laboratoire écologie et art pour une société en transition
filter media by
- All media
Vivre le Rhône: trailer
Meet the Rhône and Natural Contract Lab
Learning from mould
Even the simplest organism can suggest new ways of thinking, acting and collaborating
Intimity Among Strangers
Lichens tell of a living world for which solitude is not a viable option
A Sub-Optimal World
An interview with Olivier Hamant, author of the book “La troisième voie du vivant”.
Bodies of Water
Vivre le Rhône: the podcast
An audio project tracing the experiences of those who have come closer to the river by walking.
A urge to do something
An interview to climate activist Myriam Roth.
Vivre le Rhône: trailer
“What stories are already there?”
A video by Carlos Tapia featuring the Rhône river, Maria Lucia Cruz Correia, Vinny Jones, and Lode Vranken.
Learning from mould
Learning from mould
Physarum polycephalum is a bizarre organism of the slime mould type. It consists of a membrane within which several nuclei float, which is why it is considered an “acellular” being—neither monocellular nor multicellular. Despite its simple structure, it has some outstanding features: Physarum polycephalum can solve complex problems and move through space by expanding into “tentacles,” making it an exciting subject for scientific experiments.
The travelling salesman problem is the best known: it’s a computational problem that aims to optimise travel in a web of possible paths. Using a map, scientists at Hokkaido University placed a flake of oat, on which Physarum feeds, on the main junctions of Tokyo’s public transportation system. Left free to move around the map, Physarum expanded its tentacles, which, to the general amazement, quickly reproduced the actual public transport routes. The mechanism is very efficient: the tentacles stretch out in search of food; if they do not find any, they secrete a substance that will signal not to pursue that same route.
We are used to thinking of intelligence as embodied, centralised, and representation-based: Physarum teaches us that this is not always the case and that even the simplest organism can suggest new ways of thinking, acting and collaborating.
Intimity Among Strangers
Covering nearly 10% of the Earth’s surface and weighing 130.000.000.000.000 tons—more than the entire ocean biomass—they revolutionised how we understand life and evolution. Few would probably bet on this unique yet discrete species: lichens.
Four hundred and ten million years ago, lichens were already there and seem to have contributed, through their erosive capacity, to the formation of the Earth’s soil. The earliest traces of lichens were found in the Rhynie fossil deposit in Scotland, dating back to the Lower Devonian period—that of the earliest stage of landmass colonisation by living beings. Their resilience has been tested in various experiments: they can survive space travel without harm; withstand a dose of radiation twelve thousand times greater than what would be lethal to a human being; survive immersion in liquid nitrogen at -195°C; and live in extremely hot or cold desert areas. Lichens are so resistant they can even live for millennia: an Arctic specimen of “map lichen” has been dated 8,600 years, the world’s oldest discovered living organism.
Lichens have long been considered plants, and even today many interpret them as a sort of moss, but thanks to the technical evolution of microscopes in the 19th century, a new discovery emerged. Lichen was not a single organism, but instead consisted of a system composed of two different living things, a fungus and an alga, united to the point of remaining essentially indistinguishable. Few know that the now familiar word symbiosis was coined precisely to refer to this strange structure of lichen. Today we understand that lichens are not simply formed by a fungus and an alga. There is, in fact, an internal variability of beings involved in the symbiotic mechanism, frequently including other fungi, bacteria and yeasts. We are not dealing with a single living organism but an entire biome.
Symbiosis’ theory was long opposed, as it undermined the taxonomic structure of the entire kingdom of the living as Charles Darwin had described it in On the Origin of Species: a “tree-like” system consisting of progressive branches. The idea that two “branches” (and, moreover, belonging to different kingdoms) could intersect called everything into question. Significantly, the fact that symbiosis functioned as a mutually beneficial cooperation overturned the idea of the evolutionary process as based on competition and conflict.
