Ecosysteem heeft te lijden onder historisch lage Waal
Ecosysteem heeft te lijden onder historisch lage Waal

'Our culture is marked by a distortion of all relationships'

On the occasion of the establishment of the Laudato Si' Institute for Integral Ecology at Radboud University on 1 December, the importance of dialogue was emphasised. 'We can only make a real breakthrough in the sustainable transition if we understand the counter-forces,' says Laudato Si' researcher Gerard Kuperus. 'That is why everything hinges on the quality of the dialogue.'

The various speakers at the founding conference emphasised the importance of the new institute, a partnership between Radboud University and the sustainable Socires think-tank in The Hague – funder of the endowed professor within the institute. In his speech, Jos van Gennip, founder of Socires, was critical of today's 'culture of excess, characterised by heavily distorted relationships between humans, and between humans and nature'.

Van Gennip is looking for a way out both in terms of changing behaviour, and a change in the political arena. Climate philosopher Gerard Kuperus endorses this multifaceted approach, as also reflected in the name of his institute: ‘integral ecology’. 'The advantage of the broad university that now houses us is that it is also home to all the disciplines we need to find our way through the crisis, from philosophy to sociology, and from ecology to religion.' For Kuperus, the dialogue all the speakers called for is more than a dialogue between academic disciplines. 'We will also have to focus very specifically on the people who are now hitting the brakes in order to realise the necessary transition.'

Van links naar rechts: Kees Buitendijk, Johan De Tavernier (namens Socires) en rector magnificus José Sanders.
Van links naar rechts: Kees Buitendijk, Johan De Tavernier (namens Socires) en rector magnificus José Sanders.

Water research

The counter-forces are a many-headed monster, as the inaugural conference revealed. Bishop Gerard de Korte spoke of social 'counter-forces organising to slow down the transition'. Rector Magnificus José Sanders expressed her concerns about involving different groups in society. 'What does sustainability mean to the other person? As a research institute, you have to stay in the middle to keep understanding all groups. You have to remain standing amidst the tension. But I much prefer this kind of tension to polarisation and rejection.'

The first research project Kuperus will be launching focuses on how we conceptualise the water that surrounds us. In this context, he will talk to all kinds of organisations involved in water management and governance, such as the Directorate General for Public Works and Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat) and Natuurmonumenten. 'In what terms do they talk about water, and how do they feel about it? I also want to explore how different parties’ language around this topic changes over time.' Kuperus points to new ideas on water policy in recent years: the concept of control, with the raising of dykes, has made way for the idea of giving space to the river, as is now happening around Nijmegen. 'This shows that we can indeed listen to the river.'

Power of indigenous languages

A PhD candidate from Indonesia will strengthen this research project by holding up a mirror from an indigenous culture. “How do indigenous people talk about their relationship to water? It is important to invite as many voices as possible into our story. That too is an aspect of the dialogue.” Kuperus wonders if we can also give water, as an entity, its own voice. “There is a risk of becoming too vague when we talk about the voice of water. But what we can do is imagine what is important to the river, and give that a place in our language. We must try once again to become more attuned to nature, in our stories, our words, and our images.”

For Kuperus, the threat of disappearing languages is as alarming as the disappearance of species. 'When an indigenous language disappears, for example one that specifically expresses natural entities as living, related, and dynamic, we lose a potentially inspiring source for the sustainability story that needs to be told right now.'

Born and raised in Friesland, Kuperus knows the power of his own native language, closely linked to conversations with his father on the meadows in search of the first lapwing eggs. 'That was my culture, and it taught me to study the behaviour of birds, to interpret their movements and flight, to listen to their sounds. It was an experience that helped shape me into the researcher I am today, although that culture of egg-hunting has sadly had to disappear.'

Laudato Si' is named after the 2015 Papal Encyclical on climate change. Several ecological research institutes around the world have been established under this name. The appointment of the endowed professor will follow in the spring.

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