laboratoire écologie et art pour une société en transition

Vivre le Rhône

Created by Natural Contract Lab together with least, Vivre le Rhône features an ongoing artistic practice, led by Maria Lucia Cruz Correia, that advocates a form of ecology of repair based on dialogue with bodies of water undergoing profound ecological transformation.

Following an initial phase of research, a number of local communities, featuring activists, students and water management professionals, were invited to participate in a series of walks along the river. The walks were initiated by Natural Contract Lab’s artistic team through rituals which were designed to recognise the ecological damage inflicted upon the River Rhône and each person’s relationship with the water.

Using collecting tools, the participants gathered leaves, moss, plastic bottles, pieces of wood, waste paper and shells, i.e. objects that triggered memories, stories and reflections, which were then stitched together to form a legal/sensory cartography, i.e. a device to represent not only the physical geography of the river, but also the community’s relationship with it, the different living species and the wounds suffered by the ecosystem.

The actions and devices of Vivre le Rhône aim to use artistic practice to foster new ideas and laws for the governance of ecosystems and to expand a network of River Guardians.

research & process

We devoted the first phase of the project to interdisciplinary research on the River Rhône, with the aim of reconstructing its history and acknowledging the ecological damage it has suffered. The research involved a series of explorations and meetings with people linked in various ways to the river in Switzerland, i.e. water management professionals, historians, geographers, fishermen, social workers, activists and citizens. The long-term process that began with the research will generate published works as well as the creation of videos and podcasts by young artists Maud Abbé-Decarroux, Audrey Bersier, Martin Reinartz and Carlos Tapia. All these creations are due for release at the end of 2023.

walking, gathering, weaving

Throughout 2022 and 2023, we pursued a series of collective practices of walking with the river. When we first encountered the Rhône, we sought to greet and collect its water in a vessel created by ceramic and visual artist Zahra Hakim, which we carried as a mediator between us and the river. During our walks along the banks of the river, we collected objects and stories linked to it and wove them together. A number of tools and a “river loom” designed by architects and designers Maud Abbé-Decarroux and Lode Vranken were used to collect the objects and weave them together and to form a temporary community for each walk. Today, these “weaving subjects” remain with the River Guardians, while the river loom has been donated to a school.

a sensorial-juridical cartography

Since last spring, we have been working with lawyer Marine Calmet and talking with OCEau (Cantonal Office of Water) to imagine how to include, in a written law on river rights, what is usually overlooked, i.e. the relationship between peoples and the river, their love, their sorrow, their memories and the care they show for it in the face of eco-landscape disappearance. The things that were gathered and woven together during the walks – whether a piece of moss, a bird song, a reflection of light on the river or a trace of rubbish – will serve as the starting point for the project. Maud Abbé-Decarroux is curating a publication inspired by this process.

a community of river guardians

Last July, over three days, we organised a series of events to reflect on the expansion of a legitimate community to act on behalf of the River Rhône. A “River Agora” was organised in Porteous, where we listened to the stories of Rhône guardians from different parts of the river (Rhône glacier, Valais, Geneva, river mouth in France) and wove together new forms of collective actions as water carriers. We then gathered at Île Rousseau to open our legal/sensory cartography and bind our threads together. There, we invited everyone to reweave the storyline and memories of the river and to create new patterns and a living statement for the Rhône. Finally, we unravelled our legal/sensory cartography and made offerings to the river. These public events helped launch a network of people and organisations – such as Appel du Rhône and other associations involved in nature conservation – interested in the guardianship of the Rhône and in pursuing collective action to have it recognised as a legal subject.


