PAP 65 : From production to consumption, reclaiming the landscapes of sectors to influence the collective choices that drive them

Auréline Doreau, April 2023

Le Collectif Paysages de l’Après-Pétrole (PAP)

With a view to ensuring the energy transition and, more generally, the transition of our societies towards sustainable development, 60 planning professionals have formed an association to promote the central role that landscape approaches can play in regional planning policies. In this article, Auréline Doreau, agronomist and head of Energy and Territories projects at CLER - Réseau pour la transition énergétique (Network for Energy Transition), discusses the issue of « sector landscapes » and the effects/impacts, on a planetary scale, of the consumption of industrialised and wealthy societies in environmental and social terms.

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The economic sectors that ensure the production of the goods we consume are part of so many landscapes: at the basis of our food uses, different types of fields and farms, markets of national interest, roads, storage areas and finally supermarkets. These elements of a landscape chain appear to us as distinct, without us usually perceiving the overall logic. Far from these familiar spaces, our uses have sometimes considerable social and environmental impacts in the countries where the raw materials that make up the products we consume are harvested, processed and transported. The whole chain forms a landscape of supply chains, the main costs of which are paid by the local players. This distribution of production processes is the source of carbon emissions that are destabilising the earth’s climate. To remedy these harmful consequences of our lifestyles, can the landscape, a critical diagnostic tool, become a lever for mobilisation and management? At a time when the planet is being over-consumed by the richest countries, we urgently need to equip ourselves with perceptive tools whose emotional impact will enable us to accelerate the transformation of our lifestyles and establish territories that are more sober, more harmonious and more sustainable.

From the production of materials to the construction of living environments

Landscapes of metals

The metals that are essential to the manufacture of smartphones, cars and other electronic devices are extracted from mines that are most often located outside Europe, in countries where employment conditions remain deplorable: child labour, extremely poor safety conditions, low wages, major health problems, not to mention other social impacts such as expropriation. Mining also causes considerable environmental damage, reducing biodiversity and polluting water and soil, as illustrated by Laura Pandelle’s drawing of the effects of mining in French Guiana 1.

Once manufactured and purchased, digital objects made from these materials invade everyday landscapes and transform the ways in which humans appreciate their contours 2. Sober consumption is essential if we are to limit these dramatic consequences. But how can we move from a society that is greedy for the renewal of objects that use increasingly concentrated mining products to one that reduces consumption and reuses objects?

Food landscapes

Agriculture produces animals and plants, which are the main source of food for humans. It is difficult to know what journeys the ingredients of a dish we cook at home have made. Similarly, the small number of players in the distribution sector and the complexity and compartmentalisation of its organisation mean that farmers are often poorly paid, poorly recognised and sometimes blamed for the harmful consequences of agro-industrial systems of which they are only one link. What’s more, they are increasingly isolated and in distress as a result of farming methods that they often no longer choose, the increase in farm size and the decline in the number of farmers 3. On the other hand, direct systems from field to fork help to raise awareness of agricultural issues and environmental needs. But these are still few and far between in France, where the distribution of short-distance products represents less than 10% of the market 4. Relocation and the associated territorial solidarity are one of the vectors of a desirable evolution in French agriculture, aimed at improving the environmental quality of the sectors through better complementarity between agriculture and livestock farming, for example, but also to ensure the dynamism of rural areas. Generalising a diversity of crops in each region will help to put an end to the standardisation of landscapes, which today are commonly characterised by monocultures, and will limit territorial inputs. Regional landscapes will become more complex and interdependent as a result of the many interrelationships between living beings and natural elements recreated locally.

Energy landscapes

Moving, building, heating or communicating: most human activities consume energy. A series of physical structures are needed to produce it: hydroelectric dams, oil extraction sites, nuclear power stations and associated uranium mines, and wind turbines. The installation of these devices in landscapes and sites causes more or less commotion depending on the relevance of the technical proposal, but also on the cultural and social context of their installation, the publicity given to them, the density of their presence in the local metropolitan area, the intensity of the energy service provided, and whether or not the local population has been able to participate in the governance of the projects. Elected representatives and local residents generally have no idea of the staggering amounts of energy they consume directly or as a result of their lifestyle. Our more or less chosen digital uses, for example, make use of data centres and associated networks, which consume considerable amounts of energy, are not clearly perceived in space, and are generally not subject to shared governance and planning 5. Beyond the necessary assessment of consumption levels, the debate would undoubtedly be clearer if we took into account the origin of the energy sources that shape our landscapes. In France, fossil fuels and nuclear power dominate the national energy mix. Petrol stations and the emblematic architecture of power station cooling towers are clear examples of this. But it is not the Paris basin that supplies the oil consumed in the country, any more than the uranium mines of Brittany or the Massif Central ensure the operation of our power stations. Uranium comes from Niger, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Australia, where the landscape is impacted by mining activities in ways that are generally unknown to us.

