Energy transition can be seen represented as this island surrounded by hundreds of windmills.
English Tiededebatti

Earth and wind in the Anthropocene

Lukuaika: 11 min.

When grappling with large-scale or global issues, such as the environmental challenges of the present, it is important to highlight the geographical nuances and place-specific insights. Here we focus on the necessity of the energy transition to tackle climate change, more specifically the development of wind energy. In re-reading old ideas and future aspirations in this context, opportunities exist for envisioning the future differently and create alternatives to grand narratives and fix-all panaceas.

We find that focus on islands is a useful heuristic framework to grapple with what Jonathan Pugh and David Chandler refer to as “hegemonic, modern, ‘mainland’ or ‘one world’ thinking”. We use two examples.

One of these is the artificial islands that are to be created in the North Sea for the Dogger Bank Power Link project. It is a multinational mega-project that is expected to deliver substantial amounts of renewable energy to the mainland European power grid.

We contrast this with the existing island of Grímsey, off the north coast of Iceland. We discuss plans for this small island’s energy independence and how they are met by its inhabitants in the light of previous attempts at harnessing wind energy on the island. The idea of wind as a panacea for resolving Anthropocene challenges of global climate change is thrown into particularly sharp relief in these contrasting island contexts.

Energy transition can be seen in this picture as there is a windmill in front of a person.
The experimental windmill on Grímsey. Photo: Edward H. Huijbens

Zooming in

At a more national level, the strategies of Netherlands, Germany and Denmark – thoroughly linked to the European energy market and challenged with opposition to wind energy on scarce land – can be fruitfully contrasted with the Icelandic context. In the latter ‘green energy’ abounds and land is relatively plentiful. Yet Grímsey remains detached from these conditions, as is Iceland more generally from the European electricity market.

We find that, despite these contrasts, proponents of wind energy in both contexts justify their visions through generic rhetoric centred on the necessity of a transition to renewable energy in face of the global challenge of climate change. This global rhetoric is unable to fully take note of local or place-specific energy needs, desires, and imaginaries.

We want to emphasise how a range of solutions that are inspired by local needs, history, and place-specificity, can help facilitate a more healthy, profound, and ultimately sustainable energy transition.

Local aspirations and previous experiences and histories of energy transitions are often underexplored and get sidelined. This we warn against, and claim that the way forward will entail coming to terms with geographical specificities and dissonant knowledges and voices in different places.

The energy panacea

We addressed directly the unfolding large-scale debate of the necessity of an energy transition under the imperatives of climate change. We are indeed supportive of humanity moving away from its current addiction to the carbon economy.

However, we warn against employing the same kind of all-encompassing, panacea-oriented rhetoric which brought about the carbon economy in the first place to facilitate this transition. We want to emphasise how a range of solutions that are inspired by local needs, history, and place-specificity, can help facilitate a more healthy, profound, and ultimately sustainable energy transition. It can lead to a better future for all. 

Energy transition has not happened here as there are a generator and diesel tanks in the picture.
The village diesel generator on the Grímsey island. Photos: Karl Benediktsson

Entangled geographies

Our research stresses the continued role of geography among a growing spectrum of environmental research specialty fields. It demonstrates how the discipline cannot be sliced up into human, environmental and natural parts.

Indeed, all good geography brings home the entanglements of matter – earth, wind, fire and of course water too, to complete the four Aristotelian elements – with the minds and lived experiences of people who go about their lives in certain places.

Places consist not only of matter in itself, but also of imaginaries that reveal what is thought to matter, or what can come to matter — under the conditions of the Anthropocene.

Future imaginaries

With this text, we wanted to highlight the role and importance of geography, and reveal how place and context matters for the meeting future Anthropocene challenges. We want to draw attention to how places remain hybrid. Places consist not only of matter in itself. They also consist of imaginaries that reveal what is thought to matter, or what can come to matter – and be materialised – under the conditions of the Anthropocene.


Header photo: Dogger Bank Island Link island. Photo: Adam Vaughan

This Research Debate is based on the research article in Fennia: Huijbens, E. and Benediktsson, K. 2021: Earth, wind and fire: island energy landscapes of the Anthropocene. Fennia – International Journal of Geography, 199(2), 188-202.

Energy transition themed article by Edward H. Huijbens

Edward H. Huijbens

Huijbens (MA, PhD) is a geographer, graduate of Durham University in England. He is professor and chair of Wageningen University’s research group in cultural geography. Edward works on tourism and spatial theory, earthly attachments, issues of regional development, landscape perceptions, the role of transport in tourism and polar tourism. In his spare time he reads, bikes and enjoys good food and folk music.

Energy transition themed article by Karl Benediktsson

Karl Benediktsson

Benediktsson (MA, PhD) is Professor of Geography at the University of Iceland. His research and writings have touched on diverse topics, including rural development in Iceland; bicycling infrastructure in Reykjavík; animal geographies; politics of invasive life; and landscapes and imaginaries of renewable energy. In his spare time, he tends to drift out to the sea for fishing or head to the mountains for hiking. He also has a soft spot for late-Soviet post-punk music.

