Lena Schlegel, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Caring for Climate Change? (Re-)Configuring Human-Nature Relations in Context of the Australian Black Summer –Towards a New Materialist Sociology of Care

Western societies operate based on a problematic dualist understanding of humans ́ relationship with nature. This dualism serves as legitimizing value framework for the ongoing exploitation of nature. In my doctoral project, I draw on the assumption that transformative change cannot be achieved on a structural level alone, but also requires addressing the underlying ideas and values that inform humans ́ engagement with nature, i.e. addressing the ideational side of socio-ecological transformation. I assume that the ways humans relate to nature translate into normative frameworks and social orders, determining the frame within which socio-ecological problems can be understood and addressed. Thus, I argue that in order to deal with the human-made environmental crises of the present, we need new epistemic and ethical foundations to inform our relationships with nature and sociological imagination to develop alternative forms of life. In my thesis, I explore the role of human-nature relations for eco-social change in case of the Australian Black summer. I thereby combine a New Materialist relational ontology with a care-ethical approach to responsible human-nature relations, conceptualizing human-nature relations as relationships of care within which caring needs can be perceived, conflicts addressed and practices of care exercised. Responsible care thus requires practical, affective (cognitive and emotional), as well as ethico-political engagement. Combined with a New Materialist social theory of relations, this perspective enables me to explore human-nature relations focusing on the role of emotions, the constitutive qualities of eco-systems, and the reciprocity of human-nature  relations,  drawing  on  the  assumption:  If  humans  are  constituted  through  their relationships with nature (New Materialism), practicing responsible relationships with nature (care) is key for eco-social change. The Australian “Black Summer” bushfires of 2019/20 have been perceived as harbingers of the unfolding climate crisis, opening up a discursive space for repoliticising debates about climate action and human-nature relationships. In my project I explore which kinds of human-nature relationships were exposed by the bushfire crisis and how they were perceived and potentially reconfigured through the Black Summer experience. I thereby ask how the experience of catastrophic climate disaster affects  human-nature relations from a care-sociological perspective. To explore this question, I plan to conduct qualitative and ethnographic fieldwork with various societal groups which stand in different relationships with nature and were affected by the fires in various ways (e.g. farmers, fire services, nature and wildlife conservation groups, indigenous communities, rural population) in the region of East Gippsland, Victoria. I thereby seek to uncover conflicts of care underlying climate (in-)action, as well as solutions grounded in local experience and (relational) knowledge.