The First Fossil Free Welfare State? Swedish Petro-Dreams, Resistances, and Coastal Transformations, Walkshop by the Shadow Places Network in Lysekil, April 25-27, 2019.

The following are fragments of reflections from some of the participants of a walkshop held at Lysekil/ Fiskebäckskil organized by the Shadow Places Network, funded by the Seedbox: An Environmental Humanities Collaboratory.

The walkshop brought together 15 environmental scholars and artists from Sweden, Australia, Germany and the UK in conversations about the complex and fragile networks of connection and disassociation upon which the Swedish fossil fuel-free transition rest. Informed by Val Plumwood’s notion of ‘shadow places’, we problematized the social, ecological and economic relationships that sustain and make the idea of a Swedish fossil free welfare state possible.

Reflections of a political scientist… Aysem Mert

It is an amazing landscape –Fiskebäckskil took me by surprise. The large rocks and small islands floating on the calm, deep blue waters are barren, in stark contrast to the lush vegetation I am used to seeing more often in the archipelagos of Sweden. Having Claire [a visual artist] next to me affects this feeling of awe. She somehow sensitizes me to the extraordinariness of this space right upon arrival.

These rock formations make everything around them seem more striking. They are also one of the main reasons why Preemraff the oil refinery we visit the following day, happens to be in the neighbouring town of Lysekil. The refinery sits atop a hill, owned by the company, overlooking this lovely landscape. They could build caves under this hill, which function as the main depository for the oil arriving from Saudi Arabia, Russia, Norway and so on. Carried by tankers to Sweden, the oil then gets pumped up to the surface for daily production in the refinery. Just like the oil Preem refines, its stakeholders are also from out of this region: the only shareholder, Mohammed H. Al Amoudi, is a Saudi citizen of Ethiopian origin; the employees often come from outside the region; the board and executive directors reside mostly outside Lysekil, and the end-users are mostly Swedish residents (Preem is Sweden’s largest producer of fuel, producing half of all Swedish fuel consumed). Eva tells me that even the carbon emitted by the refinery is not under the jurisdiction of Lysekil or even Sweden: It is legislated by the European Emission Trading Scheme. Maybe the air pollution is only for the locals, I think, but then I notice the numerous summer cottages belonging to Göteborg and Stockholm folk…

The refinery looks almost pretty in its vibrant, naïve colour scheme for its buildings and the surrounding forest. The enterprise is committed to sustainability practices, we are told, and to the transformation of Sweden into a sustainable society. Considering most of the carbon is emitted by the end-user, though, there is only so much they can do, says the anxious sustainability officer we meet. I check later that Ms. Malin Hallin is Executive Vice President for Sustainable Development. I am not so lucky finding the PR manager who greeted us and saw us out of the refinery, counting our heads each time, and waiting in front of the restrooms if we needed to use them, just in case we wander off, I guess.

The space Preemraff seems to take up in the town’s self-understanding is reiterated by many others we meet I the course of the two-day workshop: “We have a love and hate relationship with the refinery” says the municipal officer we meet. “They scare people off, buy property off of their hands, and will most likely expand yet one more time,” says the activist who tells me that he has resisted this refinery for decades. The scientists talk about the fjord and the biological diversity it houses with sparkling eyes, before they mention that their circular economy projects largely aim to provide alternatives to the refinery’s core business or centrality for Lysekil.

These are not shadow places, Eva reminds us. This amazing landscape, the desirable summerhouses, and our wonderful walk into the forest are proof to that fact. This is one of ‘the nice places’. I know this. I should. But the more I stop gazing into the landscape in awe and talk to the people outside of the refinery, I am less certain of that conviction. I go back to the first time I read about shadow places, and find that sentence I really loved, on the critical ecological position Plumwood (2008) seemed to seek: “to be able to reflect on how nice (north) places and shadow (south) places are related, especially where north places are nice precisely because south places are not so nice.” I wonder if the north feels so nice with so much guilt feeling, if we always already feel the shadowiness of a place when we talk and walk with openness. Even without dwelling there, the twelve of us feel something and we also move things (stories, peoples, thoughts, and formations) around us. That is our shadow as researchers and thinkers, and artists and yet we cannot stop looking into this space of awkward distortions –where refineries are pretty, and the ocean is a factory.

