Groundwork and Background: from Gardening Mars to Terraforming Earth
The Terraforming Earth project is developed as a response to the Gardening Mars exhibition, part of the Dissident Gardens project. Gardening Mars investigates the notion of terraforming Mars. Generally, this is understood as the physical and biological transformation of a celestial body into an environment that is suitable to sustain Earth-originated life. Gardening Mars starts from the observation that such a physical process is necessarily preceded by a cultural process, that may be called terramorphing. Before any intervention on another planet can be designed, this planet has to be imagined as a second, other Earth. This is terramorphing. Mars is the most prolonged and intensely terramorphed celestial body we know. In our minds we have been living on Mars for over a century now.
Gardening Mars looks at the current developments in terramorphing Mars. There is a heightened dynamism around the idea of human existence on Mars and the human colonisation of space, which is caused by the energetic performance of new private parties like SpaceX and Blue Origin in the practice of space faring, next to the traditional parties as NASA, ESA and Roscosmos. Current notions of humans inhabiting Mars are informed by developments on Earth, including the climate crisis, doubt as to whether technological development can continue to be equated with ‘progress’, and the unsettling realisation that an alternative is needed for the capitalist paradigm of eternal growth, without having one at hand. The idea of human existence on Mars functions here as an engine for speculation on possible futures. But in the possible futures that are being formulated, it is not hard to recognise the continuation of practices that have become problematic on Earth. As such, Gardening Mars is also a call for a more radical, holistic form of imagination needed on Earth.
Terraforming Earth Talks
The Terraforming Earth project aims to tap into the (mostly unexplored) conceptual possibilities of the notion of humans inhabiting Mars, and aims to use this potential to radically re-think inhabiting Earth. The Terraforming Earth talks started from the observation that political and economic systems should be conceived and designed in a drastically different way in order to create an environment for a society of plants, animals, people and machines to sustain itself and to thrive. An important complicating factor is that the feasibility of new systems is always first tested in what is known as ‘the market’, while the way ‘the market’ is organised is responsible for the succession of crises currently affecting planet Earth. In the words of Mark Fisher: “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. By inviting Jaya Klara Brekke and Jay Springett to speak on these issues, Het Nieuwe Instituut hoped to find some clues for provisional responses to this state of affairs.
Jaya Klara Brekke unpacked current political imaginaries of blockchain applications and adjusted both unrealistic and politically awkward expectations of control of human behaviour, offering some criteria by which to judge in what situations blockchain applications may come in handy, and when they make things more complicated than necessary. Jay Springett explored the narrative strategies of solarpunk, which extrapolates today’s questions in a similar fashion to how the cyberpunk movement extrapolated the questions of the 1980s, and laid out the strategic narrative of land-as-platform which grafts the organisational logic of the digital ecologies back onto living soil. Leaving aside the somewhat confused conflation of technological autonomy with political (let alone artistic) autonomy of political blockchain imaginaries, there seems to be a not entirely implausible potential to generate an independent economical sphere with an alternative internal economic logic based on the development of ecological capital, if land (and living soil) were recognised as platform (again). Robust, decentralised administrative governance in this context could be supported by blockchain technologies.
Listen to the talks here.
Terraforming Earth Lab 1: Constitution of a 21st Century Society
The talks by Jaya Klara Brekke and Jay Springett and the discussions that followed provided the conceptual groundwork for the Lab the following day, where a diverse group of artists, designers, thinkers and other professionals from various fields gathered at Het Nieuwe Instituut for the first of the Terraforming Earth Labs: Constitution of a 21st Century Society. The goal of this Lab was to explore the potential of the notion of ‘legal person’ to incorporate non-humans. All current constitutions are formulated around the basic right and obligation-holding unit of the 'natural person’, which is based on the human individual. If we accept that a 21st-century society will be less human-centred, this central idea of the natural person will need to be re-considered. But how?
Starting points were provided by the legal person of the corporation, that allows collectives to have certain rights and obligations as one unit. Should we replace the idea of the natural person by new notions of legal persons that can consist of different combinations of organisms, people and/or machines? Important examples of this approach already exist. Namely, in New Zealand, a river and two mountains have been made into legal persons. On top of that, Terra0, a forest not far from Berlin, has been augmented with a DAO - a decentralised autonomous organisation, so that it now owns and develops itself. More information on DAOs is available here. By way of preparation, the participants were provided with a document containing this information, which can be downloaded here.
In the morning of the day-long Lab principles were formulated, after which participants developed scenarios in the the second half of the Lab that articulated potential cases.
To facilitate and structure discussions, a set of initial questions was provided:
- What types and combinations of entities should be able to be ‘incorporated’ ? (Species? Systems? Sites? Herds, colonies or schools? DAOs?)
What needs to be altered to the current notion of ‘corporation’ to enable non-human entities to be potentially included?
Should corporations always also include one or more humans? Why, or why not?
What rights and/or obligations should 21st-century corporations have?
