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Can philosophical dialogues counteract eco-anxiety?

Is water or knowledge our most important resource? The major philosophical questions have become a popular extracurricular activity among more than 100 children in Billund Municipality, while philosophers from SDU have held philosophical dialogues on the UN Sustainable Development Goals in collaboration with CoC Playful Minds.

By Susan Grønbech Kongpetsak, , 12/20/2019

“It is time to stop taking and do something about climate change. People think that it’s only up to the governments, but you can easily do something about it yourself.”

The message is clear and the capacity to act awakened for 9-year-old Audrey Tan when we visit the office of CoC Playful Minds in Billund.

Audrey and five other children are sitting in a circle and have just begun this week’s philosophical dialogue about one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs can easily appear to be rather daunting for the children, leaving them with the impression that the world is falling apart in 17 different ways

Caroline Schaffalitzky, philosopher

In front of them lie seven cards. The following is written on each card respectively: farmland, cows, gold, water, knowledge, trees and crops (the dialogue is conducted in English, as several of the children come from International School of Billund, ed.).

Today’s philosophical facilitator Anni Nielsen then asks: How would you prioritise these resources? Start by talking to the person next to you.

In depth with the SDGs

We will return to how the group of children prioritise some of the world’s important resources in a moment. SDU philosopher Caroline Schaffalitzky begins by explaining why it is so important for children to work philosophically with the SDGs:

“The SDGs can easily appear to be rather daunting for the children, leaving them with the impression that the world is falling apart in 17 different ways.

There is a risk of instilling a lot of worst-case scenarios in the children if you do not present the values that are embedded in the SDGs and allow the children to discuss and reflect on them,” explains Caroline Schaffalitzky, Associate Professor in philosophy at the Department for the Study of Culture at SDU.

There is a risk of instilling a lot of worst-case scenarios in the children if you do not present the values that are embedded in the SDGs and allow the children to discuss and reflect on them

Caroline Schaffalitzky, philosopher

She also emphasises that the SDGs are embedded with many heavy philosophical concepts, which are important to investigate further.

“The values are important for the children to think over in their own minds, as the SDGs are not an answer book.

There are a diversity of vague concepts and contradictory meanings in the SDGs, so it is important to investigate what we really mean when we say that we will: fight poverty, create decent work and treat everyone equally.”

Counteract eco-anxiety

CoC Playful Minds is highly satisfied with the philosophical dialogues and the importance they have had for different groups of children in Billund Municipality. Programme Manager at CoC Playful Minds, Cecilie Tang-Brock, says:

“The dialogues allow us to make it clear to the children that the SDGs identify options in relation to climate change so that they can feel safe and be inspired to act on their own. Hopefully, this will counteract inaction and eco-anxiety,” she explains and elaborates:

“Our evaluations show that the dialogues make good sense to the children. They clearly indicate that it is important to come to a place where they can say what they think. The beauty of the dialogues is that we create open spaces where the children are allowed to create what happens together.”

The beauty of the dialogues is that we create open spaces where the children are allowed to create what happens

Cecilie Tang-Brok, Programme Manager

Collaboration between the philosophers from SDU and CoC Playful Minds has been on-going throughout 2019, where philosophical dialogues have been an important element in CoC Playful Minds’ development of philosophical labs as a leisure activity for children in Billund Municipality.

Water is important

And now we return to the six committed children sitting in a circle in Billund, who are reflecting on whether water, knowledge or trees are humanity’s most important resource on this earth.

Audrey Tan starts out by using three short sentences to explain the development of evolution, and then concludes that water is absolutely essential for humanity.

Sebastian Ibsen supports her in this and says: Water is the starting point for the existence of life, so it must be the most important resource.

Knowledge is more important

Isabelle Trangeled however, gives first priority to another of the cards on the floor:

“You need knowledge to know that you must drink water and know how to find gold, build a farm, look after cows and plant crops. Knowledge is necessary in order to achieve results in all of the other cards,” she says.

And Ridhima Rastogi largely agrees with this:

“You are right, you need knowledge to know whether it is safe to drink the water or if it needs to be purified before drinking. So when we talk about resources in general, knowledge is the most important, and when we when talk about natural resources, water is the most important, as trees, crops and people need water in order to survive.”

What about the trees?

