Getting to Consensus and Action: The way forward is the one that has empathy on both ends
(Note: This paper was written in the first half of 2021 as part of a Sustainable development discourse course)
March 9, 2021 — This article was written during a chronic episode of writers block, but it had to be written.
According to Psychology Today, empathy is being able to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another. It is an ability that enables us to cooperate with others, build friendships, make moral decisions, and intervene when we see others being abused. They mention that empathy develops steadily through childhood and adolescence, but are silent about what happens to empathy in adulthood. Does empathy fizzle out in adulthood as competition and a culture of independence settle in? Can the global warming and climate change conversation and action benefit from an increased dose of empathy from both sides?
I am an environmental health and sustainable development advocate. I also like to refer to myself as a social entrepreneur. My board game, earth sentinel, is an entertainment-education board game aimed at fostering intimate empathetic relationship with the environment. Apart from raising startup funds, a major challenge and preoccupation for me has been deciding on low cost materials that to make my board game that will also reduce my carbon footprint. I will not use recycled plastic because I am of the opinion that those who create a plastic pollution menace should consider the life cycle of their products and be responsible enough to have a plan for their reuse and cleanup. Recycled paper or cardstock may not work so well for the board design and may also not be as durable as I want. Hemp plastic and bamboo are also not my best options because I consider the soil erosion and chemical pollution that may accompany their cultivation if the farmers do not commit to environmentally responsible practices. In my consideration set for materials are hemp plastic, other biodegradable plastic, recycled wood and/or paper.
Doing good and living responsible involves deep and detailed thinking. It is easier to ditch self-imposed positive standards and follow the bandwagon. A cheaper alternative is not often the one that is best for the environment. Not everyone can or is willing to commit to living responibly because it is demanding. It is equally demanding to consistently take actions that make life unbearable for others and future generations. Individuals, corporations, and nations have to choose if they would be those who gave up on an opportunity to push their intellectual ability in an effort to do good, those who allowed pecuniary motivations overcome altruistic and pro-people values, or those who choose otherwise. Demanding a revolutionary transition from a carbon based economy is a tall order for those currently benefitting from the “current civilization.” Getting to a sustainable future will require a request for a realistic balance, collaboration, thinking and working together by both sides of the table because neither side has all the answers.
I am grateful for the opportunity to read the article by David Wallace-Wells “The Uninhabitable earth” (2017). Its’ sections doomsday, heat death, the end of food, climate plagues, unbreathable air, perpetual war, permanent economic collapse, poisoned oceans, the great filter (which talks about mass extinctions and much more dying coming) do a great job at marshalling the present and future negative impacts of global warming. This is not time to sugar-coat conversations. Besides, there isn’t much to paint with sweet words. However, while I appreciate the frankness of the article, the grim details do have the potential to lead towards aversion, “aversion arising from fear.” As the author further mentioned, disinclination arising from fear is a form of denial too (Wallace-Wells, 2017). Considering the level of fear that this article aroused in me, I would say this account has the capacity to incapacitate. If in the light of these stark realities, we are still dragging our feet, what hope is there of any possible future change. I think fear has failed and we should try and optimize the power of hope.
Definitely, there is no quick and easy fix for these deeply entrenched systemic issues we are grappling with. Worse, we are yet to reach an agreement about what is happening regarding the climate change crisis and what we can do address them. Post the ongoing covid outbreak, there will likely be an increased impetus to ramp up the carbon economy to gain grounds lost during covid. This is one divide where there is a need to seek out ways to utilize policy dialogues to bridge the alternative pathways and outcomes. What are the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of those all in for a carbon-intensive economy? What are the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of those who want a less carbon-intensive economy? What mechanisms is there to increase the chances of these two pathways converging not only on a micro or individual level but at macro and upstream levels?
I am beginning to think that discussions that focus on stewardship and responsible living, ethical living, and the importance of cleaning up after oneself may be more productive than the paralyzing doomsday pronouncements of advocates of a less carbon intense economy. This is call to action and a call to prayer for collective wisdom to live responsibly as stewards of earth’s resources and to take necessary collective action to prevent all the possible negative impacts of global warming. It is very unnatural and highly inhuman for our actions not to match up despite all we know.
Definitely, we must learn to accept and adapt that a carbon-intensive economy, the “current civilization,” has to die (Scranton, 2015) and a less carbon intensive economy become the norm going forward. However, those holding the current system and benefiting from it at the expense of the earth and vulnerable populations are not going to let the current civilization “die” under their watch. If we want a less carbon intense economy stand any chance, we might need to be flexible and not make this about ourselves or “winning,” but about finding a balance that works for the current carbon-economy advocates and a less carbon intense civilization.
In conclusion, “there is no Planet B” (Galbraith, 2019) and in agreement with Scranton, our future will depend on facing our fate with patience, reflection, and love (Scranton, 2015) and empathy for ourselves and others. We must find a way to communicate across this divide and agree on goals that we can work towards together at a team. If we cannot achieve this, it will not only be the failure of current carbon-economy advocates. It will be our collective moral and intellectual failure as humans. We need collaboration not some unrealistic and unfeasible revolution.
Note: Reflections from the David Wallace-Wells, “The Uninhabitable Earth.”
Herzig, M., & Chasin, L. (2006). Fostering Dialogue Across Divides: A Nuts and Bolts Guide from the Public Conversations Project. Retrieved from https://www.intergroupresources.com/rc/Fostering%20Dialogue%20Across%20Divides.pdf
Rankine, C. (2020, June 15). ‘weather’. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/15/books/review/claudia-rankine-weather-poem-coronavirus.html
Scranton R (2015). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. Reflections on the end of a civilization. City Light Books.
Wallace-Wells, D. (2017, July 10). The Uninhabitable Earth: Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think. Retrieved from https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html