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Empathy – A Solution to Global Climate Change Threats



Arguably, Climate Change is one of the most severe threats facing the world of the twenty-first century, one that will affect all parts of the planet and facets of life. Despite the scale and potential economic as well as socio-political impact of Climate Change, the global community does not seem able to cope with the problem adequately. Existing policies such as Kyoto Protocol are not enough while lacking practical feasibility. What is needed is a strategy that supplements sole political or economic approaches – a revolution of human relationships. The paper shortly elaborates about the causes of Climate Change by taking social dimensions of Capitalism and Consumerism into account. Drawing upon the ideas of classical sociologist Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu, it will be shown that, the modern day western lifestyle is locked in the “Iron Cage of Consumerism”, inevitably causing Climate Change. As the causes are sociological, solution approaches must come from the same sphere. Such a solution can be brought about and based upon a new “Culture of Empathy” characterised by improved empathy capabilities of individuals across time and space. After elaborating on the power of an empathic culture, strategies aiming at increasing the empathy capacity of the global population are discussed. The main conclusion of this paper is that a transformation of the human culture into a new understanding of global identity based on principles such as interconnectivity and mutual understanding is most likely to mitigate the effects of Climate Change.
Empathy A Solution to Global Climate Change Threats
Name: Felix Drewes
ID: 6006096
Edition: Term Paper, Final
Tutor: Darryl Cressman
Date: 05/04/2013
Word count: 3700
Table of Contents
I. Introduction ……………………………………………….…...……. 2
II. Capitalism Driving Engine and Social Logic …………………………. 3-5
III. The Power of Empathy ……………………………………… 6-7
IV. A Solution to Climate Change Empathy-Building ………………… 8-9
V. Conclusion ……………………………………… 10
VI. Reference …………………………………………………………. 11-14
I) Introduction
The Kenyan farmer, John Mwanzia, was forced to sell his four-acre farm in Mwingi, in eastern
Kenya, and seek other means of living due to a continuing drought resulting in ever diminishing
returns of crops (Njeru, 2011). Liaqat Babar, a farmer in Pakistan's southern province of Sindh, can
only think of suicide in the face of the misery that came upon his family due to heavy floods. The
very same flood, resulted in the loss of Nimani Bakhsh' twelve years old twin girls (Guerin, 2010).
What do these human beings have in common? They all suffer from natural disasters, incurred
substantial losses, and yet feel left alone by their government, the global community and god's faith.
The vast majority of the global population is aware of the substantial links between carbon
emissions, global warming and climate change [CC], however, make little efforts to do anything
about the increasing threat of it, or to ease the life of its victims and refugees. Most understand,
recognise and regret the faith of the victims, but cannot emotionally comprehend their situation. We
have no sense of empathy towards our fellow human beings, and lack the apprehension of our own
share of guilt; relentless consumption. In fact, climate change is a negative side effect of modern
day capitalism, having vast rates of consumption as driving engine, and increasing waste, depletion
of resources, emissions and CC as a sorrowful consequence. CC is potentially one of the most
severe threats facing the world of the twenty-first century, one that will affect all parts of the planet
and facets of life, yet existing policies such as Kyoto Protocol do not seem to cope with the issue.
It is the aim of this paper, to present a possible strategy that seeks to tackle the problem of
CC, based on an innovative approach of a “revolution of human relationships”.
First, this paper will investigate the nature of modern day capitalism, its intrinsic driving forces and
inherit social logic. By drawing upon the ideas of classical sociologist Max Weber and Pierre
Bourdieu, it will be shown that, the modern day western lifestyle is locked in the “Iron Cage of
Consumerism”, which inevitably effects CC. Second, for the purpose of freeing us from the
shackles of consumerism and its negative effects on the climate, a solution brought up by the
cultural thinker and philosopher Roman Krznaric will be introduced; a new “cultural identity of
empathy”. Third, this paper concludes by discussing measures designed to establish such a culture
while encouraging further creative work in such direction.