Faced with this situation, some regions are trying to reclaim their energy systems and the way in which they impact on the places where they live. This is the case of positive energy territories, or TEPOS, which are developing territorial energy systems by working to control their consumption and installing renewable energies. This approach, which includes all sectors of activity (town planning, agriculture, industry, mobility, transport, etc.), calls for a holistic vision of the region. Little by little, the TEPOS are transforming their energy landscape, of which they are increasingly aware and proud, because they are cushioning energy crises 6. Although we have no control over time or the scale of evolution of natural landscapes, we do have a collective responsibility for the forms of our human settlement in line with social time and its representations. In order to assess the quality of the proposed infrastructure solution, it is therefore the duty of the organisers of the public debate to show how a new infrastructure will fit into the socio-environmental balance, inevitably modifying the sensitive perception of the territory 7. Reducing our consumption will certainly reduce the harmful consequences 8. But it is difficult for us to perceive the paths by which we are supplied, and the fact that electricity is sold in France below cost encourages us to consume large quantities. In order to establish a better balance between our uses and the landscapes that support them, it will be useful to use landscape representation tools 9 to consider the logics of the sectors induced by human consumption. These make it possible to imagine and then produce other types of landscape in order to establish lasting harmony between humans and non-humans on earth.

Reclaiming landscapes

There are a number of initiatives designed to raise awareness of the way in which food supply chains operate. The landscapes created by what we consume are identified when they appear on the labels of wines or certain cheeses. Representations of terroirs help us to identify the places of origin of different foods, even if the landscapes are not always faithfully represented and processing and transport are forgotten. In addition, tools for traceability and promoting local, organic or fair-trade quality have been available for decades for a range of products. In order to go further and participate in the political choices made by the industry, participatory guarantee systems (PGS) such as Nature et Progrès guarantee quality criteria and their sharing between producers and consumers 10. At various levels of participation, these supply chain identifications are a lever for aligning the territories of production with those of consumption.

If we are to commit ourselves to more sustainable supply chains and succeed in consuming less, we can assume that labelling systems, by making it easier to understand the origin of the product, would restore a symbolic value to energy. In the same way that Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) mention the origin of certain products as a guarantee of their quality, the energy produced by a region could be identified as such in the name of the quality of the landscapes where and under what conditions it is produced. When people are involved in a local energy production system, energy is perceived as more precious and they consume less of it 11. This is the case with energy communities, now enshrined in European law and translated into French law: interested parties (citizens, businesses, local authorities) own the means of production, distribution, storage and end use of energy 12. The installation of collective self-consumption energy systems, such as village photovoltaic power plants, not only helps to keep costs under control, but also enables committed local residents to improve their living environment by taking back control of the technology and governance of these facilities.

How can we obtain the energy we need to meet our human needs without compromising the planet’s overall equilibrium? Identifying the paths of the different forms of energy and depicting them in the landscape is one way of ensuring that, in a given area, the actors and consumers reappropriate the subject of the energy they have or need. In this way, the landscape, as a tool and the result of these choices, could provide an effective collective learning tool for identifying useful changes and motivating people to undertake them.

Composite landscapes to be negotiated

Numerous initiatives make it easier to understand the landscapes of the various sectors and show how people have transformed them: for example, the Appalachian Trail proposed by Benton MacKaye (1879-1975) 13. Other more recent walking initiatives, such as the Parliament of the Loire, the GR13, the metropolitan trails or the post-oil crossings, aim to help people discover the different strata of place-making. These (un)walks through the same landscape, for the duration of the stroll, enable visitors and local players to meet and discuss the area’s genesis, the different moments in its evolution and its desirable future. Landscape walks provide an opportunity to question the landscapes we consume and to forge links between urban and rural dwellers. If the various local players who contribute to the existence of a landscape are to be able to influence its future, a decisive step is to create spaces for critical reading that bring together these various publics and the experts in the sectors, so that together they can reappropriate an understanding of what exists. What better way of sharing experiences and debating the various possible developments in the spaces we have in front of us? To get a grip on our living spaces and change their configuration, technical experiments bringing together energy specialists, landscape architects and local players have mobilised stakeholders around the evolution of the dams on the Marchal plateau 14. The aim of these meetings and the critical readings of energy landscapes that they collectively produce is to imagine the transformations in landscapes that would be brought about by changes in our uses, and to map them out in great detail. Landscape tools can be used to translate political choices about production and supply into spatial consequences. Prospective scenarios can thus be proposed, illustrated by evocative graphic elements constructed by landscape designers. In addition, the Collectif PAP’s ETAPE paysage tool can be used to spatialise an area’s quantified energy ambitions, and thus put them into landscape form 15. In order to translate these projections into public policy, landscape plans on a territorial scale can include specific themes, such as energy, in the image of the « energy transition » landscape plans. Their content will be taken into account in urban planning documents. These tools, which work on local energy supplies, help to give public power back to everyone and revive everyone’s political involvement. Today, we would like to see landscape plans become widespread, particularly in relation to energy issues, with strong objectives for energy management and the installation of renewable energy sources, because they are a decisive lever for transition. To implement them, the continued presence of local landscape engineering is decisive, as has been the case for the last thirty years in the Bruche valley.

