27 March 2011

The Secret is Empathy

So many thoughts, ideas, questions converging this week. I started reminiscing about a successful environmental campaign that my hubby and I participated in nearly 20 years ago (gak!). A friend sent me one of those cool animated lectures and asked me what I thought. An issue of New Scientist kept staring at me til I finally opened it. And I discovered Jeremy Rifkin.

Okay, here we go.

Peter and I lived for 10 years in a wonderful city in north central British Columbia. During that time, a multinational corporation (which had already dammed the river once) started talking about how much more water they needed. There was one woman who raised the alarm. She worked tirelessly for quite a while — until she heard that the political party she belonged to (and which was in power at the time) wasn't going to do anything about it.

So she disappeared. Just like that. Her sense of belonging to that political party outweighed her love for the river. We carried on without her (and WON!), but I've always been intrigued by her sense of allegiance. This is the kind of thing that's happening in the United States around climate change. If you're Republican, you're not really allowed to believe in it if you want to stay in the club. And belonging, as we know if we think about it, is everything. (Maslow certainly knew it.)

The animated lecture sent by my friend is a wonderful polemic (I mean that kindly) by Barbara Ehrenreich, who has been described as "a barbed social critic." The lecture, called Smile or Die, is about the cruelty and moral callousness of the very American belief that positive thinking will fix everything — and if things aren't right, it's our own bloody fault for not thinking the right things. This belief was immortalized in that recent bit of claptrap, The Secret. That movie made my blood boil! Not only did it imply that those of us without mansions are losers, but that anyone who wants to think hard enough and positively enough deserves a mansion! Grrrrr. No regard for anyone else. Just me, me, me and what I want.

Ehrenreich's lecture does a stellar job of denouncing this delusional view of the world, suggesting instead a form of realism that allows us to see what we can change. No, the people impacted by tsunamis are not sending out tsunami-like vibrations. No, the people hit by earthquakes are not sending out earthquake-like thoughts. And no, the people who are losing their lives and their livelihoods, their food security and water sources, their homes and entire homelands due to the climate change emergency are not creating their reality! We are, with our bloody fossil fuel and livestock emissions. And we can change that.

She also points to the nonsense, as my friend describes it, "of having to be positive and hopeful, thereby compromising and minimizing the truth and danger/threat" of the global climate change emergency — like a lot of mainstream environmental NGOs feel they have to do. It's pretty consternating, and leads to a whole lot of cognitive dissonance.

As you know, I think the answer is compassion. According to researcher Margaret Kemeny at the University of California, San Francisco (this is where the 8 January 2011 issue of New Scientist comes into the story), compassion is a complicated construct that likely involves several emotional skills. "To be compassionate with someone, first you have to recognize that they are experiencing a negative reaction. Then you have to consider what a beneficial response might be. Then you have to have the motivation to do something about it."

Did you know that Stanford University opened The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in 2009? It's "funded by neuroscientists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the Dalai Lama." I think they should get on with it. I haven't heard boo from them — and we could use a little research about compassion around here.

Finally then, I'd like to share with you 2 versions of a similar lecture by Jeremy Rifkin, who is a new climate change hero of mine. Rifkin is an economist, writer, public speaker, political advisor and activist — and he gets that the secret is empathy. In this video (The Empathic Civilization), he explains that our drive to belong is hard-wired (and soft-wired), but so is our empathy. In fact, he calls us Homo empathicus, and explains that empathy has evolved and expanded along with our sense of belonging.

Rifkin asks, "Is it possible that we could extend our empathy to the entire human race, as an extended family, and to our fellow creatures, as part of our evolutionary family, and to the biosphere as our common community? If it's possible to imagine that, then we may be able to save our species and save our planet." ***

I've talked about this before, but it bears repeating. If, as Rifkin suggests, we can start thinking of ourselves as members of a species — and one that is threatened — then perhaps we can start to feel compassion for those members of our species who are less fortunate (ie, hit sooner rather than later) than we are when it comes to the climate change emergency. There but for the grace of ....

Enjoy Rifkin's animated explanation of the Empathic Civilization, below, and then to watch a more scholarly explanation of it, visit this link.

***What George Carlin didn't know back in 1992 is that the planet we know as Earth is indeed in peril if we're talking about its biosphere. But he's still funny. He also points out that much of environmentalism isn't based on empathy or compassion, but on having a nice, clean place to live — for me.

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?