Energy transition themed commentary by Mark C. J. Stoddart

Mark C. J. Stoddart

Stoddart is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at Memorial University, with research interests in environmental sustainability, social movements, and communications and culture. He is the author of the book, Industrial Development and Eco-Tourisms: Can Oil Extraction and Nature Conservation Co-Exist? and his work has appeared in a wide range of international and Canadian interdisciplinary and sociology journals.

Towards inclusive, socially sustainable energy futures

Like Huijbens and Benediktsson, I share the starting point that climate change and other environmental crises require shifts towards decarbonisation. While the expansion of wind power is positive in many ways, the authors raise vitally important points about renewable energy and low-carbon transitions.

Beware of Energy Panaceas

First, they justly warn us to beware of energy panaceas. Wind is one example of such an energy panacea. Another example we can add to the list is large-scale hydroelectric development, which has also been justified by governments as a way of meeting climate change commitments.

However, hydro development imposes large-scale landscape change and may create new environmental risks for downstream communities, as well as have negative downstream impacts for wildlife and fish populations. In Canada, for example, these landscape transformations have provoked community resistance to hydro-projects including Site C in British Columbia, or Muskrat Falls in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Another example of an energy panacea is the transition to electric vehicles. While the transition away from fossil fuel-based transportation is necessary, electric vehicles also create new upstream impacts, in terms of mining and mineral sourcing, as well as downstream impacts, in terms of e-waste from eventual battery disposal. Without placing these renewable energy technologies in their broader social-ecological context, these energy panaceas will likely become examples of how today’s solutions can sow the seeds for tomorrow’s new problems.

Zooming In

Second, the authors provide the useful metaphor of zooming in to argue that local context matters. They remind us that when sustainability solutions are implemented from afar without meaningful community engagement, they risk generating resistance and conflict between competing social values.

An example of this is the high-profile Fosen Supreme court decision in Norway, which ruled that wind power development unjustifiably impinges on the cultural rights of Sami reindeer herders to maintain their traditional practices. This illustrates how failing to zoom in led to conflicts between competing values of low-carbon transitions and values of Indigenous recognition as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Futures and Imaginative Capacity

Third, energy transitions are intimately bound up with future imaginaries that reflect “what is thought to matter … and can be materialised.” The concept of future imaginaries raises important questions about who gets to have the political efficacy to imagine sustainable futures. Is this “imaginative capacity” (as per Arjun Appadurai) limited to policymakers, designers, or engineers of wind power? Or does this imaginative capacity extend to communities to help envision and implement what their sustainable futures should look like?

In conclusion, Huijbens and Benediktsson’s analysis of wind power illuminates three things vital for researchers, decision-makers, and practitioners to bear in mind as we respond to the imperative for climate action. First, we should retain a cautious and nuanced attitude towards energy panaceas. Second, we should practice zooming in from global sustainability frameworks to local community needs and interests. Third, we should work to make future imaginaries more inclusive and democratic if they are to be both socially and environmentally sustainable.


Energy transition themed commentary by Henner Busch

Henner Busch

Busch is an Associate Professor at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies in Sweden. He works on the justice aspects of energy and climate politics. In particular, he focuses on questions around community energy, fossil fuel phase-out, and carbon capture and storage.

Place-specificity matters but avoid the local trap!

Energy transitions must consider “geographical nuances and place-specific insights” write Edward H. Huijbens and Karl Benediktsson. I am sure that almost all researchers in the field of critical energy studies will fully agree with this statement and their passionate call to action.

However, Huijbens and Benediktsson leave some questions unanswered. I will zoom in on two of them:

First, why? Why does the local context matter? What mechanisms play out on the ground that make energy solutions embedded in a local context better?

Second, what conclusions shall we draw from this focus on the local? How do we transition to a more climate-friendly energy system while taking the local context into consideration?

In the following, I want to set their text in conversation with other research to critically interrogate their findings and explore ways forward for critical energy studies.

The importance of Justice

Starting with the first question: Huijbens and Benediktsson state that considering “local needs, history, and place-specificity can help a more healthy, profound, and ultimately sustainable energy transition”. This statement is confirmed by a lot of literature. However, the exact mechanisms of how this plays out stay unclear in their text.

Looking at previous and current publications on this, the simple answer is: Justice. If local needs, wants and knowledge are altogether ignored, local people will perceive an energy transition as unjust, and rightfully so. This matters for two reasons. First, there is an intrinsic value in achieving justice. Or put differently, “it is the right thing to do”.

Further, there is an instrumental reason for addressing justice concerns from local people. An energy transition will be met by much less resistance if it is perceived as fair. As researchers who engage with energy transitions, we should be upfront about this and engage actively with theories of justice. As a consequence, interdisciplinary work with, for example, philosophers or sociologists becomes essential.

”Local” does not mean vacuum

About the second question, exactly what role should local context play in energy transitions? Huijbens and Benediktsson write that the local context should “inspire” the process of designing and selecting solutions in an energy transition.