Symbiosis is far from being a minority condition on our planet: 90% of plants, for example, are characterised by mycorrhiza, a particular type of symbiotic association between a fungus and the roots of a plant. Of these, 80% would not survive if deprived of the association with the fungus. Many mammalian species, including humans, live in symbiosis with their microbiome: a collection of microorganisms that live in the digestive tract and enable the assimilation of nutrients. This is a very ancient and specific symbiotic relationship: in humans, the genetic difference in the microbiome between one person and another is greater even than their cellular genetic difference. Yet the evolutionary success of symbiotic relationships is not limited to these incredible data: it is the basis for the emergence of life as we know it, in a process described by biologist Lynn Margulis as symbiogenesis.
Symbiogenesis posits that the first cells on Earth resulted from symbiotic relationships between bacteria, which developed into the organelles responsible for cellular functioning. Specifically, chloroplasts—the organelles capable of performing photosynthesis—originated from cyanobacteria, while mitochondria—the organelles responsible for cellular metabolism—originated from bacteria capable of metabolising oxygen. Life, it seems, evolved from a series of symbiotic encounters, and despite numerous catastrophic changes in the planet’s geology, atmosphere and ecosystems across deep time, has been flowing uninterruptedly for almost four billion years.
Several scientists tend to interpret symbiosis in lichens as a form of parasitism on the part of the fungus because it would gain more from the relationship than the other participants. To which naturalist David George Haskell, in his book The Forest Unseen, replies, “Like a farmer tending her apple trees and her field of corn, a lichen is a melding of lives. Once individuality dissolves, the scorecard of victors and victims makes little sense. Is corn oppressed? Does the farmer’s dependence on corn make her a victim? These questions are premised on a separation that does not exist.” Multi-species cooperation is the basis of life on our planet. From lichens to single-celled organisms to our daily lives, biology tells of a living world for which solitude is not a viable option. Lynn Margulis described symbiosis as a form of “intimacy among strangers”: what lies at the core of life, evolution and adaptation.
A Sub-Optimal World
Olivier Hamant is a transdisciplinary biologist and researcher at the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE) in Lyon, and is engaged in socio-ecological education projects at the Michel Serres institute.
His book “La Troisième Voie du Vivant” envisions a “sub-optimal” future to survive the environmental crisis: in this interview, he promotes the values of slowness, inefficiency and robustness, and invites us to embrace a certain degree of chaos.
Authors and philosophers have always been inspired by the observation of nature to speculate about reality and society, but often with an instrumental approach. You too are inspired by nature, but from your point of view as a biologist, you come to some conclusions that challenge our prejudices on how nature works. How did your questioning begin?
During my PhD I worked on plant molecular biology, looking at genetic control and information. It was a clear example of an industrial framework transposed to biology: we used organigrams, we drew cascades of genes, we discussed “lines of defence,” “metabolic channelling” … Such semantics implied that life is like a machine. When I finished my PhD, I decided to try out a more integrated and interdisciplinary approach to get a more systemic view of biology. This confirmed that what I thought I knew was wrong: I’d been polluted by the concept of living beings as machines, and that’s where I started to deviate.
The book is, in fact, a real lesson in “unlearning,” as you overturn some contemporary concepts that may seem positive but ultimately aren’t, such as “optimisation.”
Optimisation is the archetype of reductionism: to optimise, you first need to reduce a given problem in order to solve it. When we solve small problems, we usually create other issues elsewhere. Take the Suez Canal for example: that’s a form of optimisation, of sea transport here, that makes us very vulnerable. A single boat gets stuck across the canal, and that’s it, you can’t send anything between Asia and Europe.
What about “efficiency”?
Photosynthesis is probably the most important metabolic process on Earth: it has existed for 3.8 billion years, and it’s the root of all biomass and civilisation. The “performance” of photosynthesis is usually less than 1%: plants waste more than 99% of solar energy. They’re really, really inefficient. Plants are green because they don’t absorb all the light; they absorb the red and blue sections of the light spectrum (the edge of the spectrum) and reflect the green part. Why do they waste so much energy? It’s now recognised that this is a response to light fluctuation. Light isn’t stable and capturing the red and blue sections allows plants to face such fluctuations. Plants manage variability before efficiency. They build robustness against performance.
