Natural Empathy

We are living in the most peaceful time of human history. The tabloid press bombards us daily with content born of the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality, turning tragedy and sorrow into entertainment disguised as news. When was the last time your preferred news outlet led with an uplifting story? They are tasked with the proliferation of fear so that the public feels compelled to consume yet more news (so that we know all about the horrible things lurking out there to get us).

But the brilliant Harvard scholar Steven Pinker compelling unpicks the myth that these are particularly violent and dangerous times in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Citing countless academic studies woven through fascinating accounts of the evolution of human society, he shows that despite the proliferation of blood-thirsty news stories, in general, we’ve never had it so peaceful; for most people, in most parts of the world, violence and immediate danger are not part of daily life. Of course, we are mindful of those brothers and sisters for whom this is not yet true.

But despite this macro view of peace of Earth recent events around the world have shown how quickly we are to ready ourselves for battle, even if in most cases it’s an ideological rather than physical battle. The bitterly fought and divisive US presidential contest, the UK Brexit decision and the uprising of the masses against the political class in numerous locations has primed us to defend ourselves against those who try to deny our rights, freedoms, way of life, religion, or beliefs; at times it’s seemed like a mass manifestation of our primal flight or fight response – we are ready, we are dangerous, we will defeat our enemy.

The issues that these recent world events have raised have really triggered us since we may have a strong and established position on them. While it is incumbent upon us as citizens of democratic nations to form our own beliefs and opinions and skilfully share them, we would do well to remember the other side of the argument. Cultural commentator Charles Eisenstein notes that there was one point upon which every political party, candidate, and activist group agreed during the US presidential election – that they are right so the other guys must be wrong.

He argues that this ‘us-versus-them’ mentality is born of the story of separation that we see (particularly) in the increasingly homogenous and monetized west. When did we lose the ability to carefully listen to the other side of an argument and then, if it is the case, respectfully disagree? What we have seen lately is polarization spilling over into hate. Eisenstein suggests that rather than futile rounds of labelling the other side as ‘bad’, ‘evil’, or ‘wrong’, that we instead attempt to cultivate a sense of what it must be like to be that other person – what personal wounds or painful experiences have led that person to taking the position that they have? It’s all too easy and convenient to label the other side as simply ‘wrong’ but by making the effort to consider where they’re coming from (remember that they believe you’re just as misguided as you believe them to be) we have the opportunity to better understand the issue at hand and either soften or strengthen our stance. Even if our position does not change, at least it can then be said to be truly informed since we’ve considered all sides of the argument.

The philosopher Roman Krznaric writing in the latest issue of Resurgence picks up on a similar thread in the keynote article, arguing that what the world needs more than anything is for us to cultivate greater empathy towards each other. He notes that empathy is, in general, not something that we either have or do not (apart from in rare cases of people who do have a clinically recognized form of empathy bypass) but is rather something we can choose to give our energy and attention to; we can cultivate and practice empathy and develop it as a skill. Ultimately empathy asks the question ‘what is it like to be in your shoes?’ Notice this is not the same as ‘what would it be like FOR ME to be in your shoes?’ The objective is to abandon our preconceived ideas and conditioned responses and attempt to inhabit the other person’s world. This is by no means easy, especially where a person is immediately repulsive to us. Charles Eisenstein, while not condoning Donald Trump’s election campaign rhetoric and polarizing language, is reluctant to be drawn into criticising him but would rather ask ‘what happened in this man’s life to lead him to forming the opinions that he has and behaving as he has?’

But the sphere of our empathy should not fade at the boundaries of human society. What about empathy towards the natural environment? It is estimated that between 200 and 300 species are slipping off the radar daily due to changes in, or loss of, their natural habitat. These are real creatures that we can never get back which is a sobering and heart-breaking thought. The same questions that we are asking about the divisiveness in human society also apply to the natural world.

Although the romantic idea that humans once lived entirely peaceably with the natural world is a stretch of the facts – we’ve largely destroyed nature wherever we’ve roamed – it is true that for much of human history we celebrated nature and felt some kind of affinity with it; even, some would argue, a sense of kinship with the Earth. But, particularly because of the change in attitude that occurred in the era of rationalism, we distanced ourselves from nature, no longer bringing to it a sense of care and compassion but instead deciding it was an enemy which must be defeated. The influential English statesmen Francis Bacon said of nature that we must ‘conquer and subdue her’ and ‘shake her to her foundations’. In the era of rationalism nature fell on the wrong side of the divide. Displaying no clear qualities of ‘mind’ nature was considered irrational and therefore something ‘other’ than humanity – other, of course, being code for inferior.

Val Plumwood writes of this that rationalism was not the ‘reason’ it was held up to be but rather, as she so succinctly put it, a ‘cult of reason’. Nature may not operate through the same qualities of mind that we see in ourselves but nature’s intelligence is vast and still only partially understood – there is an alchemy in nature’s operating principles that we may never understand. Aldo Leopold, the great American man of the land, said himself that ‘the land mechanism is too complex to be understood and probably always will be. We are forced to make the best guess we can from circumstantial evidence’. Indeed for Plumwood and thinkers who take a similar position ‘otherness’ lies at the heart of colonialism, racism, and genocide, as well as ecocide.

The Trump administration, with its unsurprising position on climate change, reminds us that we are at a decisive point in the history of relationships between humans and nature. We will not return to a Garden of Eden like connection with nature. Going forward it is more likely that the protection of nature will be deeply embedded with commercial agreements and financial incentives than inspired from a heart-centred motivation to reconnect with the Earth. But that is not to say we should not pursue the primal and intrinsic relationship we have with nature or bring genuine empathy towards it. What would it be like to be an animal whose habitat is constantly shrinking or whose prey is no longer as plentiful? What must it be like to see fewer and fewer of your own kind? Or to watch helplessly as human influence casts a darkening shadow over your world?

We often consider nature to be the backdrop to our lives and neglect the reality that we are entirely embedded within the web of life on Earth. We cannot survive without it but it has a right to being valued on its own terms, not according to our utilitarian values alone. Perhaps we will not bring the empathy that is required towards the natural world until we have developed that capacity to a far greater extent amongst ourselves. As Roman Krznaric reminds us, empathy is not something to which we are fated or not but, like anything which is worthwhile doing, must be developed, practised and refined; we can, and should, learn to care about nature.

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