All participatory actions, locations and walks will be communicated on our website and via least’s newsletter.

artistic team

NCL founded in 2021 by the artist Maria Lucia Cruz Correia in collaboration with a multidisciplinary group:
Marine Calmet - rights of nature
Brunilda Pali - restorative justice
Lode Vranken - design / philosophy
Vinny Jones - sensorial scenography
Evanne Nowak - ecological grief
Margarida Mendes - research / sonic guidance joined the collective in 2022

Équipe locale
Maud Abbé-Decarroux - cartography / design
Audrey Bersier - podcast / sound
Martin Reinartz - artist-in-residence at least
Carlo Tapia - video

least would like to thank all the people that contributed to the project by sharing their time, knowledge and resources:

Appel du Rhône; Tony Arborino (engineer and consultant on water and sustainability) / EPFL - École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne; Philippe Benetti and Gaëlle Cervantes / Centre de compétences pour déficits visuels; Mathilde Captyn / Association éco-impact; Armelle Choplin (geographer) / University of Geneva; Laure Delory (activist) / Swiss Association for Climate Protection; Alain Dubois and Pierre-François Mettan / Association Fêtes du Rhône; Floriane Facchini (artist / director); Luca Ferrero (fisherman); Sylvie Fischer / Association F-information; Sophie Frezza; Stéphane Genoud (energy management engineer) / HES-SO Valais-Wallis; Zhara Hakim (artist / ceramist); Kimberly Hirsch; Felix Küchler (doctor, climate activist); Le Grand Atelier; Anne Mahrer / Aînées pour la protection du climat; Gilles Mulhauser / Canton de Genève - Office cantonal de l’eau; Frédéric Pitaval (engineer) / Emma-Louise Lavigne / Association id-eau; MACO la Manufacture Collaborative; La Manivelle; Laurence Piaget-Dubuis (eco-artist, graphic designer, photographer) / Watergaw; Michel Porret (historian) / University of Geneva; Association Porteous; Emmanuel Reynard (geographer) / Association mémoire du Rhône; Philippe Savary (fisheries warden) / Association des gardes-pêches de Suisse romande; Marie-Thérèse Sangra (geographer and chargé d’affaires) / WWF Valais; Mara Tignino (water rights, researcher) / Geneva Water Hub - University of Geneva; City of Vernier.


Vivre le Rhône: the podcast ep. 02

An audio project tracing the experiences of those who have come closer to the river by walking.

Guardians of Nature

An interview to Marine Calmet, lawyer specialised in environmental law and Indigenous peoples’ rights.


A sci-fi essay and sex manual created by Rita Natálio.

Vivre le Rhône: part 2

When art meets law.

Bodies of Water

Embracing hydrofeminism.

Intimity Among Strangers

Lichens tell of a living world for which solitude is not a viable option

Vivre le Rhône: the podcast ep: 01

An audio project tracing the experiences of those who have come closer to the river by walking.

A Sub-Optimal World

An interview with Olivier Hamant, author of the book “La troisième voie du vivant”.

Learning from mould

Even the simplest organism can suggest new ways of thinking, acting and collaborating

Putting Off the Catastrophe

If the end is nigh, why aren’t we managing to take global warming seriously?

A urge to do something

An interview to climate activist Myriam Roth.

Vivre le Rhône: part 1

Meet the Rhône and Natural Contract Lab

Vivre le Rhône: the podcast ep. 02

Vivre le Rhône: a podcast by Audrey Bersier and Martin Reinartz

Dear Listener,

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, retracing 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 Vernier Village in the Geneva countryside. Take some good headphones with you and your water bottle with water or your favourite herbal tea. Once you’ve arrived, start playing the audio.

You can then walk down to the river and take the Chèvres footbridge, 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!

Episode 02

0:00 /

Listen to episode 01.

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.

Guardians of Nature

Trained as a lawyer, Marine Calmet specialises in issues relating to the protection of the environment and indigenous peoples. She is also president of Wild Legal, an association dedicated to the recognition of the rights of nature, and the author of Devenir Gardiens de la Nature (Becoming Guardians of Nature), which inspired her battles in French Guiana against illegal gold mines and the oil and gas industry. She is part of Vivre le Rhône’s Natural Contract Lab team.