Today, we see that the world is unstable, and it will become more so in the future: we shouldn’t be focusing on efficiency but on robustness. When we look for inspiration from biology, we often focus on circularity and cooperation. It’s a good start, but if we overlook robustness, it won’t work. For instance, if we come up with a form of efficient circularity, we won’t have enough wiggle room for extreme events, and we’ll exhaust the available resources anyway. If we make cooperation efficient, the win-win result will be counterproductive, and some will be left behind. Thus, robustness is the most important principle because it makes circularity and cooperation operational.
The most substantial criticism in your book concerns performance, drawing a parallel between violence against the environment and burnout.
Performance generates burnout—it’s a typical effect. Burnout applies to a person or an ecosystem. The path towards burnout is sufficient to condemn “efficiency at all costs,” but performance is also counterproductive in many other ways. A typical example is sports competitions: you want to be number one, you’ll do anything, including doping or cheating. That has nothing to do with sport and it’s detrimental to your health and career.
You also take concepts we interpret negatively and explain how they are actually positive, such as slowness or hesitation…
Slowness and hesitation are the keys to competence, as might be illustrated by stem cells. Biologists have focused on these cells for a long time because they’re extraordinary: they can renew all kinds of tissues. For a long time, we thought this was all controlled by a tidy organigram. It turns out that one of the key elements is that they’re slow: they hesitate all the time, and because they hesitate, they can do anything. Delays give some breathing space. I would actually go one step further: slowness is an essential lever for transformation. To change, you first need to stop. It’s like being in a car at a crossroads; if you want to change direction, you need to stop, indicate and turn. If you don’t stop, you won’t change.
Change is the keyword here. Hard science, numbers and prediction systems often lack the ability to consider contingencies or change, giving us the illusion that we have some form of control over reality.
Thankfully, we’ve made progress and now we use numbers to understand the unpredictability of the world (instead of using numbers to control it). For instance, in the lab, we’re working on the reproducibility of the shapes of organs. In a tulip field, all flowers look alike. You could think of an IKEA-like process: building things in the same way also makes them replicable. But this isn’t the case for living systems: when a flower emerges, some cells divide, others die, molecules come and go… Basically, it’s a mess. In the end, the miracle is that you get a flower with the same shape, colour and size as the neighbouring one. We showed that the flower uses and even promotes all kinds of erratic behaviours, precisely because they provide valuable information, to reach that reproducible shape. Once again, they build robustness against performance.
So, a certain degree of chaos should be embraced?
Sociologist Gilles Armani once told me a story about how to deal with impetuous rivers. The Rhône has all these swirls: if you don’t know how to swim through them, you might get trapped and drown. When people were used to living with rivers, if caught in the water flow, they wouldn’t fight it: they’d take in some air, let themselves be taken down by the swirl and the river would then let them out somewhere else, until they reached the shore. In a fluctuating world, the aim is no longer reaching one’s destination as quickly as possible, but rather viability, something which should be based not against, but on turbulence.
Image: Boris Artzybasheff.
Bodies of Water
The transition of life from water to land is one of the most significant evolutionary milestones in the history of life on Earth. This transition occurred over millions of years as early aquatic organisms adapted to the challenges and opportunities presented by the terrestrial environment. One of those was the need to conserve water: living beings, in a way, had “to take the sea within them”, and yet, although our bodies are composed mostly of it, biological water actually counts for just 0.0001% of Earth’s total water.
Water is involved in many of the body’s essential functions, including digestion, circulation and temperature regulation. Nevertheless, our bodily fluids, from sweat to pee, saliva and tears, are not just contained within our individual bodies but are part of a more extensive system that includes all life on Earth, blurring the boundaries between our bodies and more-than-human organisms, connecting us to the world around us. Scholars described this idea as hypersea: the fluids that flow through our bodies are connected to the oceans, rivers and other bodies of water that make up the planet and are part of a larger system that connects all living beings together.
