Politics of Nature – Amager Fælled

LAUNCH OF POLITICS OF NATURE

Who shall live where, when and how ?

Everyone cannot live everywhere at the same time. Amager Fælled reminded us of this.

This realization demands us to rethink the way in which it is decided who has the right to exist and who should compose the jury. We must rapidly explore ways to learn to empathize with perspectives inherently alien to our own and use this to reach durable and just solutions.

As we do not know what will work we chose to experiment, fail and learn in real-life laboratories. Amager Fælled was the first step on the way to realizing Politics of Nature – to establish a Parliament of Things!

The Politics of Nature initiative is a year-old idea in motion. Almost 20 years ago Bruno Latour wrote a book that inspired the initiative and gave it its name.

In the book Politics of Nature, as well as in  “Pandora’s hope” and “We have never been modern” before it, Latour describes a new order, a new constitution in which humans and non-humans share the same social and political sphere – A Parliament of Things!

In June 2018, we decided to convene a Danish version, a “Tingenes Tinge” (a parliament of things translated to Danish) (Latour 1993, p.145). The Danish word for parliament is identical to the word thing, which fits well with the notion that we need to agree on the existence of things for them to become a shared and manageable reality (Latour 1993, p. 83).

We imagined a gathering on a hilltop, perhaps in Virtual Reality, where a meadow would be parlaying with a rabbit, a fox, three species of trees joined in one collective, a hunter and perhaps a farmer. They would recognize the existence of one another, explore their interconnectedness, propose scenarios for the world in which they were willing to live as well as the sacrifices they were ready to make, and finally be able to consent to the continued co-existence of the collective (Latour 2004, p. 177).

The Politics of Nature initiative was formed to take the idea of a Parliament of Things from the confines of academic discussions and bring it to life. We only had vague ideas as to how we could convene such a Parliament of Things.

Therefore, we decided to construct numerous laboratories, where tools enabling gentle shifts of the political reality could be trialed, evaluated and refined. We wanted to create both analogue and digital spaces where multi-species and multi-perspective conversations could exist. We wanted spokespersons for actors normally outside the parliamentarian space or relegated to insignificant side rows, such as plants, animals and ozone holes, to be seated side-by-side with politicians, urban developers, human citizens, and engage in joint political discussion on topics relevant for the future of our collective at large.

From the onset, a driving hypothesis of the initiative was that we would be able to deploy technology to gradually enhance the capacity of humans to understand and interact with non-humans. We are very thrilled about Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and cross Reality (XR) projects that enabled new understandings of other beings by for instance living the life of tree as seen through the mediation of artists and developers – and the prospects of Social VR experiences with multi player interaction and endless avatars.

We saw huge potentials for giving citizens access to AR and AI to rapidly identify species in an environment, and understand their needs. We landed an opportunity to present our findings and possibly coordinate a hackathon at the virtual reality conference CopenX in Copenhagen. This was June, the conference was in September. We needed a case – and we needed it fast! It had to be politically potent enough to mobilize collaborators and actors. It had to in Copenhagen, and it had to be able to inspire technological and artistic productions. We needed a controversy. We needed Amager Fælled.

 

Situated in the middle of Copenhagen, and destined for urban residential and commercial development, in order to fulfil an almost 30 year-old financial obligation incurred for the construction of The Copenhagen Metro, Amager Fælled has become more than a place and even more than the things and beings residing there. It has become a symbol of the asymmetry between the beings endowed with the ability and resources to speak and fend for themselves and those less privileged. Amager Fælled has become the protagonist in the ongoing-nature-politics conversation in Denmark

Amager Fælled had all the actors on the scene for the perfect controversy! There were a “militant” ecological NGO (Latour 2004), Amager Fælleds Venner (Friends of Amager Fælled), fighting for the right for the place to exist, with members claiming to be legitimate spokespersons of plants and animals. There were the construction magnates, silently watching as the deal of the decade withered. There were the local politicians jumping in to position themselves as saviours of the last bastion of Nature inside of Copenhagen. Representatives from the national government, being the creditor of the multi-billion loan to be recuperated by the urban development, talked about the ubiquity and transcendent nature of the economic system.

The timing was superb in terms of publicity, the Politics of Nature event was to take place three days after a large Amager Fælled demonstration at Copenhagen town square to and two days before the onset of the municipal budget negotiations where the future of Amager Fælled would be decided. The controversy was at its most polarized.

Communication took place in mutually excluding echo chambers, where everyone pretty much agrees, and only limited amount of perceptions are present. The chambers took turns in proposing actions or opinions, in transposed, mediated realities – not concurrent and not face to face. The voices of a few became so loud that the nuances and greater picture drowned in the sea of noise, and the clandestine maneuvering of the ones calling the shots all but impossible to trace.