When it comes to the rights of nature, a question often arises: who is in a legitimate position to speak on behalf of an ecosystem?
I think it’s very much linked to the idea that, in our societies, we have specific roles and statuses. Personally, I like to turn the question on its head. It’s more a question of asking ourselves what we live for and what our mission is in our society. I think that we can all legitimately represent natural entities, quite simply because of the responsibility that comes with living on this planet, in a living environment, and therefore being able to have a more or less strong relationship with a river, a forest or a mountain. For me, legitimacy comes from the bond of empathy, of love even, that exists between us and the environment in which we live and with which we interact. My aim is to deconstruct the myth that we don’t have the legitimacy or the capacity to speak on behalf of nature by asking the following question: what nature are we talking about? Are there not ecosystems to which we are so close and whose interests we feel a responsibility to defend?

What is the role of rights of nature in river governance from your point of view?
The aim of the rights of nature model is to prevent humans from viewing elements of nature as objects, which leads us to objectify our relationship with them and consider all beings around us as exploitable resources and goods that we can also destroy, and from which we can benefit for human progress and for society. The aim is also to challenge this relationship of objectification by considering elements of nature as subjects, legal subjects even, i.e. subjects who are protected or who should be protected and benefit from fundamental rights inherent in their status as subjects. This is where the law comes in, to clarify these relationships which, in truth, for many of us have never really been specified.
The law of nature tells us: “We’re surrounded by subjects to whom we also owe a certain form of respect and with whom interactions must be protected so that the habitability of ecosystems is preserved and this living space of ours remains serene and harmonious”.
In this governance that we’re calling for – this governance of the living – the aim is therefore to integrate other-than-humans, so that, instead of a dialogue strictly between human beings, we can open up the debate to non-humans and integrate them into our models of representation. This will enable us to emerge from what’s known as the Anthropocene – an Anthropocene that is nothing more than human self-segregation – and to integrate non-humans into this governance. This can only be done by recognising nature and all its elements as subjects in their own right and not as objects, because you can’t talk with objects.

You, as a lawyer, cooperate with artists: how can these two seemingly distant perspectives come together in a positive way? How do they impact each other?
What I find fascinating about the interaction between art and law is the similarities that emerge. As a lawyer, I work on what is known as “prospective law”, i.e. law that anticipates the future. I write law, I invent law, based on what I observe in nature and the needs or crises that I observe. As a lawyer, I therefore also work with fiction, writing something that I imagine or that I consider desirable. I’m acting like an artist who projects their vision of the world onto a canvas or a stage, but I’m doing so within a specific circle, i.e. the law. The law, like art, is therefore a set of fictional works that relate to a form of aestheticism. I consider myself to be more of an artist than a lawyer, because I’m in the creative process, a form of free creation that leads me to follow my instincts.
What I really like about working with Maria Lucia Cruz Correia and Natural Contract Lab is that she often points me in directions that I hadn’t thought of, or that I perhaps sometimes tended to think of in too legal a way, too focused on what already exists, on what we call positive law, i.e. what’s already there, instead of thinking outside this framework, taking inspiration and creating differently. Very often, this allows me to make huge leaps forwards in this profession of mine, because it allows me to open doors that I hadn’t imagined.
There’s a very strong link here. Just as artists are capable of thinking things that were previously unthinkable, in the legal world this allows me to make enormous progress. It’s also a way of making the law accessible to everyone, which is more in keeping with the artistic perspective.
It’s also interesting to get a message across. People see what the law is. Sometimes they’re a bit afraid of it and using it in an artistic perspective is an interesting way of linking it to a political context and a vision, that of building a new ideal. So I think there are some really interesting bridges between art and law, particularly through the pleadings we build together. Pleading is rhetoric, and rhetoric is the art of convincing others. Whether in the theatre or in the courts, we’re also here to convince, in a way, and to get our message across. There are inherent, very strong links between artists and lawyers that allow us to mutually enrich one another.