Shubh Rastogi would like to ask some questions regarding this interpretation however:

“But we need trees to be able to breathe, wouldn’t you agree with this too?”

Ridhima Rastogi answers:

“It was only when water appeared on the earth that the first organisms began to develop. And trees also need water to be able to grow.”

The cow is the least important

It is then time to look at the resources through different eyes. Philosophical facilitator Anni Nielsen now asks, “What is the least important resource among the seven cards on the floor.”

Isabelle Trangeled is in no doubt:

“The cow is the least important. You would still be able to grow crops and obtain meat and milk products from other animals without it.”

To those who want gold, I would simply say: Say goodbye to gold, you don’t need it

Audrey Tan, participant

Ridhima Rastogi agrees:

“Cows are not a top priority in relation to humans being able to survive, we don’t need to eat cows in order to survive. Many people are vegans and we can learn a lot from them.”

Victor Jensen and Sebastian Ibsen oppose this:

“Gold/money is the least important, as we can simply use notes instead. And we need cows and animals, as many people do not care for only eating vegetables.”

The gold should go

Audrey Tan is in complete agreement with this stance:

“I think that the gold should go. Gold is only really used for different technologies, but it can be created using other atomic elements. To those who want gold, I would simply say: Say goodbye to gold, you don’t need it,” she laughs.

Mai Thomsen does not agree:

“If gold means money, then we need it.”

And Ridhima Rastogi supports her on this:

“I still believe that animals are the least important, as we can survive without livestock. And we need money, because nothing can be done without money today.”

We are also animals

But Audrey Tan is not so convinced:

“All animals are important because we are also animals. So if you give up on us there will be no life left on earth.”

And Shubh Rastogi ends the debate with a reminder:

“We just need to remember that if we eliminate the animals, we will have no milk, and therefore no delicious cakes and chocolate.”

Which SDGs?

To conclude today’s philosophical dialogue, the children had to guess which SDG they discussed today. They guess at many different ones: SDG 8 – decent work and economic growth, SDG 12 – responsible consumption and production, SDG 13 – climate action and SDG 15 – life on land.

The children are therefore a little surprised when philosophical facilitator Anni Nielsen tells them that it was SDG 6 – clean water and sanitation, that served as the basis for today’s dialogue.

But this simply means that they have discussed different SDGs and the connections between each of them during today’s philosophical dialogue.

Dialogues help to move things

And it is clear that the dialogues have shifted the children’s view on SDGs and the climate crisis when we talk to them after today’s dialogue:

“Although I am essentially a technical person, I am really happy with the philosophical dialogues because there isn’t anything that is right or wrong. And I have started talking to my family about the need for us to cycle and walk more, says Audrey Tan.”

Ridhima Rastogi also got a lot out of the philosophy course:

“I already knew about the SDGs but have never explored them in depth, what they really mean, up until now. It has opened my eyes to how I can help nature, think in terms of sustainability and encourage others to do the same.”


CoC Playful Minds

The vision is to make Billund the children’s capital, not only in Denmark – but in the whole world.

The organisation works with three programmes: Playful Skills, Playful Innovation and Playful Spaces.

The philosophical labs are an important strategic project in the Playful Skills programme, which will educate children to be creative world citizens who can solve problems, think critically and collaborate across cultures and age.

CoC Playful Minds is a public-private collaboration between Billund Municipality and the LEGO Foundation, Charlotte Sahl Madsen is CEO and Søren Brandi is Chairman of the Board.

Meet the researcher

Associate Professor Caroline Schaffalitzky is the project manager for the research project Philosophy in Schools at SDU, which combines practice and research on philosophy with children and develops interdisciplinary research projects in this field, consequently, i.e. the current collaboration with CoC Playful Minds in Billund. She is affiliated to Philosophy at the Department for the Study of Culture.


Philosophical labs

The philosophical dialogues on SDGs are one of three elements in the philosophical labs for children, which CoC Playful Minds is developing as a leisure activity for children.

The labs consist of: Philosophical dialogues: the book series “Periods of reflection for Children” (Tænkepauser for børn), which documents the philosophical dialogues; Actions that the children work towards initiating on the basis of their reflections from the philosophical dialogues.

Responsible for page: Corporate Communication

Editing was completed: 20.12.2019