In principle, everyone will agree to this sentiment. But simultaneously, it bears the danger of “falling into the local trap”. That is to say that solutions based on local specificity are often uncritically preferred. However, local context and history is not always free from abusive practices that should not be perpetuated if we strive to improve human livelihoods.

Huijbens and Benediktsson also write about entanglement, which is a key point. This entanglement shows the limitations of a purely local approach to energy transitions. Local communities do not exist in a vacuum.

Picking the case of Grímsey might create such a notion, but even islands are nearly always connected to a wider energy system (the diesel for the generator probably comes from a refinery that is NOT on the island).

Thinking this further, we encounter a whole host of critical justice questions. Will we be able to supply everyone with clean renewable energy if all rural communities with great potential for wind power decide to only follow “local needs, history and place-specificity”? What local opportunities do the urban poor in Reykjavik or Akureyri have to develop their local renewable energy system? Put differently, if a place has great potential for wind, is it fair and just to follow the principles of self-sufficiency or even autarky and only produce the energy that is locally needed? Critical energy studies need to engage in a debate on these questions if we are to make a constructive contribution to the many unfolding energy transitions in Iceland or elsewhere.


Energy transition themed commentary by Sven Stremke

Sven Stremke

Stremke is a senior Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at Wageningen University. His research focuses on sustainable landscapes with special attention to energy transition. Sven’s research is published in 25+ scientific papers and 10+ book chapters. In 2022, Sven together with Dirk Oudes and Paolo Picchi published the Power of Landscape book.

Unsolicited dichotomies

“Earth, wind and fire: island energy landscapes of the Anthropocene” – quite an imaginary title for the initial research paper behind this Research Debate. It also presents an interesting contradictio in terminis. The paper argues for localized transition to renewable energy driven by active communities and responsive to local landscape characteristics. However, the first part of the title resembles the name of one of the first global and most-selling pop bands of all times.

The subtitle, immediately, reveals that the authors embrace the (new) reality of energy landscapes rather than lamenting at length whether or not some parts of our living environment can and should be referred to as energy landscape. The latter, unfortunately, has side-tracked many academics working on energy transition and continues to present an obstacle to the acceleration of much-needed knowledge creation and innovation for this particular transformative challenge of the 21st century.


Kenneth Olwig, author of “The Earth is Not a Globe: Landscape versus the ‘Globalist’ Agenda” will be delighted to see the work of Huijbens and Benediktsson. They follow his footsteps in narrating a dichotomy between global and local forces. The geographer Dan van der Horst and his colleague Saskia Vermeylen advanced Olwing’s conceptualization by contrasting what they called the “global moral economy of carbon” with the “local rights to landscape”. No doubt, the work of Huijbens and Benediktsson too draws on interesting cases, is insightful and most of all epitomizes the momentum of ‘energy geography’.

Yet, readers that are affiliated with the ‘practice’ of energy transition may remain empty handed. Question such as what can be done differently (or not) by the (prospective) local agents of energy transition and their communities at large remain unanswered. Admittedly, that reflection might be shaped by almost twenty years of research at the interface between academia and communities of practice.

At large, I can assure that they acknowledge the situation as rendered by Olwig, Van der Horst, Vermeylen, Huijbens, Benediktsson and others. But knowing ‘what can go wrong’ is far away from ‘knowing what to do’. The latter, indeed, depends on the former but there is a clear lack of immediate action perspectives.

Beyond these arguments, we should never underestimate the delight with which political decision makers and entrepreneurs will embrace notions of ‘deceleration’ and ‘slow transition’. They do it to cover up their incapacity to transit towards an economy that decouples from fossil fuels. A process in which they potentially need to bid farewell to the paradigm of unlimited economic growth.


This is exactly where scholars, practitioners and many others ought to collaborate. Together they should move beyond somewhat simplistic dichotomies that fail to acknowledge the genuine progress of many communities that have succeeded to reduce their carbon footprint to zero.

Anyhow, there are many exceptions to the ‘eco-modernist’ approach lamented by the authors. The Danish energy island of Samsø is amongst the communities that have received much attention over the past two decades. In that sense, the ‘eco-modernism’ also needs to be understood as one of (at least) four philosophical positions towards the Anthropocene: denialism, posthumanism and anthropocentrism 2.0 (see Clive Hamilton).

Interestingly, in our research on energy landscapes we experience, time and again, that the local landscape motivates communities to actively engage with the energy transition. Co-creative designing of (parts of) those landscapes is one way of responding to climate crises while becoming an active agent of the landscape change. In this process, one realizes that the current subsidy schemes and other policies are ill-suited to foster the more localized and rooted energy transition called upon by Huijbens and many others.

Together, we can identify obstacles and barriers, lock-ins and knowledge gaps. Only then the perceived dichotomies between the ‘global’ and the ‘local’ can be challenged. Hopefully, the dichotomies can be transformed into novel and action-oriented narratives to engage with the 21st century energy transition.


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