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'Landscape', and 'Justice', and 'Place', oh my!

A Theoretical Framework for Social Dimensions of Energy Transitions.

My work is motivated by a desire to contribute to the efforts of climate change mitigation, particularly, of reducing negative impacts on nature and future generations.

My research is focused on the social dimensions of energy transitions with an emphasis on the rural transformations. Energy infrastructure is constituted spatially (Bridge et al., 2013) and has diverse landscape implications (Sherren et al., 2019). The interruption of idyllic landscapes is problematic because these places hold individual and social meanings that are tied to the materiality of a particular space (Creswell, 2015). It is also problematic when communities and local values are not involved in land-use planning. The theoretical framework I use to approach my research draws from three scholarly areas: landscapes of amenity and consumption, sense of place theory, and environmental justice.

Though often imagined as a picture or a snapshot, landscapes are material manifestations of process and subject to continual change via geological and human processes. Tim Ingold describes a theory of form – not as static – but as a moment in the processes that created it (Boyer and Howe, 2019). For example, a pebble, a hill, or a cloud can be viewed in an instant but they are the products of process and are continually changing.[1] Similarly, landscapes are the material manifestations of process and change. I believe this is intuitively understood and yet there is socio-political push-back to change (see Chappell et al., 2020; katesimon sherrencouper, 2020), especially in landscapes of amenity and consumption: spaces where people go to enjoy and be affected by a particular, instantaneous material form.

Sense of place theory is closely related here.[2] The concept of 'sense of place' attends to individual and social interactions through which places gain their significance (Creswell, 2015). Within the concept of sense of place, we have the symbolic ‘place meanings’ (McLachlan, 2009; Eaton et al., 2019; Devine-Wright and Batel, 2017) and the bonds of ‘place attachments’ (Devine-Wright and Howes, 2010; Stedman, 2002; Kudryavstev et al., 2012). Sense of place also develops when place is considered as 'chronotope' (i.e. time-place): it is shaped by and shapes the identity of people and dialogical transactions (conversations) within it (Van Eijck and Roth, 2010). Here, place is not simply a location, it is dynamic and unfolding through time, a narrative of experiences. This makes me think of post-structuralism and I would like to understand how the various theories under this philosophical umbrella could be used to unpack this idea of ‘chronotope’.[3]

Considering ‘landscape’ and ‘place’, the geographies of renewable energy present challenges for achieving a ‘just’ energy transition. From a distributional perspective, rural areas are well-suited, technically speaking, to host renewable energy infrastructure, and have been bearing the brunt of material changes associated with energy transition (McCarthy, 2015). From a procedural perspective, institutions residing in urban centres or ‘cores’ are making decisions that affect rural outskirts or ‘peripheries’ (Poupeau, 2019; Murphy & Smith, 2013; Zografos & Martinez-Alier, 2009). This phenomenon was experienced in Ontario in 2009 when the Green Energy Act – passed in the province’s capital Toronto – circumvented rural municipalities’ authority to regulate renewable energy projects (Fast, 2015). From a recognitional perspective, rural areas are now facing a form of stigmatization whereby renewable energy developers discursively devalue rural areas as a way to position them as the obvious choice for renewable energy projects (Rudolph & Kirkegaard, 2019).

I use the concept of environmental justice as a lens through which to better understand these challenges as this concept considers the distribution of social impacts of resource and environment related activities. Recently, research in the area of energy justice has emerged to address the distribution of social impacts of energy systems. Both of these call for increased public participation as a way to address injustice (see Jenkins, 2018; Reed & George, 2011).

[1] Implicitly, here, we have the importance of temporal scales. [2] There is a conceptual tension between the ideas of ‘landscape’ and ‘place’ that, I think, relates to the idea that all landscapes are places but not all places are landscapes. Landscapes are material representations of process, of contrived land-use plans. Place, and certainly, ‘sense of place’ is oriented in human understandings and interactions. There is a lot to unpack here using post-humanism. For example, would this help explain why ‘landscape’ is imagined as ‘displaced’ from the viewer? What would Braidotti (2020) say of landscape, place, and human resistance to the renewable energy technology meant to curtail negative impacts of climate change?) [3] The first sentence of Paul Harrison (2006)’s chapter “Poststructuralist Theories” is not particularly encouraging of this endeavour: “Like all ‘isms’, ‘poststructuralism’ is an awkward term and one which continues to generate more confusion, frustration, argument and outright anger than most.” (p. 122). I consider myself forewarned and will be aware of ‘affect’ as I explore this area in the future!

The figure below illustrates how these concepts and ideas are connecting with and considering one other to inform the central guiding question:

Whose values are represented spatially?


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