Rethinking landscapes (revisited)

Rethinking landscapes (revisited)

People have thought in sectors for so long – the agricultural sector, the mining sector, the water sector, the forestry sector for example – that we have become very good at compartmentalising things.  This perhaps isn’t such a surprise given the dominant values of scientific/economic analyses which underpins much research, policy-making and decision-making (and have done so for a very long time).

Think about how things would change if, instead of seeing things through the lenses of sectors, we saw things through the lenses of landscapes. And, even more, what if we saw landscapes as living things, with a whole lot of interconnections and relationships which make them living? And, one more thing, what if we applied some basic principles to landscapes – like the importance of biological and socio-economic diversity – to them?  How would our thinking change?


To begin with, we would start to see landscapes as mosaics of ecosystems, activities and communities. We wouldn’t see the mono-cultural landscapes of, say industrial agriculture as necessarily a positive thing.  We wouldn’t for example, see the decline in small rural communities and the increasing size of farms as an unfortunate side effect of the need to be ‘efficient’. We would be very careful with the way we did our logging, with the ways we protected our ecosystems and waterways and the ways we supported communities and their aspirations.  We would do all this because our starting point would be the need fordiversity, rather than the need for a narrowly defined ‘efficiency’.

This is not necessarily new.  Social and political ecologists have been saying this for a very long time.  People, communities and organisations have been developing plans and initiatives which embrace these ideas around the globe. And international conservation agencies have been incorporating landscapes into their programmes, research and activities to greater or lesser extent for the last decade or so.

To take some examples:

  1. originally the slow food movement was a reaction to the impacts of the culture and the agriculture of fast food.  It still does, though there are now many things called ‘slow food’ that perhaps don’t always embrace these fundamental values.
  2. small scale farms have been understood to have multiple functions in rural landscapes – production, social networks, ecosystem enhancement, inter-generational trusteeship of lands for example.  Therefore they’re important to diverse landscapes, and farmers can be important actors in this.
  3. the slow food movement itself has supported agro-biodiversity in various regions across Europe, and continues to do so.
  4. the development of local food networks in regions around the world have contributed to locally sustainable agriculture, movements to community self-reliance and cooperative agricultural production.  This doesn’t mean total self-sufficiency, but a different notion of ‘efficiency’.
  5. amenity landscapes use community and environmental markers to prioritise the importance of nature and culture for sustainable futures across landscapes and regions, not sectors.
  6. international conservation and development agencies increasingly use ‘nature-based solutions’ at local scales and landscape scales to support the integration of bio- and socio-cultural diversity.

The impacts of this shift in thinking could be profound. But there will need to be some significant reassessments of the assumptions in-built into our knowledge base and indeed to policy-making.  Social and political ecology can provide a foundation for this re-thinking. The challenge though is to engage with and advocate this in forums which use ‘good faith’ dialogues to collectively and creatively look for new ways of thinking and, through that, options for sustainable futures.