The situation seemed to be past dialogue at the most crucial moment for dialogue.  

Amager Fælled became the first laboratory where it would be explored how the political philosophy of Politics of Nature and the Constitution defining the interactional space between humans and non-humans could be brought to life. We were going to use the Amager Fælled controversy to spark a gentle dialogue on how we could rethink politics, representation and delegation as to bring non-human actors and things into the political dialogue.

 

Convening of Tingenes Tinge on Amager Fælled also assured the participation of Oleg Koefoed, an action-philosopher taking part in discussions on the convening of a Parliament of Things, long before the Politics of Nature initiative was formed. Additional to years of experience and insight into nature-politics dilemmas Oleg brought in four college students from the United States.

We were interested in tracing the representation of the delegation of mandates between agents in a form carrying greater resemblance to the actual interactional space of society. In social interactions actors delegate mandates to other agents or actors who then act on their behalf on a daily basis. We collaborate and thus trust other agents to do something on your behalf. We had been nurturing the idea of merging Latours vision of a Parliament of Things with the liquid democracy, a hybrid between direct democracy and representative democracy.

We pictured a debate leading to questions, questions leading to proposals; proposals leading to deliberation and counter-proposals and as time progressed and some would have to leave they would delegate their vote to others. We still haven’t figured out how someone or something not able to speak in a human language could delegate their vote in a liquid democratic system. Were sciences the only one allowed to put forward opinions on behalf of all these mute beings. Who could act as a legitimate spokesperson of a deer?

Arternes Århus, City of the Species, has experimented with representation performed by humans on behalf of non-human actors in Århus, Denmark. Citizens have put playfulness, creativity and humour at front, however with real political impact on local urban planning. They are ambassadors for one species each from the fox to the linden tree. They participate at public hearings where they speak up and represent the interests of the species, they write editorials for the newspaper on behalf of the species and they have succeeded in moving intended urban planning to protect a given nest.

We invited the Chairman of Arternes Århus, Nina Tofte Hansen to partake and explain their philosophy at Amager Fælled.

 

While technological solutions exist that make liquid democracy possible, we preferred using an analogue version for the workshop. We contacted Rolf Bjerre, who had organized an analogue liquid democracy workshop some years back, and asked if he would be interested in helping facilitate an event where we were to discuss the future of Amager Fælled and how to convene a Parliament of Things.

Rolf was interested in both challenges, but instead of liquid democracy he proposed using “The Cratic Platform” as the meeting and governance tool. He also brought in Johan Stubbe who had become involved in the development of the Cratic Platform.

From voting, to consensus to consent

The main motivation for moving from liquid democracy to the Cratic Platform was moving from a majority voting based system to an agreement based system. The Cratic Platform, being inspired from Sociocracy and Holocracy, makes use of consent which works differently from the voting processes described above. While it might appear to be a consensus process, important differences exist. Where you often in consensus processes aim for everyone to agree, in consenting processes, the objective is to identify if solutions can be implemented without causing harm to others.

You do not have to be in complete agreement to give consent consent to a proposal, it suffices that you do not consider it harmful or wrong. Similar to consensus processes, everyone will need to provide consent before a proposal can be effectuated, thus avoiding the tyranny of the majority.

Moving from agreement to tolerance, means that the room for maneuverability and decision making is increased as is evident from the schematic drawing below.

We quickly realized that using consenting processes for matters of rights to existence was an interesting approach. To give an example of why this is; look at the requirements of a given actor of another actor; say the frogs’ need for stream water. The frog will have stream water levels considered optimal, suboptimal, and then there are levels no longer supporting the existence of the frogs. If a proposal will not push the water level to a point outside the tolerance range of the frogs, they can accept it, albeit the scenario is not considered optimal.

In the diagram below this translates to the frog surviving but not thriving. But if the water level on the other hand drops to an extent where the existence of the frogs are compromised the proposal cannot move forward, but will have to go through another round of iteration to find ways in which the water needs of the frogs are respected. This do raise some questions referring to to the introduction of this article: Everyone cannot live everywhere at the same time. What happens when someone has to die? When scarcity dictates that everyone cannot exist at the same place at the same time?

 

The Cratic Platform differ from sociocracy in that objections to proposals are not addressed in a structured manner, as the purpose is to identify common grounds not differences..

 

The Cratic Platform

A Cratic meeting is arranged in a game-like format, where there are four corners, North, South, East and West. The meeting is let my a table host, whose role is to facilitate the meeting by assuring that the agenda is respected and that the speaking order is obeyed. All participants engaging in the meeting, will get a token, and start by writing their name on it and place it on the middle of the board. Participants can choose to represent someone or something other than themselves, for instance a company, an animal or something abstract. The table host must have his or her true identity and participants should not write the name of another participant on his token.

