Koert van Mensvoort – Forward to nature
Interview by Viveka van de Vliet
‘Forward to nature’, you could say, is the motto of Koert van Mensvoort. Apart from the fact that we live in a cultivated nature that we have shaped ourselves, it is not the desire of the philosopher, artist and scientist to return to nature and to preserve it. In the NextNature world, nature and technology evolve along with humans.
Koert van Mensvoort thinks the other way around. As a philosopher who asks questions. Was nature perfect before man came and ruined it? No, we are part of nature, but we have placed ourselves outside of it. Only on Sundays you can walk in it. The nature fundamentalists go even one step further: only birds and animals are allowed to be there; for pople nature is a no-go zone. Children are brought up with the fact that nature is pathetic and must be saved. So, back to the traditional way of protecting and preserving nature. Attempts to control nature lead to a perfect world, we think naive.
‘It is a popular idea that nature disappears because of our presence,’ says Van Mensvoort. That it is an assumption that needs to be questioned was long ago an eye-opener for Koert van Mensvoort, even before he worked as a philosopher and artist. It led to the documentary for the VPRO in 2001: “Papa, the forest smells like shampoo.” His time in the Bijlmermeer around 2004 was also decisive. Living in one of the largest renewal projects ever, with high flats and down a city jungle. The Oostvaardersplassen: embanked. The new island on the Marker Wadden: sprayed on behalf of Natuurmonumenten. ‘In thirty years we will walk in that ‘nature ‘, he says. ‘I give everyone the illusion, but the original nature does not exist.’ He would like to formulate the theme “Broken nature: Design takes on human survival” for the Triennale di Milano in 2019, differently. ‘It is not nature that is broken, but our image of nature.’
Then you end up on the other side of the story: the discovery of technologies that have to free us from the wild forces of nature. The complex and autonomous technologies are a nature of its own. In Van Mensvoort’s view, nature is not static, but it changes with us; nature becomes culture and culture nature, biology becomes technology and vice versa. The philosopher, who is also founder of NextNature, sees this network as a visionary tree, with dangling fruits like in-vitro meat, robots, personalized and genetically engineered fish leather sneakers, or the Invitro Cook Book. These are subjects that fascinate him. You’ll find them in his speculative projects such as the Meat the Future project, about the potential of laboratory meat, Hubot, an employment agency where humans and robots work symbiotically together, and the Nano Supermarket with fifty speculative and provocative nano technology products. Van Mensvoort is not a philosopher for nothing. He always questions. He thinks it is fun and useful to change our assumptions, fear and negative thoughts about this and change them in a better understanding, thoughts and insights about a desirable Next Nature. What he always strives for is a balance between biology and technology. A harmony model between a biosphere that has been evolving for millions of years and the rapidly changing technosphere.
In the provocative and playful work Van Mensvoort shows the power of speculative design. ‘That initiates a discussion and creates awareness, but I also want to bring about a change on a more fundamental level’, says the scout who’s being ahead of the troops. By that he means: doing something.
A good and successful example is a large and multi-year project with which Van Mensvoort connects ecology and economy: the ECO Coin. Through a design approach he actually wants to introduce the Eco-currency. You earn the coins with positive actions that prevent deforestation, the decline of biodiversity or climate change. ‘It is crazy, or rather hypocritical’, he explains, ‘that you will receive money if you cut down a tree and sell the wood. And that you will not get rewarded if you plant a tree. And what would the tropical rainforest look like if you were paid to leave the trees?’ His ecological payment method is introduced step by step in various local communities, for the first time at the DGTL Digital Festival where the eco-currency was included in the festival app. Since 2015, Van Mensvoort annually awards the ECO Coin Award to the most ecological hero. One of these heroes is Dave Hakkens who won the prize for Precious Plastic, his open source plastic recycling machine. The interest is great, especially among companies, the coin spreads like an oil slick. ‘My dream,’ says Van Mensvoort, ‘is that you will have fair money like you have fair coffee. And that children will ask: “How did you pay before the ECO Coin?”’ But his biggest goal is to save man. It is a wonder that we have come this far’, he says. ‘We are dangling somewhere at the bottom, like an unimportant species, while we think we are dominant. At the same time, I think man is beautiful and must be saved so that future generations have a better future.’
Thanks to Connecting the Dots
Portrait by Boudewijn Bollmann