Recognising the interconnectedness of all life on Earth and the role that water plays in this interconnected web can help us better understand our place in the world and the importance of working together to protect and preserve this precious element. However, to fully grasp the consequences of this perspective, it is necessary to consider some significant issues addressed by scholar Astrida Neimanis, the theorist of hydrofeminism, in her book Bodies of Water.
One of the main contributions of hydrofeminism to the discussion on bodies of water is the proposal to reject the abstract idea of water to which we are accustomed. Water is usually described as an odourless, tasteless and colourless liquid and is told through a schematic and de-territorialised cycle that does not effectively represent the ever-changing, yet situated, reality of water bodies. Water is mainly interpreted as a neutral resource to be managed and consumed, even though it is a complex and powerful element that affects our identities, communities and relationships. Deep inequalities exist in our current water systems, shaped by social, economic and political structures.
Neimanis shares an example explicitly related to bodily fluids. The Mothers’ Milk project, led by Mohawk midwife Katsi Cook, found that women living on the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation had a 200% greater concentration of PCBs in their breast milk due to the dumping of General Motors’ sludge in nearby pits. Pollutants such as POPs hitch a ride on atmospheric currents and settle in the Arctic, where they concentrate in the food chain and are consumed by Arctic communities. As a result, the breast milk of Inuit women contains two to ten times the amount of organochlorine concentrations compared to samples from women in southern regions. This “body burden” has health risks and affects these lactating bodies’ psychological and spiritual well-being. The dumping of PCBs was a human decision, but the permeability of the ground, the river’s path and the fish’s appetite are caught in these currents, making it a multispecies issue.
Hence, even though we are all in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat. The experience of water is shaped by cultural and social factors, such as gender, race and class, which can affect access to safe water and the ability to participate in water management. The story of Inuit women makes it clear how water, even if it is part of a single planetary cycle, is always embodied, and so are bodies of water with their complex interdependence. While hydrofeminism invites us to reject an individualistic and static perspective, it also reminds us that differences should be recognised and respected. Indeed, it is only in this way that thought can be transformed into action towards more equitable and sustainable relationships with all entities.
Neimanis also approaches the role of water as a gestational element, a metaphor for this life-giving substance’s transformative yet mysterious power. Like the amniotic fluid that surrounds and nurtures a growing animal, water can support and sustain life, nourish and protect, and foster growth and development. In this sense, water can be seen as a symbol of hope and possibility, a source of renewal and regeneration that can help us navigate life’s challenges and transitions. Like a gestational element, water has the power to cleanse, heal and transform. While seeking to find our way in a constantly changing world, we can look to water as an inner source of strength and inspiration, a reminder of life’s resistance and adaptability and the potential that lies within us all.
Image: Edward Burtynsky, Cerro Prieto Geothermal Power Station, Baja, Mexico, 2012. Photo © Edward Burtynsky.
Vivre le Rhône: the podcast
Vivre le Rhône: a podcast by Audrey Bersier and Martin Reinartz
Since June 2022, Natural Contract LAB and least have been developing accompanied walks, collective weaving, healing rituals, somatic experiences and restorative circles—all practices that have helped us rethink humans’ relationship with the Rhône.
What you’re about to hear is the first episode of a three-part podcast, recounting the experiences of those who have grown closer to the river by walking.
I’d like to give you a few tips before you start listening to this podcast.
If you can, head to the Seujet dam, in downtown Geneva. Take some good headphones, writing materials and a bottle filled with water or your favourite herbal tea. Once there, start the podcast.
It’s up to you whether you choose to stay on the dam or walk along the river, towards Pont Butin for example, as shown on the map below.
Or you can simply sit down in a spot that you like. And close your eyes.
Enjoy the podcast!
Featuring texts freely inspired by Corinna S. Bille’s L’inconnue du Haut-Rhone and Les Soeurs Caramarcaz, as well as Alexandre Dumas’ Voyage Suisse.
Map by Maud Abbé-Decarroux.
