Dear Partners in Green,
Lately, as I have watched our society grow weary of the coronavirus and tired of guidelines and restrictions, and anxious as to the pandemics long-term economic effects, I have been disappointed by what seems to be a decreasing sense of empathy toward those most likely to be impacted by this deadly disease. We care, but it seems our caring has limits or even timelines, and that, most chilling, some people have been deemed dispensable. Does empathy have limits and is that true regardless of COVID 19?
I am certain that a lack of empathy also plays a large role in our Climate Crisis. We know that the poor will be most impacted by climate change, and we know that our decisions today will affect all future generations; our children, our children’s children and their children and on and on, all future people, all who will ever one day live on this planet. Why do people not seem to care? Why are we satisfied with little changes, while not fighting for the bigger more significant ones, the ones which require sacrifice on our part, the ones that will really make a difference in the lives of those who will follow us? For indeed, human activity, namely our addiction to fossil fuel, is the cause of the degradation of the earth. And we need to fight that addiction and to make significant changes to our way of life.
I recently found an article in The Washington Post by Jamil Zaki, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory. It was titled “Why can’t we stop climate change? We’re not wired to empathize with our descendants.”
I will share with you some of his findings and insights hoping that by learning more about empathy we may be able to better develop it, foster it, and pass it on.
I will briefly state some of Dr. Zaki’s findings, but I invite you to read the full article which is referenced below.*
Human activity is now a dominant force in shaping the Earth’s environment, but human’s moral senses have not kept pace with its power. Deeply empathic people tend to be environmentally responsible, but our caring instincts are shortsighted and dissolve across space and time, making it harder for us to deal with things that haven’t happened yet.
Empathy evolved as the north star to our moral compass. Being ancient, it was tuned to a time in which we lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers. As in the past, we still find it is easier to care for people who look and think as we do and who are right in front of us. It is difficult to scale our emotions to the global task that climate change represents.
And just as distance diminishes empathy, so does time. Zaki writes that people find the future psychologically fuzzy; we even tend to view our future selves as strangers which leads to shortsighted choices such as accruing debt instead of saving for retirement. And we are less willing to sacrifice when the benefits of our actions feel far away or unsure.
It may seem hopeless since there are such limits on our ability to feel empathy and thus to sacrifice for people we will never know.
But the good news is that empathy is a skill we can build through the right choices and through developed habits. The tasks which I list below may help us to become more empathetic.
- I do not like to promote shopping, but you may consider purchasing and then sharing Dr. Zaki’s book, “The War for Kindness.”
- Read about the lives of people affected by climate change, such as the sisters Kulsum and Komola Begum who survive by scavenging for debris among the ruins of towns in Bangladesh destroyed by unprecedented storm surges.
- Vividly imagine the floods, water shortages and other devastation that await us if we do nothing. Imagine this during a pandemic, not unlike what people in Tennessee endured just last month.
- Take a long view of the past. Reflect upon the sacrifices past generations have made for you.
- Listen to what the children have to say. They are living, tangible and beloved representatives of the future who are not to blame for climate change, but are at risk for paying for it dearly.
- And maybe most important, model empathy in your actions and your speech.
This poem by Naomi Shibab Nye captures the meaning of empathy.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
I leave you this song, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” by Coldcut
Wishing peace and health to you and your loved ones.
Thank you for being on this journey,
Till next time,