II) Capitalism Driving Engine and Social Logic
Modern-day capitalism can take various different forms. In Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism,
William Baumol and his colleagues classify the economies of capitalist countries into four
distinctive categories: state-guided capitalism, oligarchic capitalism, big-firm capitalism and
entrepreneurial capitalism (Baumol, Litan, Schramm, 2007). However, the unifying notion of all
these forms of capitalism is a constant growth premise based on increased labour productivity, as
well as a complex social logic that is established and enforced by several institutions such as the
media, and private as well as public marketing bodies. As Tim Jackson notes in his book Prosperity
without Growth, a key point is that the general trend in capitalist economies is quite clearly towards
increasing labour productivity. This means “producing the same quantity of goods and services with
fewer people, the cycle creates a downward pressure on employment that's only relieved if output
increases” (Jackson, 2011, p. 95). In other words, the drive for increased labour productivity results
in an urge for more consumption, which is sought to boost the economy in order to offset the
increase in unemployment. Another factor of growth is the complex social logic that humans
created in modern societies. According to Max Weber's work The Protestant Work Ethic and the
Spirit of Capitalism, we are locked in an “Iron Cage of Consumerism”, which coerces consumers to
steadily buy more, better and newer products in order to create an identity and to meaningful place
themselves in society. Weber framed the term “iron cage” to describe the bureaucracy apparatus that
he identified as a constraint on individual freedoms in capitalistic societies. Other elements of the
work of Weber use the same concept to characterize consumerism itself, as exemplified in the
following quote: “the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the saint like a
cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment. But fate decreed that the cloak should become an
iron cage” (Weber, 1958, p. 181). The iron cage of consumerism, therefore, became an imperative
of modern-day capitalistic societies in the quest of identity formation.
However, the complex social logic of consumerism has other aspects. The urge for identity
and social distinction is satisfied by the concept of novelty. As Thorstein Veblen pointed out,
conspicuous consumption proceeds through novelty (Veblen, 1898). In fact, many of the latest
consumer appliances and fashions are accessible at first only to the rich. New products are
inherently expensive, because they are produced on a small scale. They may even be launched at
premium prices deliberately to attract those who can afford to pay, as Bourdieu would put it, for
social distinction
. Distinction is a very important concept in the field of cultural identity. A nation
or a group forms its identity by marking the difference between “us” and “them” ( Bourdieu, 1989,
Castells, 1997, Said, 2003). The culture of distinction plays a vital role in the creation of identity as
For a more detailed discussion about the concept of “Social Distinction” see: Bourdieu, 1984
it is an inexhaustible source for humans to distinguish themselves from others. This social logic is
nurtured by what psychological researcher Russ Belk called “cathexis”. Cathexis is a process of
attachment that leads people to think of material possessions as part of the “extended self” (Belk,
1988). This process is evident everywhere: in human relationships to homes, cars, bicycles,
favourite books, cloths, CD-collection and other material objects. Attachments to material things
can sometimes be insomuch profound, that humans feel a sense of bereavement and loss when the
materialistic loved-one” is taken away. As marketing master Ernst Dichter points out: “Hollow
hands clasp ludicrous possessions because they are links in the chain of life. Without them, we are
truly lost” (Dichter, 1964, p.4-5). The social logic of consumerism, therefore, is a complex concert
of human desire, identity seeking and emotions.
Moreover, institutions of modern-day capitalistic societies seize this complex social logic in
order to manipulate people into consuming even more. In his book Propaganda, Edward Bernays
described on the basics of Sigmund Freud's ideas, how people can be maneuvered into making what
they think is their own choice. He showed humans can be steered towards the choices they want to
make, while at the same time, making them think they have complete control over their own actions
(Bernays, 1928). His strategies of manipulating public opinion were greatly appreciated by the US
government and played a major role for the establishment of the US Counsel of Public Relations
(Buffalo State University, 2011). The importance of manipulating public opinion by appealing to
humans inner desires for the sake of drive consumption forward is also reflected in the quote of
Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker and Lehman Brothers employee of the first days. In 1927
he wrote: “We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to
desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. [...] Man's desire must
overshadow his needs” (Niall et al, 2012, p. 17). It seems clear that, since Bernays, a lot of effort
was made to convince the public of capitalistic societies that consumption is an essential part of
individual identity. The artificial exploitation of the social logic of consumerism drives aggregate
output up and causes economies to grow. There is empirical evidence that this strategy seems to
work. The average annual growth in global GDP during the last fifteen years was just over three per
cent (Jackson, 2011)
Increasing output goes hand in hand with increasing emissions and CC. There is a wealth of
evidence confirming that an increase in economic activity influences the way the global ecosystem
works and consequently how climate affects the creatures on earth. Economists term this
relationship the problem of “sinks”, which is the capacity of the planet to “assimilate” the
environmental impacts of economic activity (ibid). Predictions about this capacity, however, are
If the economy grows at the same rate over the next 91 years, it will be (1.031)91 = 16,1 times bigger than it is
little optimistic. As ecologist Bill McKibben claims, “even before we run out of oil, we're running
out of planet” (McKibben, 2007, p. 18). It is now widely acknowledged that, an estimated 60 per
cent of the world's ecosystem services have been degraded or over-used since the mid-20th century,
while global emissions have risen by 40 per cent since 1990 (MEA, 2005; TEEB, 2008). The
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] argues that, carbon emission need to be cut
down to 450 part per million [ppm] if climate change is to be restricted to an average global
temperature increase of two degrees Celsius by 2050 (IPCC, 2007).