At a time when we are only just beginning to become aware of the way in which our consumerist practices have disrupted the planetary environment and the various human societies, the ambition of society’s ability to regain control of the areas in which it lives anticipates the way in which concerted planning techniques for post-oil landscapes can generate desired and shared landscapes at local level in the future. In the reorganisation of their living spaces, local residents can play a part in mobilising for new uses, on the basis of a shared vigilance that will inspire the institutional initiatives needed to transition our societies towards economic, social and environmental sustainability at all scales. Numerous initiatives, for the time being interstitial, are demonstrating how symbolic value can be placed on places over which we have collective control, in the manner of the management of the commons described by Elinor Ostrom. In this way, we could become local « compaysages », companions with whom we share the landscapes we experience, and with whom we decide how they evolve.

  • 1 This fresco is from issue 12 of the touring magazine of enquiry and social criticism Z. In this issue, produced in French Guiana on the eve of the opening of a huge open-cast gold mine in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, the Z team traces the historical and critical continuities between mining extractivism, the post-colonial legacy and the technological rush to space. In addition to the 200 pages of investigation, stories and decoding articles, this poster offers a dream of abandoning mining capitalism and rediscovering a world of trees. Revue Z - Editions de la dernière lettre. Drawing: Laura Pandelle.

  • 2 See « des métaux dans mon smartphone », Systext, 2017.

  • 3 The risk of suicide is 43% higher among MSA beneficiaries than among all beneficiaries of other social security schemes, cf info stat presse de la MSA, 2021.

  • 4 See the note from the Pays de la Loire Chamber of Agriculture « Circuits court: quelle part dans la consommation alimentaire dans la production régionale?", June 2020.

  • 5 See the study « L’impact spatial et énergétique des data-centers sur les territoires » C. Diguet and F. Lopez, 2019.

  • 6 See the TEPOS tribune « The energy crisis: TEPOS resist », September 2022.

  • 7 This requirement is enshrined in the Environmental Dialogue Order of 3 August 2016: « In the case of a project with a significant impact on the environment, the opportunity and objectives of the project, as well as the analysis of alternative solutions, including (…) the lack of implementation, are also subject to public participation ».

  • 8 Those of oil are extraction at high environmental and sometimes social cost, the ever-increasing artificialization of land to move vehicles that are ever less full and ever larger, such as SUVs, and social disparities in access to the resource of « travel ». In the case of nuclear power, the real cost of the facilities, the risks involved, and the long-term management of high-risk waste.

  • 9 See Laure Dobigny’s thesis, Quand l’énergie change de main : socio-anthropologie de l’autonomie énergétique locale au moyen d’énergies renouvelables en Allemagne, Autriche et France, 2016.

  • 10 The Biovallée project in the Drôme region aims to develop agricultural activity that is compatible with natural resources and meets basic human needs in terms of drinking water, leisure activities, etc. A participatory approach has been put in place. A participatory approach has been put in place to design the corresponding landscapes, as well as collective governance of land use methods. See the analysis of diversified and territorialised agriculture in « Caractérisation socio-économique des formes d’agriculture durable », Plumecocq et al., 2018. The legal dimension of these landscape constructions is not often considered but is important for developing this type of management system.

  • 11 « I plug in my washing machine if the wind turns the turbine ». See Laure Dobigny’s thesis, cited above.

  • 12 See the article « Energy communities, where do we stand?", CLER 2022.

  • 13 Beginning in 1921, this American forester and thinker proposed a project experimenting with a new way of living, travelling and exchanging along a 3510 km trail that crosses the vast territory of the Appalachian chain from Georgia to Maine. MacKaye’s plan was to include reception, rest and production facilities, mainly agricultural, so that visitors to the trail would understand the interdependence between the management of natural resources and employment, or the conservation of ecosystems and the physical and mental well-being of human beings. In this way, they would have been encouraged to get involved locally through walking or agricultural production. A visionary project imbued with the spirit of popular education, the political dimension of the project was stripped away at the time of its implementation and reduced to a leisure footpath, since the agricultural refuges along the trail, which were intended to enable walkers to discuss the overall development of the area, were never built.

  • 14 The study carried out by landscape architect Laurian Gascon, Les ouvrages hydroélectriques du plateau de Marchal (The hydroelectric works on the Marchal plateau), has enabled the complex works to be upgraded through landscape design, particularly around the lakes, while preserving the ecology of the environments and encouraging heritage walks. This study is part of the action research proposed by the « Landscape and Energy » chair at the École nationale supérieure de paysage de Versailles-Marseille.

  • 15 This tool is used by local authorities to draw up their landscape plan for the energy transition, as is the case in the Hautes-Vosges community of municipalities.