The Parliament of Spiders and Worms

On an otherwise unremarkable lot in Berlin, a radical experiment bestows all organisms with equal rights.

Translation by Jessica Plummer.

“Beyond nature” is written in unembellished red letters above the beginning of a small path threading between the lot and a housing block. Georg Reinhardt walks ahead, opening the metal gate to a different world, where other rules apply.

Nature is normally governed by its own set of rules. But on a lot in Berlin “beyond nature,” artists, activists, and neighborhood locals attempt to represent the rights of non-human organisms in a parliamentary system. Photo by Joni Räsänen.

What can you find there, beyond nature? At first glance, it doesn’t look like much. A couple of trees pierce the hazy winter sky. The ground is covered in brush, colorful leaves, scrub, and grass, plants that we seldom pay close attention to. But now we take careful steps, as if to avoid accidentally stepping on non-human dignitaries. Because here, on this small, otherwise unremarkable lot in Berlin’s Wedding district, all living beings have the same rights. We are visiting an experiment that is pilot-testing the “rights of nature” concept — the idea that pigeons, trees, worms, and fungi should all have legal rights to survival — in a radical way.

“According to our constitution, we cannot remove any trees. At most, we can cut them back, so that they don’t put the whole lot in shade,” says Reinhardt as we walk through the green-gold-red of the leaves. The artist, originally from Austria, is one of the founders of the Club Real group, which established the 800-square-meter empty lot as the sovereign territory of the organisms living on it in 2019.

The undeveloped-lot utopia has a parliament at its core. It meets once a year to discuss draft laws and make decisions. The members of parliament are artists, activists, and neighborhood locals. Anyone can participate and represent an organism in parliament.

Because there are many organisms living on the lot (too many for all to be represented at the same time), species are chosen by lottery each legislative term to be represented by a person in parliament for one year. In 2021, a reddish species of snail (Aegopinella nitidula), the fungus Dacrymyces stillatus, the spotted beetle Liocoris, and twelve other organisms had representation.

Around 300 species are currently recorded on the list of citizens. A local working group on mushrooms and fungi helped map the mushrooms, mosses, and lichens. Neighbors were surveyed to determine which vertebrates frequent the lot. For bacteria, unicellular organisms, viruses, and multicellular microorganisms, the group selected a number of the countless species likely to live in the lot.

The organisms form eight parties: plants, grasses, and herbaceous perennials; arthropods; vertebrates; invertebrates and worms; bacteria, unicellular organisms, and viruses; bushes and climbing plants; mushrooms, mosses and lichens; neobiota (non-native species brought to Berlin by people). All new citizens have their place in the parliament.

Nature is normally governed by its own set of rules. Species that are not fit for the local conditions struggle; they have to find new habitats or they die out. However, in this lot “beyond nature,” there is a political space where nature’s rules do not apply. The better argument and the more persuasive speaker can win here. “There’s no more natural law in the democracy of organisms. For us, there’s just politics,” Reinhardt remarks.

Of course, democracy is about representing the interests of citizens, and figuring out what a unicellular organism or a spider “wants” is not so easy. On top of that, what is good for one species can cause problems for another. In the back corner of the lot, just in front of a brick wall, Reinhardt points to a small depression in the ground. This is a ditch that is “not beautiful to have in a garden,” he says, but is environmentally very interesting. It refills with water after every rainfall. “The Asian mud-dauber wasp uses the damp brick to build nests for its young. The tricky part of the story is that the wasp then carries up to 30 spiders into each of the nests.” The spiders are paralyzed and left to serve as food for the wasp larvae. The spiders in the parliament will not stand for this and have brought action against the wasps. “The ditch means that the wasps can breed here, putting a lot more pressure on the spiders as prey. This is the kind of argument a representative could make. From the point of view of the spiders, of course,” Reinhardt explains.

A few steps from us, the brush thins, and round white discs set on red metal posts stick up out of the ground, a little bit like mushrooms. These are the seats of the members of parliament, arranged in a half-circle. (Similar parliaments or other organism democracy initiatives have been established in the German cities of Gelsenkirchen, Düsseldorf, and Leipzig, as well as in Vienna, Austria and Paris, France.)

The urban green patch on Osloer Straße was once the grounds of a brewery, Reinhardt says, holding up some twigs so that we can duck under them. “It is pure luck that this lot was free to develop without interference.”

The logo of the German supermarket chain Lidl shines through the branches. One of their stores abuts the lot. The company wanted to buy up the land and pave it as a driveway, says Reinhardt. As compensation, his group was offered a less overgrown plot of land. It was a perfect issue for a vote in parliament, Reinhardt thought to himself, and he invited a Lidl representative to the meeting.

