"Climate change threatens efforts to be at home in the world"

PhD defence philosopher Lydia Baan Hofman (ESPhil)
Young people are marching during a climate protest.
Li-An Lim (Unsplash)

How can we help young people to be at home in a world changed by the climate crisis? In her PhD thesis, philosopher Lydia Baan Hofman (Erasmus School of Philosophy) proposes a way of thinking that helps young people to deal with a changing world. She found inspiration in the term 'response-ability' by philosopher and biologist Donna Haraway. 'Our normal way of making sense of the world no longer works.'

In your thesis, you make the link between the climate crisis and feeling at home in the world. Can you explain?

'Climate change threatens homes. In a material sense, as our houses may be flooded by heavy rainfall, for example, but also in terms of meaning. Our normal way of making sense of the world, of becoming familiar with it, no longer works. It is something we also saw during the covid crisis. We wanted to be close together, a trouble shared is a trouble halved, but we weren’t allowed. The streets were empty and business as usual was suspended. When it is increasingly 20 degrees in November or when mosquitoes start transmitting diseases here, our feeling of being at home in the world is threatened.'

Why is it important for young people to learn to think about this?

'Because their future is under pressure and the common sense is not going to be of help to them. How can we help young people to navigate a changing world? I found inspiration in the term 'response-ability' by philosopher and biologist Donna Haraway. This play on words is a combination of response and responsibility.'

Why is 'response-ability' so useful to you?

'It helps to actively respond to the challenges of our time, instead of thinking in terms of individual responsibility and blame. We are entangled with other people and with other organisms, right down to the bacteria in our guts that are needed for digestion. By learning about this interconnectedness, we can better understand how we are mutually interdependent, and how this actually allows us to give responses for a more just world.'

Injustice is a recurring theme and you also argue that women are hit harder by climate and ecological crises. Why is this relevant to your thesis?

'Climate change deepens existing injustices. For example, women around the world are facing gender violence after natural disasters. In the Netherlands, women are being hit harder by energy poverty, which increases as oil and gas prices rise. They more often stay at home, are more often single parent and there is still a wage gap. Feminist theories are very useful for my dissertation. They are about finding agency when you are entangled in structures of injustice: how can you still make a meaningful difference?'

You don't create a teaching module yourself, but you do describe three educational practices based on your research. Can you talk a bit more about them?

'The first is extending response-abilities. Pupils already respond to certain others with whom they are entangled, such as their friends or pets. They responsively care for a shared world. Pupils can extend their response-abilities to other beings with whom they are also in a relationship, but whom they do not yet know: a crow in the street or a sweatshop worker in Bangladesh.'

'Pupils also train what I call 'situated thinking': a way of judging how the world should be. Some pupils are expected to be more response-able than others. Pupils therefore learn to think critically about whether they or others are too much or too little response-able. Is it up to a pupil to stop eating meat, or to her cooking parents, or to the government who should discourage it?

Finally, how do you align your doing and thinking? This is one of the hardest things, because our ways of doing things, for example the clothes we buy, are intertwined with who we are. As a third practice, I suggest 'hometactics', a term I borrow from decolonial feminist Mariana Ortega. Pupils experiment with those response-abilities that they think correspond to how the world should be, for example by wearing a vintage outfit. In hometactics, pupils tinker with who they are, something that teenagers already often do.'

What do you hope to achieve with your dissertation?

'It would be cool if it gets a place in education. As a philosopher, I especially want to make people think. I don't want to impose how to think, but to enable young people to give responses in the first place. I do suggest certain contexts for those responses based on my own beliefs, though, for I am not a neutral bystander. Furthermore, I am thinking of writing a Dutch book about my research.'

PhD student
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