Landscape and welfare economy: can landscape renew the welfare economy?

Landscape Dimensions - Reflections and proposals for the implementation of the European Landscape Convention

Joaquín Romano, avril 2017

This study, carried out by Joaquín Romano, expert to the Council of Europe, examines the links between landscape, as conceived by the European Landscape Convention, and the main objectives of the economy: social welfare, job creation, availability of public goods and public structures, in order to get closer to the real concerns of European societies and to make progress in the knowledge of the risks caused by the disconnection between economy and landscape, as well as the opportunities generated by their union.

The term well-being is commonly used in various contexts and, in a way, this has allowed it to acquire an infinite number of meanings that go beyond the simple fact of feeling good. Well-being comprises physical and psychic dimensions, both subjective and objective, which include emotional aspects, both personal and collective perceptions. What explains the success of its diffusion is that this notion gives a meaning to life, a reason, a fundamental orientation. To be or not to be is only the necessary part of the question but seems insufficient, as human beings aspire to enjoy a dignified quality of life.

In the field of economics, generally dedicated to the administration of resources to satisfy human needs, well-being is so important that it characterises one of the most developed currents in economics: the economics of well-being. This goes beyond economics and extends to the fields of social and political organisation as well as to ecological processes. Landscape is part of these processes in that it helps to understand this transcendence. The economics of well-being has undergone an essentially disciplinary evolution, conducted with the aim of demonstrating the objectivity of its propositions, so that the subjective nature of the term has meant its partiality, limitations and failures. The history of welfare has been written largely through this pessimism and failures linked to disinterest or the will to ignore and value judgements. In other words, a whole series of factors, contexts and subjective aspects that are very much part of the landscape, and which in practice have proved to be much more relevant in economic terms than what some of the most renowned economists have developed in their models and theories.

Originally, the pioneers of classical economics in the 18th and 19th centuries confused welfare with wealth, identifying human egoism as the driving force behind society’s economic well-being and thus offering an aggregate view of welfare without reference to the landscape.

Later, the marginalist current brought a different conception of social welfare by identifying it with the efficient allocation of resources via the free market. In this neoclassical stream, landscape is not considered as a resource linked to a specific market, or, when mentioned, it is associated with one of the market failures.

A whole literature has developed on this subject, which deals with the conditions of public intervention to remedy these failures, and which focuses on the objective of efficiency and, to a lesser extent, equity. These neo-liberal currents have been challenged by Keynesianism, given the limitations it places on public intervention in times of crisis. John Maynard Keynes (1936), in his famous General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, put it this way:

« The enlargement of the functions of the state, which is necessary for the reciprocal adjustment of the propensity to consume and the incentive to invest, would seem to a nineteenth-century publicist or to an American financier of today a horrible offence against individualistic principles. On the contrary, this enlargement seems to us to be the only way to avoid a complete destruction of the present economic institutions and as the condition for a happy exercise of individual initiative (…). Contemporary authoritarian regimes seem to solve the problem of unemployment at the expense of individual freedom and efficiency. It is certain that the world will not long endure the state of unemployment which, apart from short intervals of boom and bust, is a consequence, and in our opinion an inevitable consequence, of individualism as it appears in the modern capitalist regime. But a correct analysis of the problem makes it possible to remedy the evil without sacrificing freedom or efficiency. Keynes (1936).

The remedy to the disease of liberalism proposed by Keynes is known as the welfare state, which justifies public intervention to extend to all citizens the security of access to certain essential goods and services and the institutionalisation of social rights by guaranteeing a series of employment-related services.

The welfare state has succeeded in reducing social conflict by turning the state into an arbiter and is recognised as one of the major achievements of the 20th century. However, the welfare state opens up another debate among authors: for some, it represents an alternative to neo-liberalism, conceding to the state a primordial role in the economy as a guarantor of social security in the face of the recognised risks of the markets; for others, who seek to go beyond the opposition between Keynesians and marginalists in the definition of the role of the public sector in the economy, it is simply a change that allows the welfare economy to be sustained in the face of social and ecological failure.

