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Feral Labs: Resilient Micro-systems and Experimental Territories

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On the occasion of the end of a cycle of the Feral Labs Network – a Creative Europe cooperation programme co-funded by the European Union (2019-2021) – and the release of the associated publication “Feral Labs Node Book #1: Rewilding Culture”, Xavier Fourt of the Bureau d’études collective proposes a speculative essay on “Resilient micro-systems and territories of experimentation”.

The present text is speculative. It starts off with an everyday object, relates it to the techno-social structures that enable it, and suggests a few leads to redesign a sustainable and continuous human social project on Earth

Dennis Meadows co-authored The Limits to Growth, a report on economic and population growth with a finite supply of resources. This report, which was commissioned by the Club of Rome and published in 1972, led to a spurt of sustainable development efforts in the 1980s. But about ten years ago, Meadows declared that it is now too late for sustainable development. Rather than continuing to believe that wide systemic regulations implemented by global institutions can solve the limits of growth, he argued, what we urgently need now is resilient micro-systems that can adapt to the rapid and catastrophic transformations of the Anthropocene [Meadows in Sinaï, 2013]. But how can his observation influence our material conditions and capacity for resilience?

If we attempt to create a resilient territory based on Meadows’s valid remark, we quickly stumble into British designer Thomas Thwaites’s famous experiment:
« The Toaster Project ». In it, Thwaites builds a toaster entirely by his own means, without relying on any of the long production supply chains of global capitalism to source raw materials, components or assembly services. In reconstructing this toaster, Thwaites applies several different techniques, some dating back to the Bronze Age, while borrowing other skills from artisans of the late Middle Ages. So it would appear that the resilience of the contemporary toaster is proportional to the resilience of global capitalism itself—and would not qualify as a resilient micro-system according to Meadows’s ideal.

Thomas Thwaites, “The Toaster Project”. DR.

In order to determine which of our objects, practices and applications are resilient, so that we can prepare our individual and collective existences for the shocks to come, let’s investigate. Which of these objects, practices and applications would survive if global supply chains were slowed or halted? Our investigation would reveal the cracks in our current modes of existence and highlight what we will probably need to give up in order to gain capacity for resilience. It would also point out what really matters to us, as well as the conditions that sustain our existence.

As a strictly instrumental exercise, ignoring all metaphysical questions, we could easily determine a set of essential items to fill our survival kit. Here, what we treasure most would be our own lives with their basic conditions. We would choose objects that we could carry with us and that are independent of any infrastructure. This equipment would soon boil down to the four bare necessities—food, shelter, clothing, fuel—as cited in the well-known book by the anti-conformist philosopher Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854). This book celebrates a simple life, apart from society, presenting an alternative, solitary lifestyle immersed in nature.

Walden, or how to experiment with another way of existing

Thoreau’s Walden shows that the psychological notion of resilience is secondary to the pedagogical concept of self-teaching. Through independent learning, through our capacity to marvel, listen, apprehend and understand on our own, we can also maintain our capacity to live in an uncertain and mutating world.

But Thoreau’s Walden is also limited by the absence of a possible social and spiritual community, even as it conditions the author’s apparent solitude. Indeed, this utopic Walden, which we will call Walden I (Thoreau’s Walden), cannot exist sustainably without a Walden II, a social Walden, that is also technological—the condition that makes it possible.

We can cite the example of Walden II (1948) by the behavioral psychology engineer Burrhus Frederic Skinner. He describes establishing an experimental community that is libertarian, utopian and egalitarian, after the Second World War [Skinner, (1948) 2005].

The community is ruled by scientists and founded on a behavioral approach that challenges free will and considers that human beings are determined by environmental variables [Skinner, 1938]. Altering these variables is therefore necessary to generate a desirable sociocultural system [Skinner, 1971]. As such, it is not enough to surmount the usual punitive methods and control techniques to create a resilient social micro-system that offers the social conditions for individual liberty and dignity. All social experimentation that is wedged into the greater social and ecological environment is limited, because the experiment is subject to the pressures of overpopulation, pollution, global warming, modified geochemical cycles, diminished natural resources, and the massive extinction of species on a planetary scale.

In order to ensure its own resilience, this interdependence between territorial social experimentation and its broader environment requires extending the experiment to an entire country—as recommended by the Chilean author Ruben Ardila, in his book Walden III (1979). Yet in Ardila’s fiction, the Walden III social experiment fails after the intervention of a foreign power… The author implies that any territorial social experimentation should necessarily be supported by a social experiment that extends beyond national borders—a Walden IV, which would cover the whole Earth. Implementing this socio-ecological system would signal the beginning of a new phase in human civilization that will have reached adulthood.

If Thoreau’s Walden I presented an alternative but solitary lifestyle, outside of society, which today, while still possible, may be somewhat irrelevant in a world of 10 billion people, scanned by satellites, engulfed in global electromagnetic fields and covered by a thin layer of plastic; if Walden II presented an experimental society contained in a community of a thousand people, itself constrained by the surrounding national territory and thus limited in its capacity to establish a new society; if Ardila’s Walden III imagined an alternative society on a national scale but just as soon swept away by the conspiracies of neighboring powers; it seems necessary to establish a Walden IV: a socio-ecological system to mark the new phase of a new civilization on Earth. And in a context of depleting resources, we might even see a Walden V: a solar ecosystem, based on Earth’s dependence on exhausted mineral resources or resources otherwise unavailable on Earth, that extends its socio-technical organization to the Moon and the asteroids.

