How Far (In Time) Can We Stretch Our Empathy?

I have been doing a lot of research on empathy, and I’m starting to see its potential application almost everywhere I look. I read an article about the future of Virtual Reality entertainment, and it left me wondering how VR might affect – or maybe in some ways encourage – empathy. I read about how so many women experience postpartum injuries that go undiagnosed or ignored, and I wondered how better empathy training in the medical field might help prevent that. Then today, I read this piece about the paralyzing effects of climate anxiety, and I found myself wondering, can empathy be extended to those who aren’t yet born, and to experiences we can’t currently fathom?

According to Roman Krznaric, an adviser to Oxfam and the UN who has written a book about empathy, “empathy is not just a psychological phenomenon but also a political tool.” At least, if your politics depend on breaking down a “we/them” barrier and not building one. And, let’s face it, the issue of climate change is definitely a political one. When the Democratic nominee for president feels the need to say, during her acceptance speech, that she “believes in science,” there’s really no denying that science is political.

But believing in science is one thing. Adding empathy to the equation is another, and some suggest it may be the only way to actually enact change based on said science.

In the piece linked above, Krznaric begins with a story about a woman dealing with the impact of massive flooding in Britain in 2007. She was able to empathize quite easily with people whose homes were at risk from rising sea levels due to climate change. But she’s just one person. Krznaric focuses on why it’s so difficult for governments to enact policies that will protect future people from climate change, but I find myself thinking even more at the granular level. Our political systems are very short-term-oriented, as Krznaric explains, but are individuals? Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede seems to suggest that the answer depends on culture. Which brings me to the question: is this issue of climate change anxiety and climate change empathy really a U.S. problem?

Let’s say, for the moment, that that is the case. That people and politicians in the U.S. have a harder time empathizing with future generations than folks from other cultures. (This seems to be a pretty well-accepted idea, at least in the business world.) A major tenet of U.S. society is equality. In that case, as Krznaric argues: “if we believe all human beings are equal, we cannot morally justify deciding not to act today because future generations should be expected to pay more of the costs of climate change.”

But we do. We justify it all the time. Either because we won’t be around, or we don’t have any children or grandchildren who will be around, or we know our children or grandchildren will have the means to manage with whatever climate disaster befalls their world. Some see this as a moral issue, others a philosophical one. I’m not sure what the answer is, myself. Krznaric suggests that it is imagination: “We must become experts at imagining ourselves into the lives and thoughts of our great-grandchildren, and of strangers in distant times.” But who has time for that?


If any readers have suggestions for further research on empathy – either specific to this post or more generally – please send them my way! kugolik at gmail dot com.