Should the notion of the natural person be abandoned altogether or not?
These questions were discussed by the whole group, in order to test their range and to see whether they needed refining or alteration. Immediately an important distinction needed to be clarified between the philosophical underpinnings of the emancipation of non-human entities on the one hand and the more pragmatic and tactical approach of the questions at hand in the Lab. The larger issue follows from the ecological urgencies of the Anthropocene, and the resulting, deeply philosophical question of how (if at all) humans can develop a less human-centric worldview, which informs a range of early-21st-century philosophy and cultural theory, notably the work of Bruno Latour, the speculative realist movement as well as the discourse of new materialism. This philosophical question was itself not the focus of the Lab, however. The starting point of the Lab was a pragmatic and tactical next step. Can the legal fiction of the corporation provide a practical framework for the emancipation of non-human entities in an alternative economy?
The first question was altered to include a wider reference to scale, so it was rewritten as follows:
What types and combinations of entities should be able to be ‘incorporated’ ? (Species? Systems? sites? Herds, colonies or schools? DAO’s? Micro-biome? Individuals? Organs?)
Upon discussing the second question, it was mentioned that there are indications that the notion of the corporation may already be sufficient as it stands (i.e. mountains and a river in New Zealand). It was thus rewritten as follows:
What, if anything, needs to be altered to the current notion of ‘corporation’ to enable non-human entities to be potentially included?
As the third question was being discussed, Jaya Klara Brekke noted that, ultimately, human involvement is always a factor. Instead of discussing whether or not this was to be the case, the question was rephrased to address not the ‘if’ but the ‘how’ of human involvement: a pragmatic acknowledgement of the inevitability of human presence. The question was thus replaced with:
How should humans be included in partially non-human corporations?
Two additional questions were formulated:
- What rights and/or obligations should 21st-century corporations have?
- Should the notion of the natural person be altogether abandoned or not?
The participants observed that answers could only be given in a specific, situated context, and thus would need one or more scenarios from which to reason. It was therefore decided that these questions were to be discussed only once some scenarios had been formulated.
A Focus on Relations
In response to question 1, some posited that what should be incorporated is an ecological niche, as a single unit. This niche would be characterised by its internal roles and relations, thereby leaving open the possibility of roles being taken up by a non-human species, by humans or by machines. Others, too, found that the question at hand was not so much about which entities could be incorporated, but rather how their relations would be defined. The focus should lie on defining the structure of the corporation, rather than its separate parts. The third group also found that the definition of the things involved was less relevant than the functions they would have in a larger system, meaning it was the functions and their relations that needed defining, rather than the number or types of entities. It would be the relationships between these entities that were to be incorporated.
In answering the second question, it was found that, based on the knowledge of the participants, the notion of the corporation likely is workable in its present state. This was exemplified by the river and the mountains in New Zealand which have been granted a legal personhood, and which can potentially even be augmented with DAO construction. Answers to the revised third question, concerning the ‘how’ of involvement of humans in partially non-human corporations, also demanded situated, concrete cases. Again the choice was made to approach this question through scenario development.
The new focus question of the Lab became: How do we define and constitute an ‘incorporated’ framework for a set of (growing, evolving) relations between humans, non-human organisms and machines? Implicit relationships had to be made explicit, through concrete rather than abstract discussion. The next section elaborates on the three scenarios that were developed and elucidate some of the thinking involved.
Case 1: The Garbage-Dump as Bio-Coop
While the garbage-dump tends to be a destination for materials no longer wanted, one group re-imagined it to become a place where materials can gain value once again. Simply put: the garbage-dump becomes a complex and diverse bio-coop (a variant of the platform coop) The bio-coop functions as a site of processing and the role for humans in this scenario is to tend to the bacteria the primary processing agent. To illustrate this, the group compared their scenario to sourdough starters in both cases: humans tend to bacteria to make them thrive.
The bio-cooperative between bacteria culture and humans demands the development of a shared coop culture, where the norm is to feed and to tend to each other. The group examined different types of formal agreements, different ways through which the desired behaviour of people could be enforced, and looked at mechanisms like contracts and promises. Contracts depend on an enforcement by the state and are rather different from more casual promises, but both relate to trust. The group realised they were tip-toeing around the idea of focusing on practices, cultures and norms, and found that they were not interested in rights and enforcements, but rather in norms and relationships. These norms could best be fostered over time, the group found, through LARPing. This would enable the people to practice the desired cultural norms until they simply become the norm, a habit of sorts. They would be LARPing their way to the truth.
In this scenario, commoning becomes a continuous social practice, it is simply the thing one does. From here, one could rather easily imagine creating a cult-like, religious-esque entity that embodies these values. A place where, in order to belong, one tends to the bacteria. The use of politics and culture becomes an ethics of care.