Spillovers by Rita Natálio intertwines performance and writing, imagination and somatic experience using transfeminism and ecology as their tools. It is an unusual text, a sex manual, a sci-fi essay on water and pleasure that offers a reinterpretation of Lesbian Peoples: Material For A Dictionary (1976) by Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig.
Spillovers, an excerpt of which follows, represents a glossary defining sensorial and choreography protocols as tools for deciphering and understanding human/non human grafts. Movement is the matter that forms her writing and gathers archives of images and books about ecofeminist theories and practices.

In 2020, a book was found in a well. This well, as many other of life’s cavities, was contaminated by superficial practices of intensive monoculture. Its water, having turned unsanitary, had then dried up for quite a long time. It was inside this hole, then, dried up yet viscerally imprinted by the memory of water, that a translation of Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary, written in 1976 by Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig, was found. Back then, this book could have been read as a manual or a foundational text for a certain kind of religious cult or spiritual ritual. Much later we learned that it was a diary where the fleeting transformations of transcorporeal and elemental language were recorded, as well as an archive of practices which assembled and connected descriptions of objects, figures, problems and politico-affective strategies that the community of Spillovers (at that time simply called “lovers”, or “lesbian women”, plain and simple) had tried to implement in their lives in the face of the growing aggressions from turbo-capital and the modern science of separations. See, for example, the dictionary entry for Circulation, on page 31 of the English translation:

Physical process of intermingling two bodies. Given two bodies full of heat and electricity released from the skin through every pore, if these two bodies embrace, vibrate and begin to mix, there is a circulation and conduction reaction which causes each pore to reabsorb the energy that it had previously emitted in another form. This phenomenon, by the rapid transformation of heat and electricity into energy, produces an intense irradiation from those bodies which are practicing circulation. It is what the companion lovers mean when they say, “I circulate you,” or “you circulate me.”

In the book, one came to understand that lovers perceived themselves as membranes of sorts, seeking to relate to one another through their own ecology of connections and its limits. Yet, in 1976 many of us were only 2 years old or had just learned how to use a ring or a Y-shaped stick to locate water. And the problem was that we did not know whom we meant when we said “we”, as one of us said at the time(1). The plural personal pronoun was a practice that merely allowed us not to disappear into other pronouns that overlooked our lives, even though we did not know exactly who we were.

“Lesbians” or “women” were container-words that seemed inadequate, ill-suited. In 1976, we also knew very little about water-witching, hydrofeminism or the flow of water through different scales, bodies and genders. To balance ourselves on 2 legs was something we could do without a hitch, as was reading, though certain constraints of vision and verticality prevented us from touching the irradiation of energy in more complex ways. The search for water with a stick demanded an initiation, a special care, and the use of the antennae shared by the webs of lovers was a technology not (yet) easy to access.

The glossary presented here proposes a continuity with Wittig and Zeig’s clairvoyance, by elaborating further on the rings and fiction bags(2) that Spillovers must touch and weave in order to tangle the times and produce water. No need to fear getting wet. And much less feeling pain when drinking dirty water, or watching a water-tap blazing with methane gas released from fracking. All these dimensions, painful though they are, organise love among Spillovers. And although at times one can dispense with the centrality of the eyes and reading, images and conversations with indigenous film practices, radical poetry and counter-colonial philosophies are invoked here. They call for simple enough things: that, in the beginning, worlds were created and lived through these references, from Dionne Brand to the Karrabing Film Collective, from Astrida Neimanis to Ursula K. Le Guin. This is the necessary and anti-heroic gesture of 2020: to forget and to cut off all communication with the anthropocenic elites, all the while carrying water for those in need. As a Zen proverb says: “Before enlightenment (…) carry water. After enlightenment (…) carry water.”


1. Spillovers
To be a lover means, always, to be a Spillover. The “spill-over effect”, which leads to the spillage of liquids and intentions, is the primary condition for the multi-species and intersex amorous cooperation, whether these liquids are genital, lacrimal or jet-pumped from less obvious parts of the body, such as the elbows or feet. Water is produced at the encounter of 2 or more entities and, if properly placed in bags, it can mutate into the condition of amniotic fluid, which has strong amnesic properties, and can gestate other entities. It is not common for amniotic fluid to be ingested, except when a Spillover is buried under dry soil, a practice that aims to generate water in periods of severe shortage or contamination. Spillovers are all those who, in a life without protagonists, wish to overflow, to spill over and out of themselves, and thus cross the soft borders between peoples, territories and landscapes.

