Philosopher Sophie van Balen wants to bring the lives of real people into her philosophical research into air and pollution. She believes that philosophy should be more than just theory, which led her to drive to the north of the country to convince a cattle farmer to cooperate in her research. The farmer was not easily convinced. She lists the characteristics that posed a barrier during the first contact with farmers: “My research deals with climate disruption, I am a university lecturer, I am also a philosopher and live in the big city. And not just any city, I live in Amsterdam. I was not exactly welcomed with open arms.”

After having coffee for three hours, she was invited back to three different farms. Van Balen wanted to know what cattle farmers mean by suffocation and how they think about air in relation to their animals. “People are easily led to believe that farmers are using animals and that animals are in turn victims of people wanting to eat meat. Farmers are said to be indifferent to clean air, but it is not that black and white.” One of the farmers she spoke to suffers from asthma and also works with animals in a barn. That makes breathing difficult, so air is most certainly an issue. “As a philosopher, I rarely get to see the small things I got to see on those farms.”

Number of books a year: 5

Favourite genre: Literature

Last book read: Dagen van glas [Days of glass] – Eva Meijer, very beautiful

Primary motivation: Relaxation

We need air

Through her research, she aims to get a finely detailed picture of how people interact with their environment. “From the moment we start to breathe, we depend on a polluted environment. We inhale and exhale carbon dioxide, our breast milk contains microplastics, and factory emissions find their way to our vegetable garden. This becomes palpable when we experience ourselves as breathing beings.” In other words, the social relevance of the subject was a prerequisite for getting a PhD. For Van Balen, philosophy only gets interesting when it interacts with the world.

Exchange of perspectives

She attributes this belief to her upbringing. Her parents, “lefties to the core”, urged her to connect “with all kinds of different people and not just highly educated people who talk in such a way that they only understand each other”. Her mother worked with homeless people, refugees and children. Her father, “a pacifist”, turned his back on thinking and started working with his hands. It did not stop Van Balen from going to grammar school and studying philosophy, a subject devoted to thinking. “I never stopped seeking out interaction, which explains my research on farms”, says van Balen.

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Our kind of people

On the farms, she came into contact with people other than “our kind of people”, the people from her own bubble “who all vote GroenLinks [Green Party] or Partij Voor De Dieren [Animal Welfare Party]”. This gave her insight, as a city girl, to see what matters to farmers. And that reality has many more details than theory dictates. The fact that it is not easy to really know what drives another person, Van Balen also read in Juli Zeh’s book Our Kind of People. A small village in Germany needs a wind farm, resulting in the whole village clashing. The green thinkers clash with the nature lovers, who in turn clash with the conservatives. Contradictions between West and East Germany, between communists and capitalists emerge, and each perspective turns out to have a very personal, detailed motive.

When reading the book, Van Balen initially thought it was about her. She read about a couple, affiliated with university, who had traded their busy city life for a simpler life in the country. The couple wanted to ‘get back to basics’, but are confronted with villagers watching each other and a neighbour who starts a tyre fire every day. Those people from different backgrounds must come to a joint decision on the wind farm. The wind farm will financially benefit some, while causing noise pollution for others. All want to be proved right, and in the end everyone’s position turns out to be equally crazy and understandable. “All the details in the book show that a discussion about a wind farm has many more layers than just political beliefs. Details distort political debate. I find that fascinating.”

The book did change the ‘sort of dream’ she had of moving to the country ‘a bit’. Although she lives near a major road and a fertiliser factory in Amsterdam and getting her PhD has made her more aware of the polluted air she breathes, the social control in Amsterdam is not as prevalent as it is in the small village in the book. The anonymity of the city means not having to interact with her neighbour. In that respect, there may be a limit to interacting with people with other ideas for Van Balen. Sometimes she does want to be able to retreat into her own bubble.

Sophie van Balen is getting her PhD from the Erasmus School of Philosophy. She is also head of programme at philosophical café Felix & Sofie in Amsterdam and regularly moderates (public) philosophical conversations. In her PhD project, in order to address the ‘forgetting of air’, Sophie van Balen combines contemporary continental climate philosophy with feminist theory and politics.