The plants, grasses, and herbaceous perennials were in favor of the swap. The new spot lacks trees, which promises more light and less competition from woody plants. But other species came up with a counter-proposal: “All Lidl supermarkets have these little patches of unused land next to them. The idea was for the project to advertise for Lidl under the condition that the company would make every single one of these patches available to organism democracies,” Reinhardt summarizes. “But the real estate manager freaked out over that. He left without saying a word.”

Spiders against the ditch, herbaceous perennials in support of Lidl — the whole initiative moves in a space somewhere between performance art, theater, and political education. But thinking about how the interests of other species can be pursued in the Anthropocene, our human-dominated era, is more than a game. The rights of nature could play a key role in the search for solutions to climate change and mass species extinction.

A forest as a plaintiff in court? In some countries, this is already a reality. The leader here is the small Latin American country of Ecuador, where the rights of nature have been guaranteed by the constitution since 2008. Every person, citizen or not, can bring action on behalf of nature, scientific assistant Dr. Andreas Gutmann from the Center for European Legal Policy (ZERP) in Bremen, Germany, tells us. Gutmann wrote a doctoral dissertation on the rights of nature in Ecuador. “The process is extremely simple. You just go to the nearest court and present yourself,” the legal expert explains. The court can then decide whether to hold hearings on the case with the involvement of various interest groups.

In Ecuador, all of nature is considered a legal person. Recently, the rights of nature were successfully used to protect a cloud forest from mining. The rights of individual animals can also be pursued legally in Ecuador. In Colombia, the whole of nature has not been granted rights, but specific rivers, mountains, and protected areas have exclusive rights. One of these rivers is the Río Atrato, to which Colombia’s constitutional court granted rights to “protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration” in a 2016 case. This leads to difficult questions of distinction, notes Gutmann, “Where does the river stop? Are the banks included? What about the animals that live in the river?”

It is nothing new to address the interests of non-human persons before court. In Germany, the law treats corporations like Lidl as legal persons, but nettle ground bugs, for example, as objects.

Nature conservation and animal welfare are enshrined as goals of the state in Germany’s Basic Law, but to date have not been successfully pursued in specific legal action. In Germany, only impacted individuals can typically be complainants. The exception is the right of associations to sue, which gives certain associations the ability to pursue legal action on behalf of third parties. These types of suits, Gutmann explained, have to clear major obstacles. For one, the complainant has to be recognized in order to bring a suit.

In 2019, the animal rights organization PETA attempted a constitutional action on behalf of piglets. The organization wanted to bring a complaint against the extension of the practice of sedation-free castration of farrows, male piglets. A ban on the procedure was to take effect at the end of 2018, but the former German government under Angela Merkel and Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner pushed back the planned prohibition by two years. In June 2021, the PETA complaint was dismissed by the court without a stated reason.

This wasn’t the first rights of nature case to get dismissed in Germany. In 1988, the Hamburg administrative court dismissed a complaint against dumping and incineration of hazardous substances in the North Sea lodged by eight nature conservation associations on behalf of the seals. The suit, the court said, was obviously inadmissible.

Other initiatives have sprung up advocating for people’s ability to bring legal suits on behalf of nature in Germany. Since September 2021, a Bavarian initiative called “Rechte der Natur” has been collecting signatures with the goal of getting rights to nature a referendum on the ballot. The topic has not yet reached the national level in Germany, Gutmann noted.

One argument against granting nature rights in Germany is a fear of a flood of litigation. Perhaps every homeowner would turn to the courts to protect the tree in their front yard. This has not come to pass in Ecuador. In the 14 years since the rights of nature were incorporated into the constitution, there have only been a few cases, Gutmann told us.

Meanwhile, extinction, deforestation, and the destruction of natural habitats are advancing relentlessly worldwide. The climate crisis is getting worse. The last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change signaled alarm level red for humanity.

Back in Berlin. We leave the garden and stand on the sidewalk near the busy Osloer Straße. “People are not partners within the ecosystem. We act as authorities, our actions come from a place of superiority. We will have to pay the price,” says Reinhardt.

The results of the organism democracy experiment are not yet clear. What happens when trees and bugs and rats cannot only enforce their democratic rights against human actions, but also against other non-human creatures? For sure, this experiment cannot solve the major problems facing the planet. But it might contribute to a solution. The dialogue creates connections between people and other species. “People only care about ecosystems when they are a part of them. We want to try to open up space for a more intimate dialogue with species. We want people to approach organisms, whether they are knowledgeable or not, with the desire to get to know them better,” says Reinhardt.

Organism democracy’s main goal is to shift the perspective that has humans standing outside of nature to one that views humans as a part of nature. But what does nature want? And what are the needs of the fungus Dacrymyces stillatus and the Liocoris beetles, for that matter?

“That is the pivotal question in the debate,” says Andreas Gutmann. In a legal system made by humans, it is humans who decide whether and to what extent interventions in natural spaces are justified, even in the lot on Osloer Straße.

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