Given the predominance of welfare economics in public policy, which has alternated between Keynesian and neo-liberal tendencies, there is a need for deep reflection to promote its revival. This can effectively serve to ensure that decisions based on an effective and substantial social projection are able to recognise other basic forms of integration of economic activity than that of exchange or the market, such as reciprocity, redistribution or self-production; all of these have been decisive in the formation of landscapes, and without them the interpretation of the landscape is emptied of its content.

If the contribution of landscape to social welfare is analysed following orthodox methodologies, which is equivalent to interpreting landscape as a good whose associated market management meets the objectives of efficiency and equity, many questions emerge that highlight not so much the imperfections of this market, but the limits of this interpretation in the management of landscapes to recognise them as an integral part of welfare:

And so on, a long list of questions, which are not alien to the economy and its evolution.

In the face of the lack of satisfactory answers to these questions by the current welfare economy, at least from an ethical and ecological point of view, other notions related to welfare are proposed: thus, quality of life, in all its domains, adds to the analysis subjective information, such as the perceptions that the individual has in his or her own life, which are influenced and affect social relationships and ties.

Insofar as people’s aspirations lead them to preserve the landscape, they should be considered to understand that they perceive well-being and quality of life in a very different way from that proposed by the welfare economy. This is because what has just been mentioned is based on the belief that there is a lack of well-being in terms of quality of life, which is what happens if people see themselves as individuals. This leads them to search individually for what they lack.

On the other hand, according to the landscape economy, all characteristics of collective identity are valued. People are made aware of what they have and how they are part of their environment and culture, which encourages them to cooperate in order to preserve it.

Quality of life, if it is really to improve the interpretation of the notion of social well-being, must be understood as a concept inseparable from that of the « landscape quality objective » contained in the Convention, which « refers, for a given landscape, to the formulation by the competent public authorities of the aspirations of the public with regard to the landscape characteristics of their environment ». The public’s aspirations include the preservation of the cultural, tangible and intangible heritage of communities, respect for other cultures and different ways of thinking, inherent in the diversity and richness of landscapes, and holistic care for nature.

In this field of analysis, landscape shows its economic relevance. It emerges as a key element in the renewal of economic theories in the service of this objective of social well-being, as it facilitates the understanding of well-being on a multiple spatial and temporal scale. It recovers the value of local vernacular economies as an essential part of culture, in the face of trends that lead to its dissolution in this context of ‘megamarkets’. In global markets, the role of citizens is reduced to that of producer and consumer, and they lose their sense of responsibility for the negative impacts and externalities they cause by extending inefficient and unequal behaviour, inhibiting social well-being even in its most economistic dimension: for one to win, many must lose. Taking the landscape into account helps us to produce and consume immaterial values, developing the economy of people, as citizens who guarantee social well-being, in the face of the dominant economy of objects, which condemns us to dissatisfaction.

It is also essential that the economy integrates into its methodologies and practical applications qualitative evaluations, which are numerous in the field of landscape, and which offer a significant knowledge of reality and are more suitable for measuring social well-being and quality of life, as well as for facilitating exchanges of experiences and methodologies. In incorporating them, one must unabashedly assume these methodological difficulties linked to the subjectivity they introduce. Attempts to eliminate this complexity generally lead to a ranking of individual preferences, which results from value judgements translated into utility, which are very difficult to measure since the satisfaction produced by the consumption of a good depends on multiple personal and collective factors for which the supposed rigour leads to a loss of realism and confidence in the results. There are countless examples of how far objectivity can go.

For example, it is possible to recognise objectively that the village of Ushguli, located in the Caucasus at 2,200 metres, is the highest inhabited village in Europe, but comparing the level of well-being and quality of life of its inhabitants seems not only risky but unwise, since it implies applying identical value judgements to very different cultures. And even within a single culture, gender, generational and many other characteristics may lead to very different valuations that cannot be aggregated into a single result. And policies that are based on a single judgment carry risks such as exclusion.