However, historical evidence gives little hope that humanity will manage to adhere to these
climate stabilization targets. From droughts in Kenya to rising sea levels in Tuvalu, to floods in
West Bengal, global warming already has major impacts on earth and creatures and is forcing
people to take refuge and move away or to protect their livelihoods with new flood defences, faster-
maturing crops and other emergency measures (Krznaric, 2008). In fact, Kate Raworth estimates
that, based on current factors, the cost of adapting to climate change in developing countries will be
at least $50 billion each year (Raworth, 2007). Immediate action is needed to avoid further costs.
The first obstacle that needs to be overcome on the path to a sustainable future is the
problem of “short-termism”. As Ralf Dahrendorf pointed out, “a new perspective in relation to time
is also relevant for overcoming global issues, in the strict sense of global. In the politics of the battle
against climate change […] it becomes possible to recognise whether action is determined by short-
or medium-term thinking” (Dahrendorf, 2010 p. 19). Further he claims that, “it is imperative
therefore that a new attitude to time is instituted” (ibid). As long as this very imperative is not
established, the IPCC's climate stabilization targets cannot be reached.
Moreover, combating CC should not only be on the top agenda of policymakers, non-
governmental organisations and activists for the sake of avoiding further economic costs. Instead,
climate preservation touches upon questions of morality and fairness, across space and time. In
order to prevent people to share the same sorrowful faith of farmers such as Mwanzia and Babar,
and mothers such as Bakhsh, a change towards a renewed sense of shared prosperity is needed, a
deeper commitment to justice in a finite world.
III) The Power of Empathy
As indicated above, the most common approaches to fight CC is first to underline its economic
benefits and, second, to emphasize the moral obligation to fellow human beings. It is often stated
that, carbon emissions are needed since CC will increasingly become a burden to national income as
it undermines the foundations of our economy while people incur substantial reductions in living
standard through e.g. higher energy and food prices (Jackson, 2011). Furthermore, motivations to
preserve the climate arise out of ideas about rights and justice. Our current value system obliges us
to take action so that emissions resulting from consumption will not endanger the wellbeing of
However, the iron cage of consumerism lies heavily on capitalistic societies and prevents its
people from changing the course. In fact, economic, moral or other arguments have not been
enough to spur sufficient action. Therefore, formulating different strategies to fight CC is needed.
One such strategy is brought about by philosopher Roman Krznaric, who claims that a revolution of
human relationships is needed for the matter of sustainable development, a revolution based on the
concept of “empathy”. (Krznaric, 2007, 2008). Even President Barack Obama identifies that “we
seem to be suffering from an empathy deficit our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes,
to see the world through those who are different from us” (Mieder, 2009, p. 301). The following
sections will investigate the suitability of such an approach.
Before evaluating whether a revolution of human relationships based on empathy is a
practical solution against global warming, the term “empathy” needs to be dissected. The concept of
empathy has different implications. Psychologists differentiate between the terms “Affective-
Empathy” and “Cognitive-Empathy”, “whereas affective empathy can roughly be defined as
responding with the same emotion to another person's emotional display, cognitive empathy has
been defined as intellectually taking the role or perspective of another person” (Scott, Borodovsky,
1990, p.168). It is the concept of “Cognitive-Empathy” that spurs on the hope for social change and
hence will be used for further discussion.