Reflections of a climate governance researcher… Mareike Blum

The region around Fiskebäckskil is a beautiful and privileged place for recreation, in which we had the chance to learn more about how local actors are imagining a more sustainable future. I would like to sketch the three different perspectives of actors we were talking to: first, the local municipality was promoting the region as a hub for innovation, in which researchers and companies are developing the bio-based technologies of tomorrow. Second, marine scientists, who are investigating environmental pollution and ocean acidification, are committed in stimulating a broader public debate to avoid further biodiversity loss and climate change impacts. Third, the oil refinery ‘Preemraff’ paradoxically presented itself to us as the frontrunner in terms of sustainability. While not convincing me with its promises of technological fixes, I cannot oppose their argument that the high consumption of fuels is a main driver for the large amount of resulting greenhouse gas emissions. The diverse stories we heard were thought-provoking and brought me to the question what to think about Sweden’s way to address climate change. Sweden has one of the most ambitious climate targets and policies, which makes it more difficult to criticise. At the same time, Sweden (like other rich countries) is a very wealthy society whose average citizen lives a life in abundance. Hence, the Swedish lifestyle and economy heavily depend on ‘shadow places’ of production in a globalised, capitalist world. Such connections of dependency on distant places and the adverse impacts on more vulnerable countries should be made visible and requires further critical debate.

Reflections of an artist… Claire Healy

The location was incredibly remote and idyllic, a Swedish holiday destination that perhaps only the Stockholm elites could afford. Far from being a Shadow Place. Yet our timing -that being an off-peak visit- perhaps made it so. Although I was working outside of my comfort zone, I felt honored and privileged to have the opportunity to come together alongside acclaimed academics of their fields in Fiskebäckskil.

We meandered through the lonely waters upon a boat to view the picture-perfect houses lining the coastal waters. Uninhabited, awaiting activation, akin to a movie set (in fact was the setting for a Swedish soap opera). Painted reds, yellows, whites and blues, the place reminded me of one that Sean and I had just created atop a small aircraft, only our version is in miniature HO scale for our latest public art commission ‘Cloud Nation’.

Each morning I would awake early to walk and explore the area, a foreign landscape of rounded rock formations covered in a dry silvery moss, with seats tucked between the crags to contemplate the view below. At this hour the light was so golden; basking the scene with warmth. Jet streams lining the sky above, reminding me of my remote location and just how it is I happen to find myself in this place.

We were treated to the most exquisite Swedish seafood cuisine, the area is renowned for its abundant seafood. But it was not only from our dinner plates that we learn that the sea has so much to offer. The biomass of marine fatty acids has a huge potential for a sustainable future, as was revealed in our visit to Lovéncentret Kristineberg.

The walkshop allowed for an intimate discussion and a threading of ideas expanded into the next conversation as we rotated to the next speaker. Haunted by silent robotic lawn mowers, an eerie stillness and quiet descended upon our chatter and thinking; time for a ‘fika pause’.

Returning to the conference room, a serene view is juxtaposed against our presentations that consider Shadow Places, both local and afar. The exemplar: Fiskebäckskil, and Sweden as the first Fossil-free state, a deep connection starts to resonate amongst our cohort. A sense of urgency is felt as we realise that we all share many of the same concerns.

Through connection there is Hope.

Reflections of a science and technology scholar… Veronica Brodén Gyberg

We observed and experienced discourses with overlapping but quite different meanings and trajectories. Listening, watching and interacting, new understandings and questions grew. The conceptualization and questioning of the tight intertwinement between illuminated and shadow places demands careful treading, reflecting critically on the paths we take, the partners we choose, the questions we ask and the conclusions we draw.