When wealth indices, which reflect profit levels, are compared with quality of life indicators in European regions, the heterogeneity of these objectives becomes apparent. According to Eurostat data, Inner London is the richest region in the European Union, in terms of income per capita, with incomes more than three times higher than the average and, moreover, has very high urbanisation indices. However, this supremacy is not reflected in the quality of life, and the inhabitants of this region are increasingly making demands such as support for the creation of new cultivable spaces or urban vegetable gardens, in order to recover traditional activities that provide quality food, to restore land degraded by urban pressure, and to preserve and perceive the rural evocation of these places. Based on an economic form of self-production, these vegetable gardens do not produce a commercial profit and the conventional economy is therefore not able to recognise their concrete usefulness, i.e. their contribution to social well-being. And when it does so by indirect methods, it can lead to absurd results, such as estimating the utility of self-consumption of a vegetable grown in expensive urban soil as much higher than the utility that would have been obtained if the vegetable had been grown in low-priced agricultural soil.

Without taking landscape values into account, the economy has difficulty in recognising individual and collective utility in activities that are carried out without a profit motive but which nevertheless offer recognised external benefits. This can be seen in the case of Inner London, where the replacement of degraded urban soils with traditional vegetable gardens produces a social utility that begins with their contemplative value. The people who have contributed to this transformation like to talk about their achievements with those who enjoy admiring them, thus uniting utilities without leading to material benefit, characteristic of a system of reciprocity. The importance that the social economy sector has acquired in recent years in Europe by starting to be formally considered is an example of the real recognition of the reciprocity economic system, even if its concept and scope are still somewhat unclear. In Europe, the percentage of the adult population working as volunteers in this sector has been growing steadily, and a comparative analysis of the countries of the European Union allows us to observe the correlation between this percentage, the level of development of the State, its capacity to resist the economic crisis and its concern for the landscape in its many manifestations. The Netherlands is a good example, with the highest percentage of volunteers (57%). This state, based on the « polder » model of economic and social consensus, combines one of the highest levels of wealth per capita in Europe with a high degree of social homogeneity and very low unemployment since the 1980s.

The origins of this polder model are closely linked to the unique Dutch territory, which since the Middle Ages has shown a very efficient management of water levels, which has allowed the development of a consensus economy between water management agencies, farmers and environmental groups, among others, with very different interests. This mutual understanding, affirmed in a voluntary manner, has characterised the Dutch landscape and has become indispensable in preventing the Netherlands from being flooded again. The State’s consideration for the landscape has now led to the integration of territorial policies and strengthened coalitions between social agents, making the success of these policies possible.

Numerous experiences in Europe show the capacity of the landscape to integrate the contribution of non-profit activities to the welfare economy, including those that satisfy vital needs but also those that define the cultural links that give identity to communities. These are the result of cooperation, not competition, and show the human capacity to maintain economic relationships based on values other than selfishness. It is by looking at the landscape that one understands that the well-being of people is not only the result of their economic production. Well-being also results from the creation by the population of an intangible heritage and a feeling of belonging to a place and to an active community, locally located in a physical space, a part of the territory. It is also the creator of a culture that is open to other values, which are perceived through the landscape. The awareness « of civil society, private organisations and public authorities of the value of landscapes, their role and their transformation » promoted by the Convention is the seed of this culture of well-being based on collective values such as solidarity, social responsibility, altruism, social justice, respect for differences and social, economic and ecological diversity - biodiversity -, contrasting social, ecological and economic co-operation with competition.

These values also represent the foundations of social cohesion, defined as the capacity of a society to ensure the well-being of all its members, to reduce disparities and avoid marginalisation. This is recognised by the Council of Europe and the European Union, whose experience in defining social cohesion policies and indicators is an international reference, as one of their priorities. Despite these advances in terms of social cohesion, many social cohesion objectives remain unfulfilled challenges.