Individuals, governments and companies all around the world currently show an
extraordinary lack of empathy on the issue of climate change in two ways. First, it is failed to take
notice of the sorrow of those whose livelihoods are destroyed today as cause of high emission
levels, particularly distant strangers in developing countries who are affected by floods, droughts
and other weather events such as Mwanzia, Babar, Bakhsh. This is a lack of empathy across
“space”. Second, it is failed to take perspective for coming generations who will have to make a
living under the adverse effects of the continuing addiction to lifestyles that result in emissions
beyond sustainable levels, which is a lack of empathy across “time” (Krznaric, 2007).
In order to overcome these lacks of empathy, its importance needs to be underlined on a
multi-governmental level. The problem however is that, until now, empathy has been largely
ignored by policymakers, non-governmental organisations and activists. This is despite the early
origin of the concept. In Adam Smith's book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759,
the discussion about “Sympathy” is actually referring to a concept close to the modern idea of
empathy (ibid). Nevertheless, it needs to be stressed that, more than an ethical guide to how lives
can be organised and humans interact with each other empathy is an essential strategic guide for
mobilizing social action in order to confront global warming.
It is clear that, such social action needs to be in a collective fashion in order to be effective.
Examples in history about the collective power of empathy are numerous
. As Krznaric points out:
Oscar Schindler started to engage in saving Jews in Poland as he came to know the individuals to
recognise their faces, to witness their personal life stories (Krznaric, 2008). Another example can be
found in the struggle of abolishing slave trade in Britain during the late eighteenth century. In the
1780s, slavery was established as normal social institution. In the following two decades, however,
public opinion towards slavery gradually changed, leading to its abolishment in 1807. Latest
research has shown that, common explanations for this social change failed to take the critical role
of empathy into account. In his book Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery,
Adam Hochschild describes that, a “sudden upwelling of empathy” for enslaved human beings was
an essential part in the fight against slavery (Hochschild, 2006, p. 5). Empathy was created through
a wide range of measures such as, public talks hold by former slaves and the use of leaflets and
poster that visually educated people about the suffering of slaves. Moreover, connections were
explicitly drawn between the “pervasive practice of forced impressment of men into the Britsh
navy” (ibid, p. 222). Through these measures and the direct experience of forced impressment,
people could emotionally comprehend the plight of slaves and establish an emotional bond of
empathy which lead them to condemn the practice of slave trade. Hochschild concluded that, “the
abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts, but in human empathy” (p.366). Consequently,
cognitive-empathy has the potential to bring about social change. Instead of establishing an identity
of “us versus them”, an identity based on mutual understanding and perspective-taking seems to
represent an appropriate cultural alternative able to establish a global culture based on a new value
system with an inherent notion of interconnectedness.
For a more detailed discussion about appropriate examples see Krznaric, 2008
IV) A Solution to Climate Change Empathy-Building
Since it seems clear that a revolution of relationships towards empathy can be an appropriate
strategy to tackle CC, the question arises: what can policymakers, non-governmental organisations
and activists do in order to push forward such a revolution? In fact, projects that seek to establish
grassroots empathy are already in place, even if on a very small scale at present.
One example of such projects is a peace building organization in Israel and Palestinian
territories called “The Parents Circle”. The Parents Circle brings together Palestinian and Israeli
families who share the loss of a family member through conflict. The success of such meetings is
reflected in the quote of a participant claiming: “I understood how similar we are, much more than I
thought” (PCFF, 2013). When The Parents Circle brings these families together, participants
discover that they share the same stories and the same pain. In fact, they establish an empathic
bond. Another great project in the same region that emphasize empathy building is called “Hello
peace!” It is a free telephone line on which anybody can pick up and call. If a Palestinian calls, he
is immediately connected to an Israeli with whom he can have a half-hour conversation. If an Israeli
picks it up, he is put through to a Palestinian. Since 2002 over a million calls have been logged on
the “Hello peace!” free phone line (Hello Peace!, 2013). Other such projects try to create emotional
bonds based on cognitive-empathy with extraordinary success.