Reflections of a cultural studies scholar and artist… Clifton Evers

My attendance at the Lysekil workshop involved a showing of my short film: Polluted Leisure. This film documents the adaptation to (or not) pollution by men undertaking leisure at a post-industrial site. It meditates on how they negotiate a petrochemical masculinity. The workshop widened and deepened of my thinking about what adaptation to a fossil fuel-free future could mean and what challenges will have to be faced, particularly for those so heavily invested in the petrochemical industry for their identity and modes of place-making. There was also the opportunity to explore the agency of the material environment – visually, sonically, and emotionally – and how it pertains to any such adaptation. Although, I would like more opportunities to do so at this highly relevant site. The lessons begun at the workshop are being used to further collaboration with others shadow places network members, particularly in terms of creatively populating a key words glossary for a website, co-writing a peer-reviewed journal article, and collaborating on a grant proposal. The workshop was a powerful and generative force for my learning more about a petrochemical present and alternative futures.  I am hoping to continue this process.

Reflections of a literary studies scholar… Emily Potter

Places are connected to other places in so many ways. These connections are enacted in multiple ways, too. One of these ways is through our minds. We draw poetic links between places we’ve known and places we’ve come to. We see new places in relation to those with which we are familiar. We experience places through our prior imaginings, as much as our embodied situation in them. This was striking to me, on our wonderful visit to Fiskebäckskil. Never having visited a Scandinavian country, my knowledge of Sweden was interlaced with the stories I’d encountered before my travels here; when I looked at the deep dark and wide water of the Gullmar fjord, I was seeing partly through my own archive of stories, my own assembled version of this place. This knowledge is, of course, reassembled in the experience of being here. But again, stories play a role. There is no ‘essence’ of place to know. Places shift and compose depending on the journeys we take through them, and the encounters and conversations we have.

This walkshop was always about elsewhere, too, and this is also how we know places – through the other places that move through, or open out to, from here. Our generative, multi-stranded, open-ended and explorative discussions made these places threads visible (not wholly, not in a revelatory sense) over the three days of our talking and journeying. As we met with some of the many actors who make Lysekil a place of complex climate change politics, and talked amongst ourselves, other places came into view: Stockholm, whose wealthy residents own much the empty, quiet real estate of Fiskebäckskil; the fjord floor, rich with marine life but also polluted, the Arctic, where ice sheet contamination has notably increased, and the many places around the globe where Preemraff’s oil is consumed. But also, for me, Australia came into view, connected by histories of extractivist imaginings that are deeply entangled in nationalist politics. How we dig for resources models a settler-colonial ideology and subjectivity that continues to structure our nation and puts us at arms-length from the progressive ambitions of Sweden and other states with fossil fuel-free futures in our sights. At the same time, there are always threads of connection. Nationalist dreams also sit at the heart of Sweden’s ambitions. The collective imaginings of the state are at work in the techno-materialist logics and plans of all fossil fuel (-free, or otherwise) futures.

Reflections of a human geographer… Fiona Miller[1]

Contrasting levels of ambitions – The workshop was framed around the challenges associated with realising a ‘fossil fuel-free future’, and Sweden’s recent commitment to achieving zero net-carbon emissions by 2045. The level of ambition between Sweden and Australia could not be starker. In contrast to Sweden daring to imagine a ‘fossil fuel-free future’, Australia’s commitment to the extraction of fossil fuels remains steadfast (see recent approval of Adani coal mine) whilst our carbon emissions continue to rise, and an effective emissions-reduction policy remains elusive. Yet, Sweden’s path to a ‘fossil fuel-free future’ is not without obstacle. The location of the workshop lies in the shadow of Scandianavia’s largest oil refinery – Preemraff – situated on the edges of Lysekil. Plans to expand operations at the plant, if approved, may well threaten the realisation of the country’s ambitious goal of a ‘fossil fuel-free future’.