2. Bags
Bags are Spillover technologies with a multitude of functions. Bags can generate and carry babies and can be swapped from body to body regardless of gender. Bags can carry water. Bags can carry amniotic fluid and they can also carry ideas or stories. They are self-healing and biodegradable and yet there is a limit to their use, they are not disposable. Bags do not simply generate human babies, they may also create vegetable or mineral kinship and that’s why one sometimes says that a baby plant or a baby rock was born. Bags also serve as a strategy of resistance in the case of severe groundwater contamination (as shown in the film “Mermaids or Aiden in the Wonderland”, by the Karrabing Film Collective from 2018). In emergency situations, they can break through hard borders such as those that divide today’s nation states. They are tools for the migration or transmigration of bodies which have the temporary ability to deactivate passports.

3. Iris
It is said that a long time ago Spillovers experimented with carrying water, and then experimented with words, in the above-mentioned bags, thus supplying multi-species societies with unexpected and opaque bonds. Since then, whenever the water touches a word inside the bags the latter may split it into pieces: this happened, for example, with the words clitoris (clito-iris) and iridescent (iris-descent), instruments of emotional concentration and unfolding. Since then, when 1 or more Spillovers manage to carry a bag full of water into a territory ruled by monoculture, the Spillover’s iris swells up like a clitoris, thus generating a highly-hydrating golden shower followed by a multicoloured rainbow (an iridescent rainbow) in the sky. This event provides an intense pleasure, but one cannot call it heroic, or confuse it with the male tendency to worship singular phallic figures. In fact, as Spillover K. Le Guin puts it, “…it’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage, a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.”(3)

(1) Adrienne Rich, “Notes towards a politics of location”, 1984.
(2-3) Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, 1986.

Vivre le Rhône: part 2

Who has the legitimacy to speak for the river?

Vivre le Rhône’s initiator Maria Lucia Cruz Correia, environmental lawyer Marine Calmet and least’s artist-in-residence Martin Reinartz talk about rights of nature and river stewardship. June 2023.
Click here for part 1.

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.

Intimity Among Strangers

Covering nearly 10% of the Earth’s surface and weighing 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.

Vivre le Rhône: the podcast ep: 01

Vivre le Rhône: a podcast by Audrey Bersier and Martin Reinartz

Dear Listener,

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!

Episode 01

0:00 /

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.

Listen to episode 02.

*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.

«Vivre le Rhône», a civic and artistic initiative

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.

Weaving Subjects at MACO

«Common Dreams», une plateforme flottante à Genève

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.

«Vivre le Rhône» celebrates the identity of the river

Une plateforme sur les flots pour mieux vivre

An initiative to accompany our society in its transformation

Putting Off the Catastrophe

If the end is nigh, why aren’t we managing to take global warming seriously? How can we overcome the apathy of our eternal present? The following article is taken from MEDUSA, an Italian newsletter that talks about climate and cultural changes. Edited by Matteo De Giuli and Nicolò Porcelluzzi in collaboration with NOT, it comes out every second Wednesday and you can register for it here. In 2021, MEDUSA also became a book.

There is no alternative was one of Margaret Thatcher’s slogans: wellbeing, services, economic growth… are goals achievable exclusively by doing things the free market way. 40 years on, in a world built on those very election promises, There is no alternative sounds more like a bleak statement of fact, a maxim curbing our collective imagination: there is no alternative to the system we’re living in. Even when we’re hit by crisis, in times of unrest, exploitation and inequality, the state of affairs finds us more or less defenceless. There’s no escape – or we can’t see it: our room for manoeuvre has been fenced off.

