What if we Stopped Pretending?
Jonathan Franzen, New Yorker, 9/8/19
Today, the scientific evidence verges on irrefutable. If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.
Why Can't We Stop Climate Change? We're Not Wired to Empathize with Future Generations
Jamil Zaki, Washington Post, 8/22/19
Empathy evolved as the north star to our moral compass. When someone else’s pain feels like our own, we have reason not to harm them. Empathy is also ancient, tuned to a time when we lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers. Much as we did back then, we still find it easier to care for people who look or think like us, who are familiar, and who are right in front of us.
It’s difficult to scale our emotions to the global task that climate change represents. For instance, people feel strong empathy after hearing about one victim of a disaster — whose face we can see and whose cries we can hear — but hearing about hundreds or thousands of victims leaves us unmoved. Such “compassion collapse” stymies climate action. Environmental damage has already produced enormous suffering, particularly in the global south. But in the global north, where most carbon emissions are produced, these victims are distant statistics who garner little empathy.
Like distance, time diminishes empathy. People find the future psychologically fuzzy; we even tend to view our future selves as strangers. This leads individuals to make shortsighted choices such as accruing debt instead of saving for retirement. Across generations, this tunnel vision worsens. Not only are the consequences of our actions far off, but they will be experienced by strangers who have yet to be born. Add to that an uncertainty about their lives — a century from now, humanity might have solved climate change using tools we cannot imagine, or been ravaged by a war that makes today’s sacrifices irrelevant — and you have a perfect recipe for indifference. Indeed, researchers find that people are less willing to sacrifice when the benefits of their actions feel far away or unsure.
Why you should think about being a good ancestor — and 3 ways to start doing it
2. Seek out and listen to the voices of the future.
When we bring young people into our conversations and deliberations — whether in our families or in public discourse — they can remind us of our role as ancestors. They have the moral authority to speak on behalf of future generations, as well as the credibility to lead their elders. We witnessed this phenomenon with the teenagers who survived the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, who asked their parents and lawmakers to pledge to support gun control. We’ve also seen it with the young people — like Greta Thunberg — who are protesting and implicating their governments for their role in accelerating climate change.