But what form would such a global socio-ecological system take, if we accept Dennis Meadows’s declaration that it is now too late for sustainable development and that we need to build resilient micro-systems?
The Global Scenario Group (GSG) created in 1995 by the Tellus Institute and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), simulates various scenarios, in two major categories: barbarian and transitional. Among the barbarian scenarios, the Fortress World ensures its resilience by installing walled enclaves where elites guard their privileges by locking themselves in golden prisons, exercising authoritarian control over the impoverished majority, while leveraging available natural resources and critical infrastructures [Gallopín et al., 1997]. This Fortress World is no doubt represented by the long supply chains required to manufacture the aforementioned toaster. But it’s also a scenario that predicts their crisis or collapse—in which case we will need to imagine other planetary civilizations…

Technologies for experimental territories

Instead of choosing the Fortress World scenario, we will explore a transitional scenario. This is firmly in line with the 17th to 18th century Age of Enlightenment, based on individual reasoning, as humanity comes of age—German philosopher Immanuel Kant referred to the Enlightenment as the capacity to exercise one’s own judgment without being directed by a tutor or director of conscience—and in the spirit of the Encyclopedia, which recognizes the need for incomplete knowledge, thus avoiding a system with the arrogance of absolute control over reality.

We can imagine this scenario as a constellation of resilient micro-systems that extend to the entire planet, revoking nations, and the conglomerates of these nations, in order to radically replace them with confederations of communes—as was the case in French politician Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, 1835-1849, and as recommended by Russian anarchist human geographer Peter Kropotkin as a model for a future society. Such an image is an ideal model for imagining paths toward collective action—emancipated from the massive global chains of neo-feudalism, tending toward perpetuity by projecting themselves into the cosmos and into planetary machines.

In this alternative world where entities cooperate, the size of resilient territorial entities can be scaled down to a thousand people, as per Skinner’s Walden II. But other scales have also been recommended. Design theorist Christopher Alexander recommended units of around 7,000 people [Alexander et al., 1977]. The Greek philosopher Plato imagined communist collectives of 5,040 cultivator and soldier heads of families [Plato, Lois, V, 736]. The number 5,040 presents the advantage of having the most divisors, which allows for the composition of different groups. Here, the number 5,040 is understood as a ratio of proportions between human inhabitants, species, resources, that ensures the sustainability of the whole, as well as its capacity to be democratically governed.

Proportional relationships between the various components of this habitat are one of the great technologies that allow the transformation of a heterogeneous reality into a habitable cosmos. These proportional relationships can also be expressed in stories or myths. For example, the indigenous Kutano tribe of Colombia base their mythological structures, cosmological concepts and ritual behaviors on ecological principles, where social and economic rules are highly adaptable in view of maintaining a balance between environmental resources and the needs of the society [Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1976].

Here, “experimental territories” could refer to various attempts to establish such systems of rules, techniques, practices, rituals, myths and stories with the aim of ensuring a viable existence, in mutating environments, among all participating human and non-human parties, both carbon and silicon, in the fields of health, technology, transportation and mobility, education, social affairs, etc. In this sense, an experimental territory could incorporate human-centered (but not necessarily transhumanist) techniques that seek to expand the faculties of the mind, to develop forms of inter-species or inter-world communication or reproduction, to modulate strength, intelligence, sexuality, emotions, perceptions or even the appearance of perceptions.

Establishing such experimental territories could be further supported by legal investigations to liberate these territories from rules or laws that are enforced on a larger scale. For example, we could experiment, locally and continuously, on non-vaccinated territories, following the “One Health” initiative —a global initiative representing collaborative efforts of multiple disciplines to attain an integrated, systemic and unified approach to public, animal and environmental health on local, national and planetary scales. These territories could welcome such a holistic approach, free from the constraints of centralized public policy that is homogeneously applied to territories whose heterogeneity is a necessary condition of their resilience.

This is not about building a heavily fortified Noah’s Ark for the benefit of a happy few, nor is it about inventing new infrastructures to concentrate communities with no future. Rather, our focus is on diversifying territories and lifeforms by strategically standardizing components and protocols in order to create habitable territories. This is a particular challenge in the Anthropocene, where global warming, modified geochemical cycles, etc., already threaten our 12,000-year-old civilization of agriculture.

Illustration “One Health”. Crédit: INRAE

Is sustainability possible on an uncertain timeline?

In this critical era, which anticipates the possible extinction of Homo Sapiens, sustainability must be reinvented. The term “sustainability” first emerged in the 1972 report The Limits to Growth. The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, presided by the Norwegian Gro Harlem Brundtland, defines sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” [Brundtland Report, 1988]. The work done by this commission led to the Brundtland Report, which served as a foundation for the Earth Summit in 1992.