*Every effort was made to obtain the necessary permissions and to trace the copyright holders. However, we would be happy to arrange for permission to reproduce the material contained in this podcast from those copyright holders that we could not reach.
«Common Dreams», une plateforme flottante à Genève
least, an association that wants to save the planet through the arts
The association least dreams of saving the planet through the arts
Une plateforme sur les flots pour mieux vivre
A floating school to rethink our relationship with the climate and the environment
A urge to do something
Can you briefly tell us something about you, and how you became an eco-activist?
I wouldn’t say I’m an activist. Apart from my role as co-president, I’m an elected representative in the parliament of my city. I’ve also created an ecofeminist collective with two friends in Biel, called “La Bise”. And I earn my income as an early childhood nurse. Shortly before I turned 18, I felt a strong urge to do something. Or at least to try. I can’t really say what triggered this need to act. I started my political involvement in a small group of young greens. Then one day things just happened. I was asked if I wanted to join an electoral list. I accepted, and I was elected. This event helped me to network and find people with whom I could exchange, militate, and initiate new projects.
What is the state of health of Swiss glaciers? And why is it important to take care of glaciers in particular?
The state of the glaciers in Switzerland is disastrous. With the melting of the glaciers, Switzerland is losing (among other things like its biodiversity and its snow in winter) an important water reserve which, according to estimates, could guarantee the consumption of its population for 60 years.
Part of the resistance to revolutions such as abandoning fossil fuels is linked to economic interests. Let’s play a game of scenarios: with and without fossil fuels, in the short and long term.
Growth can’t be infinite; it leads to our own destruction. Independence from fossil fuels requires support for other forms of energy sources. In Switzerland, electricity is mainly generated by hydroelectric power plants (62%), nuclear power plants (29%), conventional thermal power plants and renewable energy plants (9%). By producing our own energy, we’re no longer dependent on other countries. This is an opportunity for States to become pioneers and create jobs in new areas. So it’s also good for the economy.
Environmental protection is a complex subject – sometimes to fix one mistake you make another. What is your strategy for dealing with this complexity?
I think if you keep thinking about what you’re going to do wrong, you don’t move forward with strategies that have a real impact. You can’t always do everything right. But you can put in place things that have a strong impact for long term change. Like long-term independence from imported energy sources that are harmful to the planet.
Solastalgia is the distress caused by the impact of climate change on people, often involving the feeling of loss of a beloved landscape. Do you feel that you’re suffering from solastalgia? And what’s your experience of this issue in Swiss communities?
Solastalgia is a relatively unknown term. But by talking to people living in wilder and alpine regions, solastalgia for a disappeared or changed landscape can be identified. Sensitivities to climate change are as diverse as the regions of Switzerland. The place of origin of a person influences the way he or she reacts to the consequences of this change. It seems natural to be more affected by the lack of snow in winter or the melting of glaciers if you live or grew up in an alpine environment. People who live in cities, for example, are more aware of urban heat islands and increasing suffocation in summer. At the moment, I think I suffer more from eco-anxiety than from solastalgia.
You’re part of the eco-feminist collective La Bise: can you tell us about the activities of La Bise and what eco-feminist instances contribute in particular to the general fight against the climate crisis?
La Bise is a collective that tries to bring struggles together. The collective was created almost five years ago. Talking with two of my friends about what animated or annoyed us in feminist and ecological struggles, I felt like bringing the three of us together. The idea of creating a caring and inclusive space to talk about our commitments was at the heart of our draft project. At first, we were mobile, we didn’t have a place. Then we were able to create our ecofeminist library. The library contains books in several categories. Feminism and gender, sexuality, children’s books, comics. We have an ecofeminist library, but we also organise more or less regular events that link the fight for the protection of the planet and the fight for gender equality.
Several studies show that women and gender minorities are among the human beings most affected by climate change. To give an example: women and gender minorities are frequently forgotten during natural disasters – often because it is these same people who actually take care of others.
An initiative to accompany our society in its transformation