In search of microscopic and macroscopic visions
Interview with Julia Rijssenbeek
January 23, 2023

Ideologies encouraging unlimited growth and overconsumption have long reigned supreme, making it easy to fall into the trap of trying to thrive in a system that simply won’t last. Researcher Julia Rijssenbeek is tackling this problem head-on, dedicating her research to exploring new ways of thinking and feeling for a different world. She's been at the thinktank since 2017, providing insights at the intersection between philosophy, technology and sustainability. In this interview, team members Victória Ferreira and Joep Schot ask Julia what solutions she is excited to be working on.

Victória: How does our thinking have to change in order to face today’s challenges?

Julia: Humans, as a species, are local in their ways of thinking and experiencing the world. That means that our immediate surroundings are a key factor in how we meaningfully interact with the outside world. However, our inventions and behavior have a global impact; we are connected on a global level, embedded in a global economy, where products are shipped all over the world. Ecological repercussions do not stop at any specific border. Therefore, aside from our local thinking, we should start considering the global consequences of our actions. 

"We need to embrace planetary thinking."

For this to happen, we need to embrace planetary thinking. That means internalizing the fact that the planet doesn't revolve around us. Non-human life forms have agency too and we are embedded in a whole of ecological relationships. Our modern, Western relationship to the natural world, grounded in ideas of control and exploitation of resources, are threatening our survival. It's time to face the reality that Western ideas on progress are failing us. We simply cannot flourish through promoting the same limitless consumerism and economic growth globally.

Joep: So where is planetary thinking particularly necessary? 

Julia: In my opinion, our economic system and our food system need a fundamental rethink. Let's look at the food system, for instance. Its current failings are multifaceted, yet, often, the solution being promoted is old-fashioned and one-dimensional: "let's produce more food!". 

Ramping up production will definitely not help us combat the global health crisis, structural food insecurity and climate change, resulting from and affecting, the production of food. We don't need more food, we need better food. For that, a comprehensive vision integrating planetary and human health, through food politics and climate policies is needed. 

European citizens are often not aware that the biggest EU budget is spent on agriculture, and not per se in the most healthy, environmental and inclusive ways. Moreover, the effects of European agriculture reach far beyond EU borders, especially when it comes to pollutants and imports of cheap raw materials from elsewhere; it is clear that food is geopolitical and that its production and consumption have planetary consequences. 

A parallel can be drawn between this example and the first life forms on Earth. These very first organisms created the atmosphere through their metabolism, making it possible for other life forms—and finally humans—to evolve: eating is never just a local act, but a planetary act, no matter how small you are.

Victória: What kind of research do you think fits our time and fosters these new ways of thinking?

Julia: On a practical level, I truly believe in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary ways of working to widen the scope of our understanding of the world. For example, by complementing academic thought with artistic practices, design thinking and scenario building. One instance is the Bio Art & Design Award, through which I collaborate with artists and designers, helping them to reflect on their projects and the underlying assumptions in them. 

On a more abstract level, like in my philosophical research, I’m trying to question, and move past, certain dominant categories and dualisms that are heavily ingrained in our thinking, such as nature versus technology or inert matter versus life forms. Think about calling engineered organisms 'living machines' or 'artificial organisms'. Language is very formative for how we see the world, we need to question the words and concepts that keep us from seeing how things are interrelated or different from what they denote. 

Joep: Do you have any recommendations on how to expand our imaginative capacities?

Julia: Personally, I enjoy watching sci-fi movies like Annihilation (2018), that provide powerful visualizations of urgent topics such as our alienation from nature. I admire attempts at escaping overused tropes on future scenarios that are exclusively optimistic or pessimistic. A good example avoiding such tropes is the book The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, which explores the future of climate change. We can also engage ourselves with different perspectives. For example, I like reading novels by authors from different backgrounds, including the works of José Saramago, Leïla Slimani, Yaa Gyasi, Kazuo Ishiguro and Lea Ypi.

A still from Annihilation depicting protagonist Lena, portrayed by Natalie Portman. The movie explores the theme of the Western alienation from nature.

Victória: Why are you inspired by biology when thinking about the future?

Julia: In my PhD research I am focusing on synthetic biology, the technological field that is trying to engineer microscopic life forms to cater to human needs and to solve urgent problems. Among other things, it aims at producing renewable biofuels, self-growing biobased materials, alternative protein sources, regenerative medicine and plastic-eating bacteria. It is one of the most important emerging technologies next to blockchain, quantum and AI—and thus of strategic relevance for superpowers.

But unlike these other emerging technologies, synthetic biology deals with life on a very fundamental level. It brings interesting questions to the surface: What is life? How and why does it emerge? How does it differ from technology and how can technology be inspired by biology? Given that we do not have definite answers to these questions, we are constantly confronted by how difficult it is to understand, let alone recreate life. 

When it comes to biology, our mechanical worldview does not always apply. We cannot always build things by simply assembling different ‘parts’. Life has its own dance that doesn't go well with the rhythm of industrial and commercial logic: microbes don't obey—they have their own agency and basic forms of cognition. 

"Life has its own dance that doesn't go well with the rhythm of industrial and commercial logic: microbes don't obey—they have their own agency and basic forms of cognition." 

Looking at biology helps us learn from the unbelievable qualities of life forms and increases our imaginative capacities. It teaches us how to rethink our use of materials and exploitation of ecosystems for resources. For example, biological life forms grow and repair themselves: it would be amazing if we could let this attribute inspire our technological inventions. When thinking about the climate crisis, biology and its regenerative abilities are what keeps me hopeful about the future.