Another definition of sustainability refers to the seven generations cited by Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation (one of the original five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy). According to Lyons, an action is said to be durable when it guarantees natural resources for the next seven generations (about 245 years) [cited in Vecsey, 1980:173].

However, seven generations are no longer sufficient to establish sustainability, given the tens of thousands of years required for the natural decay of Uranium-235, or considering the hundreds of thousands of years of environmental transformations to come as a result of human-induced climate change.

Thus, we have two recommendations. The first is to imagine an entirely new scenario, as the term “sustainability” has become woefully inadequate. This term should qualify the permanence of a society going through a process of mutation that lasts several seconds in the life of Brahma, that is to say, several million years.

Cosmic time largely exceeds the common understanding we have of human timescales and cycles of civilization. This context calls for a more vast cosmology, which would not only place humans in their own history, but also ensure social connections beyond our own cultural timescales, situating us in the history of the Cosmos—just as metempsychosis and metensomatosis link us to the mental and biological history of all cosmic beings.

The second recommendation aims to determine a “pattern language” [Alexander, 1977] as the base for emerging micro-societies. These micro-societies would be able to self-replicate, recognize and resonate with each other without being overseen by a general administration or tangled in a transversal control system. Pattern languages also appear in models or templates used to organize the collective construction work of 17th century cathedrals without referring to a blueprint or the authority of an architect [Turnbull, 2000], among many more examples. 

This notion of pattern language could extend to several different parts of society, where resilience would result from the similarity in patterns used to organize micro-societies. The primary subject of research would be the interdependence between objects (social, material, biological, moral, symbolic, technical): identifying the fundamental structures they form, while discovering how they hold their properties within structures that are increasingly complex.

In other words, apprehending the modularity of a few fundamental relationships would enable us to understand how all the parts organize themselves and how those with affinities combine to form groups. So even if one part were to disappear, evolve or modulate, populations (human or non-human, carbon or silicon) could still find their way through the whole, as the patterns would be multi-scale, integrating dynamic changes that are common throughout the space, from local to regional to global, and on timescales ranging from a month to a millennium, or even longer.

In recent years, emphasis has often been placed on the need to imagine new scenarios of climate change or the Anthropocene. But in order to implement these scenarios, they must be translated into methods. What kind of method can be applied to experiments that are driven by an uncertain future? What are the necessary conditions for their practical implementation, from a social, but also administrative, legal, technical, economic and cultural perspectives?

Today, our future remains shortsighted, largely conditioned by past or present conceptual, legal and imaginary frameworks, without truly reflecting upon the scale of transformations and how they could affect the economy, techniques, administration, laws and culture. A few years ago, anthropologists studied how they might plant signs to indicate the locations of radioactive waste—signs that could be understood by societies radically different from ours in millennia to come. This same approach should be extended to redesigning sustainable societies that—despite radical ongoing transformations and the questionable concept of sustainability itself—will ensure social continuity with generations of the distant future.

Bibliography:

• Skinner, B.F. (1938). The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. Cambridge, Massachusetts: B.F. Skinner Foundation
• Skinner, B.F. (1971). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Knopf.
• Thomas Thwaites (2011) Toaster project. Or a heroic attempt to build a simple electric appliance from scratch. Princeton Architectural Press · New York
• Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. (1976). Cosmology as Ecological Aanalysis : A View from the Rain Forest. Man, New Series, Vol.11, Issue 3 (sept.1976).
• Sinaï, Agnès (dir.) (2013). Penser la décroissance. Politiques de l’Anthropocène, Paris, Les. Presses de Sciences Po.
• Henry David Thoreau (1990). Walden, ou la vie dans les bois. Trad. Louis Fabulet. Gallimard, coll. « L’Imaginaire ».
• Skinner, Burrhus Frederic (2005). Walden Two. Hackett Publishing Company.
• Ruben Ardila (1979). Walden Tres. Ediciones CEAC
• Gallopín Gilberto et al. (1997). Branch Points: Global Scenarios and Human Choice. A Resource Paper of the Global Scenario Group. PoleStar Series Report no. 7. Stockholm Environment Institute.
• Alexander, Christopher et al. (1977). A Pattern Language. Towns, Buildings, Construction. Oxford University Press.
• Brundtland Report (1988). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. Récupéré de http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm
• Dennis Meadows (1972). Halte à la croissance. Fayard.
• Christopher Vecsey and Robert W. Venables ed. (1980) American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Syracuse University Press, New York.
• David Turnbull (2000). Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers. Comparative Studies in the Sociology of Scientific and Indigenous Knowledge. Routledge. OPA Gordon and Breach Publishing Group.

Download the publication: Feral Labs Node Book #1: Rewilding Culture.

The Feral Labs Network was cofinanced (2019-2021) by the Creative Europe program of the European Union. The cooperation was led by the Projekt Atol Institute in Ljubljana (Slovenia) with the Bioart Society (Helsinki, Finland), Catch (Helsingor, Denmark), Radiona (Zagreb, Croatia), Schmiede (Hallein, Austria) et Art2M/Makery (France).

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