In the eastern corner the agenda is placed. The agenda can be modified according to whatever needs to be discussed. In the northern corner there are two options, one is a framing (this could be providing insight into the current budget or legal constraints, and the other is a concern. Concerns and framings, pertain to the challenge described in the agenda, not the proposals.

In the southern corner, you will find the proposal field. Participants placing their token here can formulate proposals that are addressing the agenda topic discussed. In the western corner, there is a check-in function. There is a personal and knowledge based check-in. The personal check-in relates to how the participant feels at this moment, or what his opinion or values are in regards to the topic being discussed. The knowledge based check-in concerns the knowledge and experience the participant has in regards to the topic on the agenda, or something which is being discussed.

Below the check-in is the Echo, which can be used if a participant wants to hear the opinion of the others on an oral input, a concern, a framing or a proposal. The one calling the echo first provides input and the participants each take turns providing inputs.

In the bottom-left corner, below the echo, is the consent. The participants can place their token and ask for consent on one or more of the written elements.

Consenting will always be carried out on all written proposals before the meeting ends, but like the echo, placing a token on the consent field can provide guidance on the support for and hence feasibility of proposals.

During consent, the facilitator reads aloud proposals and the participants then either give a thumbs up or do nothing. The number of consents and participants are noted on the written proposal. The written down framings, concerns and proposals with the degree of consent, constitutes the minutes of the meeting. The minutes can be supplemented by a video of the pieces moving around on the table.

 

Introduction of the notion of spokespersons for non-human actors

Rolf had with the cratic platform introduced a game-like meeting format which enabled us to commence on a multiperspectivistic political dialogue.

However, organising a meeting where spokespersons for human constituencies, banks and businesses should parley on equal term with spokespersons of the marsh harrier and the moor frog, might prove too far fetched to get the conventional actors onboard. We needed people who had navigated this terra incognita to light the way and inspire the actors in the controversy to believe it is possible to open up a political space to other than humans. Luckily Arternes Århus wanted to parttake. 

 

Writing the invitation

The writing of the invitation for the event was done in tandem with the development of the concept. The first version grandeously proclaiming that animals would be talking! To this a friend gently informed us, that the general perception of this would entail that animals would talk themselves and not through spokespersons.

We risked people anticipating to come and see a  deer giving a speech, an out of this world spectacle, for them only to be disappointed by seeing a bunch of people sitting around tables. The version was iteratively moderated, and our proclamation more moderate:

We wish to commence a conversation capable of concurrently accommodating very diverse perspectives, such as the perspective of the urban developer and the dog walker. They already express themselves, but rarely in dialogue, and not in the same language. Apart from this there are whole range of stakeholders who do not speak human languages and whose perspectives are only revealed through spokespersons. For instance, the ornithologist express the perspective of the birds and microscopes that of bacteria.

It’s still a tricky text to read. To some extend it helped, but not quite. It’s very difficult to communicate this to a wider audience – to trigger something for every one, to reach a wider audience that needs to invest their precious time in attending a meeting that might be difficult to see the urgent need for.  

 

Every bombastic proclamation, all jargon, most philosophical and ideological motivations were slashed as to enable the wide stakeholder acceptance. Understanding perspectives of non-human actors outweighed understanding of human actors and the interconnectedness of these, which we attempted to balance.

The key message that we wanted to convey was that we were trying out a new meeting format to explore how consents for coexistence can be obtained, and how it is made possible that the everyone is heard and everyone hears everyone.

It was important for us to avoid that people got the idea that we believed in fixing the perspective on Amager Fælled and nature-society in general.

We wished for people reading the invitation to read their own perception of nature and society into it and bring that to the event. Amalie Hovgesen created a visual representation that captured the multiperspectivism of the event, and provided the initiative with a professional appearance and identity.

politics of nature – invitation (danish)

 

Inviting actors

We anticipated that the non-committing, explorative and mediative format of the Politics of Nature meeting, could relieve the political deadlock, and bring the disparate parties together for a day. To get the richest picture possible we invited every actor, with even the remotes ties to Amager Fælled (in all its meaning) and to the initiative of convening a parliament of things, that we could think of.

We used Facebook to share the message as broad as possible, we used personalized and targeted mails along with calling up the key actors.

We invited every politician in the relevant boards in the city council, all mayors, By og Havn ((the publicly owned entity responsible for developing city areas and selling them to private individuals or companies)), The Metro Company, the neighboring golf club, citizen-associations, various organizations representing nature’s perspective, construction companies, artists and dog walkers.

