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Short history of the zoöp concept

The zoöp concept is the result of a public research trajectory of Het Nieuwe Instituut that had its first phase in the Terraforming Earth workshops in 2018. The question explored there, was how to make the word habitable in the long term for human and nonhuman life. Starting point was that the climate crisis and the simultaneous ecological devastation happening worldwide are the effects of the way in which capitalist economies make the quality of nonhuman as well as most human life radically subordinate to the central aim of profit maximalization. 

An important dimension of this question was how to form an image of a society that is shaped according to different principles. Participating ecologists, artists, designers, financial specialists, philosophers and programmers explored constitutional and legal, technological and narrative practices of worldbuilding and also researched how various indigenous cultures operate from different qualities of relations between human and nonhuman life. 

The question also had to be made practical and tangible. How to begin in the here and now with realising a different kind of society? It had to be acknowledged that a new beginning somehow has to start from within capitalist systems, as there is no other place to start from. 

In this context we studied how in New Zealand legal personhood had been granted to Whanganui River, Mount Taranaki and Te Urewera forest. How was that organised? Could some of that logic be transplanted to the Dutch and be reformulated with Dutch cultural patters as reference frame? This research led to the contours of the first proposal for a co-operative organization in which nonhumans would be represented. 

During the multi faceted project Neuhaus Temporary Academy for more-then-human knowledge of Het Nieuwe Instituut in 2019 we organized a second series of research sessions. A largely new group of ecologists, legal experts, artists and designers hammered out the aims, organisational format, the legal dimensions and the kind of necessary knowledge that would support what was by then labelled as ‘a zoöp’. The concept found its current form in september 2019. 

What is a zoöp?

The word zoöp is short for zoöperation and is a combination of co-op (short for co-operation) and zoë (Greek for ‘life’) It is the title for a new type of cooperative legal entity of which humans as well as multispecies ecological communities can be members. 

The zoöp does not work on the basis of granting legal personhood to nonhumans but is in fact a procedure for representation of and collaborating with multispecies ecological communities. 

The zoöp project strengthens the position of nonhumans within human societies, stimulates  ecological regeneration in a way that is resistant to extractivist dynamics. The zoöp model is designed to be applicable by a wide variety of organisations.

How does that work? 

Zoöps are co-operatives of which one member is a so-called zoönomic foundation (ZF) – a foundation with the sole task to represent the interests of nonhuman life in a certain area. Next to the notion of economy, zoöps deploy the notion of zoönomy, which refers to the whole of qualities of relations within the multispecies ecological communities of zoöps. Value in the zoönomic sense cannot be represented with the use of a single standardized unit, but covers a whole of metabolic, ecological, aesthetic, social, economic and political characteristics. 

Zoöps largely function in the economic framework in the same way as their constituting human organisations: their products, services or yields can be sold to customers, which can also be zoöps.

Next top their economic existence, zoöps have an added. Important aim: to develop their zoönomy. In a certain sense, they create a zone within their organization but outside the economy, where economic logic is lifted.  

Every year, zoöps set their zoönomic ambitions based on their starting conditions and keep track of their development with a range of zoönomic instruments and methods that give insight in the changes in  the qualities of living in the zoöps multispecies community. By doing this, zoöps also contribute to increased biodiversity, growth in biomass, CO2 sequestering, cleaner air, cleaner water et cetera. 

How to become a zoöp? 

Very different organisations can become zoöps, as long as they have agency over a certain volume of biosphere – a piece of land, a building with a garden, a (part of a) city, forest, a park, a lake or pond, coastal waters, et cetera. A hotel, school, sports club, business resort, energy company, municipality, farm or other organisation becomes a zoöp by starting (or joining) a cooperative according specific rules, and with a Zoönomic Foundation as co-member with voting rights and voice in the board. 

The charter of this foundation states that it has the sole task to represent within (and sometimes outside) the zoöperation the interests of the ecological community at the zoöps’ volume of biosphere. 

The standard contracts and founding documents of the zoöperation and the zoönomic foundation are kept (and further developed if necessary) by the knowledge and network organisation of the zoöp project: the Zoönomic Mother Board. 

At this moment in september 2020 there are seven proto-zoöps in the Netherlands – organisations on their way to become zoöps. An regenerative farm, three food forests, a hotel, a University College, and a cultural organization. 

What difference can zoöps make?

Different zoöps will have different kinds of impact.  A primary school or a sports club with some playing fields may contribute to the quality of soil life, plant life, insect populations, maybe bird populations and could even grow some crops in the borders of their fields. 

An energy company could transform obsolete oil rigs in the North Sea into farms for marine permaculture and support the growth of mussel- and oyster banks, sea weeds and more (and avoid parts of the costs that would to be made to remove the oil rigs entirely) 

A housing corporation can improve the living conditions for birds, bats and amphibians in the city by developing new maintenance regimes for their buildings and by contributing to the governance of the gardens inside housing blocks. 

In some places the work of zoöps may come down mostly to conservation and protection of an existing multispecies community, and the better integration of human activity in the ecological community. In other places zoöps may generate entirely new multispecies communities, in which species meet for the first time, and engage in foodwebs that did not exist before. 

Growing zoöps

Zoöps can grow in three different ways. Firstly, their number can grow. Secondly, the volume of biosphere covered by a zoöp can grow: a zoöp-farm can buy more land, for instance. Thirdly, organisations in the proximity can become members of existing zoöps and add their multispecies communities to those represented by the local zoönomic foundation. 

It is the explicit ambition to grow the zoöp project internationally. As the legal systems of different countries are not entirely identical, the zoöp format has to translated from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. That is why the first zoöps will all be in the Netherlands.