. According to Susan Stewart, we move through (the image of) landscape, it does not move through us, and thus we can only partially experience, understand and view landscapes. The 'real' image of landscapes is "a matter of practice and transformation". When landscapes, as we know them, transform or disappear, this evokes a sense of loss, which Stewart describes as a process from event to memory, to longing. This in turn, originates in a separation, a sense of some kind of loss - a phenomenon of loss.­

But the sense of loss hardly stays at the individual level, it has the ability of transforming into a collective sense and memory, generating frictions between locality and the planetary urgency of an energy transition. Nevertheless, the sense of losing landscapes may be embraced by political forces interested in inhibiting the urgent transition at every level of European societies. The act of altered romanticized landscapes and the threat of an unrecognizable visual transformation of these places should be understood as potential communicative vehicles for nationalistic currents. It is therefore necessary to strive for a transition possessing a language and a mindset that goes beyond the romanticization of the landscapes or the modernist idea of large scale energy schlaraffenland where the energy production never ends.

In order to curb a locked situation of interpretations, we must learn to acknowledge the special values of space and place in times of energy transition. But most importantly, ahead of us lies a tremendous effort in designing situated communicative actions with the goal of including a collective understanding and creating a common ground regarding the non-negotiable factor: planetary limitations. Although these limitations may force us to insight, the very same limitations may also open up new and unknown possibilities for tomorrow’s energy landscapes by also recognizing values both lost and gained. Hence, if we succeed through communicative actions that strive beyond the instrumentalization of landscapes, we might be able to co-create futures where landscapes, people, ecosystems and energy transition co-exist despite disparities.

Some of the most important goals for such communicative actions are to include the sense of belonging and connect it with the sense of being a driving force for transformation, starting on a local scale and progressing into a planetary scale. As citizens we need to be engaged in a democratic dialogue that dares to activate the questions on how we progress new values with the landscapes that withhold collective identities and, simultaneously generate electricity for the European industry and households through the transition. Simply, by means of raising the questions of what landscapes are for - and for whom? This implies European citizens to be involved in and part of a critical dialogue that guides us collectively on how to deal with the climate and energy crisis, yet not to leave the rest of the world behind. As Europeans we need to navigate between learning how to “land on Earth” as well as how to “land among senses” hence, the sense of losing landscapes and progressing to new ones.


Schematic illustration of hydropower stations along the river Ångermanälven, Sweden.
Illustration updated in 2022.







Susan Stewart, On longing, 1992