Empathy: our strongest weapon against climate change?
Socrates said that the best way to live a good life is to know yourself.
In the twentieth century, knowing yourself meant introspection, the practice of looking within popularized by Freudian psychoanalysis.
But introspection can easily lead to navel gazing, self love and egoism. Such narcissism is unlikely to help deal with the big problems that threaten human society today, from climate change to global poverty to war in the Middle East.
So perhaps what the world needs more than looking inside at ourselves is to look outside at others, what Roman Krznaric, a cultural theorist and founding faculty member of The School of Life in London calls “outrospection.”
In a new animated video, “The Power of Outrospection,” Krznaric explains his theory that empathy is not a wimpy quality best exercised in encounter groups in Northern California but may instead be humanity’s best hope for future survival.
“Empathy is about radical social change,” Krznaric says. “A lot of people think of empathy as sort of a nice, soft fluffy concept. I think it’s anything but that. I think it’s actually quite dangerous.”
Dangerous? For example, empathy can turn a physician, who’s angry that poor families can’t afford life-saving medical treatment for their children, into a revolutionary, as in the case of Che Guevara.
Today, empathy brings ordinary Arabs and Israelis who’ve lost family members in war together in a citizen peace initiative. In the past, empathy helped eighteenth-century abolitionists convert Britain, at the time the world’s greatest slave power, into a global force for emancipation.
Now, empathy is needed on climate change.
A gap, not in missiles, but in empathy
Krznaric finds an empathy gap across space — Third World nations like India are already suffering from climate crises worse than the rich countries whose emissions are mostly at fault. On climate, there’s also an empathy gap across time, as people alive today fail to realize our responsibility to protect future generations from climate chaos.
To fill that deficit of empathy, we’ll need to bring empathy into our lives. Krznaric offers one big idea to do that, an “empathy museum” where you can literally walk in the shoes of others. What does this museum experience look like? For example,”encountering” a former Vietnamese sweatshop worker who relays how to make a T-shirt in inhumane working conditions for pennies an hour.
In the twenty-first century, Krznaric argues that Socrates’s injunction to know yourself must go beyond introspection into an outward gaze that helps us all identify better with others.
After a few years of weird weather around the world and distressing climate news culminating in Superstorm Sandy, you’d think trying to save our own skins would be motive enough to start taking climate seriously. But appealing to self-interest, even the enlightened kind, hasn’t seem to have accomplished much.
Starting to worry about others for a change couldn’t do any worse. Watch the video here.