Politicians, including Frank Jensen the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen and Ninna Hedeager Olsen the Technical and Environmental Mayor of Copenhagen, together with representatives from NGOs and businesses lauded the initiative, but were unable to participate. An executive from By and Havn , was herself fond of Latour and found the initiative both important and amiable, but considered it a political Pandora’s box not to be touched with a ten-foot pole.

The representative contacted from the Metro Company requested not to be contacted again on this matter. Two politicians from the city counsel did show up, albeit both of the parties whom they represented, were excluded from the budgetary negotiations the following day, meaning that not a single actor with real political power participated.

Friends of Amager Fælleds, although supportive and curious at first, changed position altogether when they realized that Politics of Nature was apolitical and wanted their perspectives to co-exist with the perspectives of what they perceived enemies of Amager Fælled to be from official participation and endorsement.

 

Framing

We had more questions than answers. We started with a list of more than fifty questions that we grouped into six areas of inquiry relevant to Politics of Nature, the process, the consolidation, observation, the ownership and rights, biodiversity and actors, and finally technologies supporting this.

With the realisation, that the main actors in the controversy were not going to show up, the focus was shifted towards obtaining inputs to these questions that we were struggling with answering. We decided that the event would be organized around four tables.

Each table would have a warm-up session, during which the participants would get acquainted with the cratic meeting format and the concept of representing the perspectives of others than yourself.

The warm-up questions would be the same on all tables. These questions explored who can represent the species on Amager Fælled and how we can represent the interest of species that have not asked to be represented.

After the break the each table would have its own topic and question to be explored: Table one was to explore how non-human actors can obtain rights to an area when they cannot purchase or buy it. Table two asked how we best listen to nature, and can technology aid in this? Table three provided an opening for saying what was yet to be said about Amager Fælled. Table four ideated on what Amager Fælled would have to be able to do in ten years time?

 

AFTERTHOUGHT ON PARTICIPANTS

Consulting literature and experts, our naivete was conspicuous.

An initiative like Politics of Nature on Amager Fælled which did did not have real-political power, no finances to back things up, no strong alliances in the media, would mean that engaging in a dialogue for any of the polarized parties would equal giving in.

For Friends of Amager Fælled, a possible reasoning for ending any official participation could be that it would legitimize a dialogue around potential abdication of territory with resulting killing of non-human actors, a fundamentally unacceptable concession, potentially blurring their simple and unifying ‘call to arms’ – Preserve Amager Fælled!  

For By og Havn, the Metro Company, and politicians already well-seated at the head of the table, we can only assume that partaking could bring their play out of obscurity and into the open, with a potential negative impact on public perception.

The realization that getting the central actors of the controversy to sit at the table was impossible spurred thoughts on how we could alleviate this issue.

Afterthought on using objections

Objections to proposals are highly valuable as these inform the proposer and the rest of the collective about aspects previously unknown to them. This follows the second principle of sociocracy; The Principle of Consent: Raise, seek out and resolve objections to decisions and actions. We needed to experiment with methods exploring the objections through empiricism, where the relations of the actors, their wishes, concerns and objections were traced and mapped concurrent with the exploration.

 

What didn’t worked ?

The initial idea was to combine the workshop at Amager Fælled with CopenX one month later. CopenX is a conference and summit focusing on the possibilities within XR.

With an intense focus from the group on the analog event (making the the concept somewhat understandable and inviting stakeholders) at Amager Fælled, planning fell behind for a hackathon (finding participants and sponsors) and time pressure resulted in a postponing. It still remains an integrated part of the methodology, it’s the digital afterlife building bridge to the analog activities

Inspired by previous work with the Cratic Platform, we wanted to test the scalability for the consents at the workshop. Would the discussed consents be able to reach a greater audience with digitized proposals with the software “Typeform” ? Would there be alignment between analog consents and digital consents after two weeks of reflection and no “social pressure” from being surrounded by people in the decision making process.  

We received very few answers on the typeform. Either people have had enough of the format, the mail went to a spam-filter or we were not able to scream loud enough in the digital space.

We believe in and want to test the analog-digital-analog combination. Taking the best from each approaches from real interaction to the speed of communication and handling data sets.

At the same time we will also be faced by the challenge of the unaware click-approach for petitions and consents for data collection, that does not seem to activate knowledge(s) and emotions for the users, exactly what we want and hope to do with Politics of Nature. 

All relevant learnings for future work, and also not a big surprise. We pushed play with a new project with short time to execute and no money allocated. Then usually you don’t get all the things you desire.

But we got a lot. It was a beautiful event. The reception of the idea and the acknowledgement of the potential resonated with the participants. We had our proof of concept. Politics of Nature is alive !