Why can’t we take global warming seriously? Because it’s one of those complex systems that operate, as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams affirm in their Inventing the Future, “on temporal and spatial scales that go well beyond the bare perceptual capacities of the individual” and whose effects “are so widespread that it’s impossible to exactly collocate our experience within their context”. In short, the climate problem is also the result of a cognitive problem. We are lost in the corridors of a vast and complex building in which we see no direct and immediate reaction to anything we do and have no clear moral compass to help us find our way.

It was to pursue these issues further that I decided to read What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming (hereafter WWTAWWTNTAGW) by Norwegian psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes, a book I’d been putting off reading for some time for a series of reasons that turned out to be only partially valid. First of all, there was my vaguely scientist prejudice: despite being interested in the issue, I find that the back cover of WWTAWWTNTAGW sounds more like front flap blurb for some self-help publication rather than for a serious work of popular science. I quote: “Stoknes shows how to retell the story of climate change and at the same time create positive, meaningful actions that can be supported even by negationists”. Then there was the title, WWTAWWTNTAGW, a cumbersome paraphrase of a title that is already, in itself, the most ferociously paraphrased in the history of world literature. And lastly — still on the surface only – there was the spectre of another book by Per Espen Stoknes, published in 2009, the mere cover of which I continue to find insurmountably cringeful: Money & Soul: A New Balance Between Finance and Feelings.

Laying aside, for the moment at least, the prejudices that kept me away from WWTAWWTNTAGW, I discovered a light-handed book that raises various interesting points. In short: why does climate change, our future, interest us so little? Why do we see it as such an abstract and remote problem? What are the cognitive barriers that are sedating, tranquillizing and preventing us from having even the slightest real fear for the fate of the planet? Stoknes identifies five, which can be summed up more or less as follows:

Distance. The climate problem is still remote for many of us, from various points of view. Floods, droughts, bushfires are increasingly frequent but still affect only a small part of the planet. The bigger impacts are still far off in time, a century or more.

Doom. Climate change is spoken of as an unavoidable disaster that will cause losses, costs and sacrifices: it is human instinct to avoid such matters. We are predictably averse to grief. Lack of practical solutions on offer exacerbates feelings of impotence, while messages of catastrophe backfire. We’ve been told that “the end is nigh” so many times that it no longer worries us.

Dissonance. When what we know (using fossil fuel energy contributes to global warming) comes into conflict with what we’re forced to do or what we end up doing anyway (driving, flying, eating beef), we feel cognitive dissonance. To shake this off, we are driven to challenge or underestimate the things we are sure about (facts) in order to be able to go about our daily lives with greater ease.

Denial. When we deny, ignore or avoid acknowledging certain disturbing facts that we know to be “true” about climate change, we are shielding ourselves against the fear and feelings of guilt that they generate, against attacks on our lifestyle. Denial is a self-defence mechanism and is different from ignorance, stupidity or lack of information.

Identity. We filter news through our personal and cultural identities. We look for information that endorses values and presuppositions already inside our minds. Cultural identity overwrites facts. If new information requires us to change ourselves, we probably won’t accept it. We balk at calls to change our personal identities.

There are obviously hundreds of other reasons why we still hold back from a strategy to mitigate climate change: economic interests, the slowness of diplomacy, conflicting development models, the United States, India, sheer egoism, “great derangement” and all the other things we’ve come to know so well over the years. But Per Espen Stoknes empirically suggests a way forward. Catastrophism and alarmism don’t work. We need to find a different tone to dispel the apathy of our eternal present.

Image: The Grosser Aletsch, 1900 Photoglob Wehrli © Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Graphische Sammlung und Fotoarchiv/ 2021 Fabiano Ventura – © Associazione Macromicro.

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.

A floating school to rethink our relationship with the climate and the environment

least, an association that wants to save the planet through the arts

Vivre le Rhône: part 1

“What stories are already there?”

A video by Carlos Tapia featuring the Rhône river, Maria Lucia Cruz Correia, Vinny Jones, and Lode Vranken. February 2023.
Click here for part 2.

The association least dreams of saving the planet through the arts

The Rhône Seeks Guardians

Becoming a Guardian of the Rhône