Shadow places as metaphor and methodology – During the workshop we discussed how the concept of shadow places (Plumwood, 2008) might inform an understanding of connections, responsibilities and justice across time and space. Shadow places as a metaphor evokes a sensitivity to what is hidden and what often goes unconsidered. It brings into focus the connections between the operation of particular ideologies and actions and their contribution to the harm experienced by particular people and places, often distant from the physical or discursive source of this harm. As such, the concept encourages us to confront the implications of control and consumption by the privileged few as well as the historical political economic structures and institutions that have contributed to inequalities within and between societies, and the destruction of the living world. Echoing some of these themes, a presentation at the workshop by artist Claire Healy provided a brief retrospective of the work she creates with partner Sean Cordeiro. The themes of time and combustion emerged as particularly resonant with the concept of shadow places. For instance, the work Tapestries of Disaster portrays violent images of combustion through the medium of tapestry. Sudden flashes of combustion are captured by this slow, traditional craft of tapestry. The method and output provide a metaphor for the long geological history that has produced fossil fuels, juxtaposed with a brief moment in humanity – the epoch of the Anthroprocene – that is marked by the rapid and violent combustion of fossil fuels.

Concentration and expansion – The Preemraff oil refinery near Lysekil reflects not only the most concentrated source of carbon emissions in Sweden but also the concentration of wealth associated with the carbon economy. The ownership of Sweden’s largest petroleum company, Preem, now lies in the hands of a single Saudi individual. The oil refinery was originally set up to exploit oil from the North Sea, yet as this reserve has dwindled Preemraff has expanded its reach to more distant places – Russia, West Africa and the Middle East. The capacity of capitalism to exploit new opportunities, as resources dwindle, was apparent in a talk we received by an environmental manager at the refinery who explained Preemraff’s transition to the increased processing of biofuels, such as waste from the pulp and paper and fisheries industries, to residue oil refinery. This global move, apparent in Preemraff’s business plan, from exploiting the ancient matter of carbon locked up in oil to that of ‘renewable’ biomass, will add further to the competing claims over land and biomass for food, ecology, food, livelihoods and construction.

Walkshopping – I found the conversations, presentations, swims in the fjord, visit to the research station and tour of the refinery really enriching. To conclude our time together, we went on a walk-shop along the coast track near Fiskebäckskil. Walking and talking with each other, whilst experiencing the rain, wind, smells, sounds, and shifting light and shade was a wonderful way to exchange ideas and connect with the country around Fiskebäckskil.  Considering the contrasting perspectives on climate change impacts and responses with reference to the idea of shadow places, makes the illumination of possibilities for actions possible. Connections – emotional, political and intellectual – are critical to valuing and honouring shadow places.

Thanks to our friends at Linköping University for organising such an inspiring workshop and for The Seed Box for making this possible.

Reflections of the organizer and host… Eva Lövbrand

On 17 June 2019 the Land and Environmental Court of Sweden decided to postpone the previously approved expansion plans of the Preemraff oil refinery in Lysekil. The court decision was a response to an appeal by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and means that the environmental and health impacts of the refinery will be considered once again. Critics of Preemraff have insisted that the court ruling should include a consideration of the carbon emission that would follow an increased production of oil products in Lysekil and how these will implicate the parliamentary decision to turn Sweden into the first fossil fuel-free welfare state by 2045. Although the climate impacts of Preemraff’s expansion would be considerable, the CO2 emissions generated by the oil industry are currently regulated under the EU Emissions Trading System and thus beyond Swedish jurisdiction.

During our walkshop we entered into careful conversation with the oil soaked, carbon dusted, climate changed and yet so beautiful environments of Lysekil. We explored the wonders of the North Sea by boat, on foot, in the sauna, over dinner and in conversation with scientists, activists, policy-makers and industrialists. These close encounters invited us to reflect upon the complex relations of interconnection and dependence that bind people, places and environments together. In our debates over the unfolding climate crisis we concluded that the places we love and those that bear the brunt of ecological damage are more connected than ever. In our climate troubled times we need politics that recognise these connections and hold those who reap the benefits of globalization accountable to those who suffer the social and ecological consequences. Security comes from being more connected, not less, as pointed out by Burke et al. (2016).

To walk and talk together in close interplay with Lysekil’s coastal environments helped us to advance our thinking and feeling, collectively and discursively, and inspired us to continue to trace out a world of places in shadow and illumination. Thank you to all participants from making this creative and productive journey possible, and to the Seedbox for inspiring us to do our environmental research differently.

[1] A longer version of Fiona Miller’s reflections are available at: