Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Warming Wednesdays: we need to grow into temporal empathy

humanity's choice.jpg

If our species is to avert climate change catastrophe, our moral compass needs to incorporate a temporal dimension that is not second nature to most human societies. David Roberts at Grist reflected on this in an essay inspired by the Newtown shootings and President Obama's reflections speaking there.

… We begin with a concern for our own children that is instinctual, biological. And through an act of intellect (“come to realize”) we extend that concern to the larger social ecology in which our children are enmeshed. In that way, our love for our children is “a love that takes us out of ourselves and binds us to something larger.” They are all our children.

… To draw the distant and universal into our guts, to feel them as we feel our own children’s presence, requires a mix of intellect and will that is not familiar, or easy. For all our love and concern toward those like us, we have an equally strong propensity toward moral disregard, even callousness, toward those outside our circle of empathy. Especially in situations of stress or uncertainty, we tend to pull our circle inward, husbanding our love, concern, and sacrifice for those closest by.

… But now we face an even more difficult moral challenge. We now know — we have “come to realize” — that our actions do not just affect our tribe, our country, and our world. Our interdependence is temporal as well. We are feeling the effects of decisions our grandparents made, and our actions will affect the well-being of our descendants, the children of a world 40, 50, 100 years hence.

We know that the decisions we are making today are on track to create irreversible and inexorable changes in the global climate that our children and their children will inherit. We know that those changes threaten to slow or reverse our hard-fought gains in peace and health, leaving our descendants a world in violent, unceasing transition, with rising seas, greater droughts, more intense storms, shifting zones of fertility and disease, and waves of climate refugees. We discovered this not through shock or confrontation but through the slow accumulation and careful interpretation of evidence. It is still, to most people, almost entirely an intellectual phenomenon, something they know but do not feel.

… the evidence of the climate threat to children is, by and large, abstract and ethereal. Even those who “know” the extent of climate change find it difficult to feel authentic moral outrage about it. Yet for every ton of carbon we emit, we are firing a bullet into the air. We may not live to see it, but those bullets will rain down on the children of the future, and they will suffer for it. …

Do read it all.

I should probably add that an expanding universe of empathetic concern -- from family, to locality, to tribe, to nation, to the planet, and looking forward to the future -- is not confined to those who have offspring. Not everyone reproduces and in humans that often socially a good thing. In fact, one of the ways we, as human societies, are beginning to care for the planet is that we are almost universally concluding that enough people are enough. Birth rates fall everywhere that the standard of living rises beyond subsistence and current generations become confident that life will go on in their tribe even if they don't reproduce to their biological limits.

The planet needs humans to understand other sorts of limits that require more intellectual abstraction. The human animal has survived and taken over the planet because we can manipulate abstractions, so what we must do is within the range of what we can do. Expanded empathy makes adapting to necessity more desirable and is probably necessary to spur us to the actions we must take to keep the future livable.

Graphic from An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces by Joe Romm. Read that too.

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