The five main challenges identified by the High Level Task Force on Social Cohesion in the 21st Century are: globalisation, demographic change, increasing migration and cultural diversity, political change and economic and social change, and the recognition of and struggle to preserve social cohesion. These challenges are more relevant than ever in today’s Europe and reveal that problems of social cohesion persist and even worsen with the current economic crisis (Council of Europe, 2007). The Council of Europe’s New Strategy and Action Plan for Social Cohesion, approved by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 2010, provides a rationale for a strategy for social cohesion in the 21st century: « Social cohesion is a dynamic process and an indispensable condition for social justice, democratic security and sustainable development. Divided and unequal societies are not only unjust, they cannot guarantee long-term stability. (Council of Europe, 2010). This argument is reinforced in the landscape, and should be properly reflected in economic activities.

This has important negative repercussions in the rural world, which continues the process of destructuring initiated by the mechanisation and industrialisation of agriculture, but also in urban areas, where forms of reorganisation by social classes and ethnic groups are more observable, contributing to accentuating social differences and creating important problems of co-existence. Certain activities such as tourism, and in particular rural tourism, have been remarkably involved in the protection of landscapes, promoting both the well-being of visitors who enjoy these traditional « scenes » and the development of new economic activities, supporting the maintenance of certain activities threatened with disappearance, generally artisanal, and of local products, thus creating employment while maintaining the population.

However, these economic strategies based on the tourism market incorporate a very small dimension of the landscape. It is obvious that this rural culture needs the public and public support to keep itself alive. But its sustainability cannot depend on those who seek the ephemeral enchantment of those postcard views sometimes confused with its landscape. Something as important as the future cannot depend on a tourism that creates an uncertain market, because this would extend this uncertainty to all that deep rural culture that represents the expression of the popular, ancestral heritage bequeathed through the centuries, and the heart of a living landscape, both in the daily activities and in the memory, the looks, the thoughts, the spirit and the feelings that, contained in the soul of each peasant, have made this collective identity grow, making each territory an essential point of reference. The transdisciplinary approach of the Convention makes it possible to direct growing economic activities, such as tourism, towards taking into account the ethnographic, anthropological and ecological dimensions of the landscape in the interpretation given to visitors. This broadens and transforms into substance the mere presentation of heritage « as is ». Interpretation can be defined as « the art of giving meaning to a place or territory » for its recognition, use and enjoyment, which allows its conservation as a legacy for future generations (Santamarina Campos, 2008). With this approach, tourism is moving towards ecotourism in its most authentic dimension.

This enriching potential of the landscape is not limited to tourism, but can be extended to, and understood as, a range of economic activities. Indeed, many of them are very much linked to the process of social construction of the landscape, in its physical or material aspects as well as in its intangible ones. These daily activities make sense in the collective will of relationship they build. They preserve their values, which range from exchange to self-production, redistribution and reciprocity. Without these collective values, we would only be able to maintain landscapes in a formal way, as we would take away their original meanings and introduce new ones that people would no longer recognise. Traditions would be replaced by « cultural spectacles » that could be seen anywhere in the world. We would then perceive the landscape only as a market product, denatured and destined to end like any other market element. With landscape, the desire for well-being is seen as a necessity that must transcend the individual and lucrative level, without becoming the result of an imposed order, whether by markets or by authorities. It arises from the understanding that the personal and collective perceptions that define landscapes all embody values that make possible communication, social cohesion and interpersonal relationships, as well as those with the natural environment, essential for sustainable development.


In conclusion, the interpretation of landscape proposed by the European Landscape Convention « bridges the gap » towards the economy so that it can promote a context adapted to the ecological scenarios and cultures of each territory, the safeguarding of which must shape private and public, individual and collective actions, starting from and beyond the markets and the powers that represent them. Insofar as this renovation of the economy is carried out, favoured by taking into account the landscape dimension of the territories, citizens develop a « culture of cultures » that contributes to promoting the diversity of perceptions of their territories and to reducing the inequalities that threaten social cohesion. This renewal strengthens democracy by giving the economy a humanism that best values each individual. It becomes a force that re-fuels well-being, employment and social life.


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