Case 2: The Human Body as a Collectively Incorporated Set of Organs and Microbiomes
This group took a wider speculative trajectory, and discussed the relationship between employees and corporations and compared this to the functioning of the human body, looking at the roles of entities within other entities. They described how gut bacteria can be seen as employees and how you could imagine them unionising, for example, if they wanted to refuse to digest protein.
They thus articulated the human body as a collective, thereby taking the word ‘corporate’ incredibly literally, and began examining the relations among entities within human bodies. The group tried to create a constitution governing these entities and measured this against human rights. For example, how would we treat an intestine infection if we looked at the body from an ecological perspective? Would we have to forbid the taking of antibiotics to rid our intestines of unwanted bacteria? The intestine gains certain independent rights, separate from the encapsulating body.
The group decided to call this model “I Are Inc”, as there are many parallels with a larger corporation. Like the corporation as we know it, “I Are Inc” needs external relationships to function internally. For example, oxygen needs to enter the body. There are vital external relationships, so things such as air and food also become corporations. Although some implications of this scenario could appear absurd, and although the exact legal structure that would govern the internal body was not fully fleshed out, the basic notion of replacing the concept of a natural person by that of a particular kind of corporation seemed potentially viable. This was an answer to the remaining 5th question: it positions the human body as one element in a massively cooperative ecosystem of corporations.
Case 3: A Mission-Based, Soil Generating Artificial Oasis
Through engineering works an oasis has formed in a desert area. This oasis consists of a collection of plants, animals, tools, machines and humans, organised together as a corporation with one clear strategic mission: to produce ecological capital - living soil - as opposed to financial profit.
A certain precariousness immediately emerges because, as a desirable place for human living, there will be a constant influx of human refugees for whom solutions need to be found. The choice was made to not militarise the border of this oasis, but to look for other solutions. A viable approach for the oasis to manage this influx and balance it with its strategic goal was proposed: it should spawn offspring-oasis. But how? To send off unskilled newcomers with a bunch of machines and plants would be risky and could be wasteful. Spawning offspring would be best realised by older members of the community, who have internalised the corporation’s logic. They could reliably go and create new oasis, based on the same principles elsewhere. Growth, with soil as soil as capital becomes its coping mechanism.
The initial idea was, again, that as an organisation this oasis would run on set tasks and obligations. But how to oblige non-human species? The notion of rights and obligations of the 4th question appeared to be too human-centric to work with. Therefore, the group re-imagined the obligations into a list of functions that need fulfilling, including tasks like: digging, decomposing, transport, tending, detoxifying, etc. An important realisation was made that this was actually a set of behaviours in a network of relations, that as a whole required the active presence of humans, machines, plants, bacteria, and animals. The chemical and the cultural and physical and other exchanges all had to seen as tasks, roles and behaviours, and part of a corporate culture. This formed an answer to the 4th question.
It was acknowledged that this was not necessarily a very utopian scenario. All activities of the corporation relate to the purpose of creating soil in order to “re-green” the desert. This implies violence, as it demands that the desert loses its original state. It would thus be a form of colonialism, albeit with a different logic. The model articulates a potential for an economic process based on ecological creation as opposed to a logic of extraction, and would lead to liveable spaces with a dense organo-technic ecosystem in former desert areas.
Preliminary Conclusions and Next Steps
Currently, we are under the impression that variations of the corporation structure could provide a framework with which a space separate from capitalist market logic can be created. We believe the anthropocentrism in these spaces could be radically diminished, and that these spaces can serve as sites of emancipation, balancing out a new post natural order. In many ways, however, these are hunches more than they are absolute conclusions. There is an undeniable need for more time to more extensively exert collective research efforts unto this field, as well as for experts of various kinds to join us in discussing these issues further.
Noteworthy was that in all scenarios the question of rights and obligations was related to the issue of sentience. A bacteria does not know it has obligations. In each case, rights and obligations was re-interpreted towards various types of habitual, learned behaviour but were undoubtedly case-specific beyond this. All groups also arrived at the potential of corporate culture to perceive and relate behaviours among different classes of beings. Also noteworthy was that although all these scenario’s articulate futures that were desirable in certain ways, they were by no means altogether utopian.
The human was strongly present in all these cases because to ignore their presence would be a naive denial of some kind. However, this does not rule out the possibility of replacing the notion of natural person by a kind of corporation. In this frame of thinking, the distinction between the natural and the legal person would simply become irrelevant. All that remains is a world inhabited by incorporated relational entities.
These conclusions will form the basis of the next lab, Autonomous Agents for a Regenerative Economy, on 13 June, 2018 at Border Sessions in The Hague.
Lab 1 Participants:
Andre Fincato, Anne van Leeuwen, Christina Cochior, Edwin Gardner, Franceso degl’Inocenti, Gilbert de Nijs, Jay Springett, Jaya Klara Brekke, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Leonardo Dellanoce, Marcel Goethals, Max Hampshire, Miha Tursic, Sjef van Gaalen, Theun Karelse, Yin Aiwen
Note-Takers: Filip Kostanecki, Malou den Dekker