However, empathy-building projects in the context of climate change remain a curiosity.
According to Krznaric, empathy promoting projects must come in three dimensions in order to
bring about collective social change and free us from the iron cage of consumerism. Those
dimensions are: conversation, education and experience (Krznaric, 2007, 2008). Conversation refers
to a face-to-face dialogue between two people, in which both colloquists receive the chance to
overcome superficial talk and exchange what really matters to them. By doing so, it is possible to
encounter the perspective of those who are affected by their own actions. Education entails general
forms of learning about people's faith with the help of secondary sources such as websites, photos,
books and films. Experience, is about some sort of physical or tangible activity that entails insights
into another's view of life or daily experience (ibid). All these aspects should be as personalised as
possible so that a profound emotional connection can be established. Abstruse knowledge about CC
impacts is not enough. Instead, an empathetic bond must be created across space and time that
inspires for social action.
Empathy-promoting projects across time are rarely existent. However, there is one
educational attempt in form of a film called The Age of Stupid, in which the viewer takes the
perspective of a man living on planet earth in the year of 2055, a world destroyed by the impact of
CC. With real footage starting from 2007, the protagonist elaborates on the question “Why didn't we
stop climate change when we had the chance?” (FilmsForAction, 2009). An example for
conversational empathy is the project Children in a Changing Climate, in which children try to
sensitise adults to their concerns of CC by engaging in public dialogue (Children in a Changing
Climate, 2013). Experiential projects that address empathy across time are widely unknown
(Krznaric, 2008). Therefore, emphasize should be laid upon creating cognitive-Empathy in terms of
CC across time.
Empathy-building projects across space are more common. Most elaborated projects are in
the field of education. The Wilson College is one institution that gained popularity with empathy-
building education through emphasizing the interconnectivity of all living. Among other activities,
“students spend their weekends weatherizing local homes, measuring the carbon savings, and
understanding the lives of the homeowners they assist” (Flood, 2010). Another institution worth
mentioning is the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales. With their one-day courses on
sustainability for the general public, as well as more specialised courses for builders, engineers,
electricians and plumbers, their free information service, short-term volunteer programmes and
unique eco-cabins, CAT is an extraordinary example of an empathy-building educational institution
(CAT, 2013). Conversational empathy has been promoted by development agencies such as Action
Aid and Christian Aid, which organize speaker tours that give e.g. climate refugees the chance to
tell others about their livelihoods first hand. Examples for experiential empathy-building projects
however, are almost nowhere to find (Krznaric, 2008). Thus, as existing empathy-building projects
show success, more creative minds are needed to come up with further projects that promote
empathy across time and space.
V) Conclusion
Concluding, in order to throw aside the cloak of consumerism that locks capitalistic societies in an
iron cage, a revolution of human relationships based on cognitive-empathy seems appropriate. The
complex social logic of consumerism is exploited by contemporary public relation institutions to
spur economic growth through consumption. As economic growth rises, emissions and climate
change increase too. Most common arguments concerning morality and the prevention of economic
costs do not seem to be strong enough to provide incentive for people to act. Instead, a new attitude
towards time-awareness, as well as an empathetic bond across time and space is needed. History
shows many examples in which such a bond created social change. Existing empathy-building
projects, particularly in the field of empathy-education across space, need to be accompanied by
further projects that focus on building empathy across space, as well as time. Efforts in this
direction are likely to transform human culture into a new global identity based on interconnectivity
and mutual understanding. As historic CC measures failed to address the problem properly, a new
empathic bond between all living beings on earth seems to be the only way to meet the IPCC's
climate stabilization targets, and to avoid more people sharing the faith of Mwanzia, Babar and
Bakhsh. A globally empathetic bond is needed, since “the welfare of each is bound up in the welfare
of all” (Keller, n.d.).
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Economists and the Powerful: Convenient Theories, Distorted Facts, Ample Rewards explores the workings of the modern global economy an economy in which competition has been corrupted and power has a ubiquitous influence upon economic behavior. Based on empirical and theoretical studies by distinguished economists from both the past and present day, this book argues that the true workings of capitalism are very different from the popular myths voiced in mainstream economics. Offering a closer look at the history of economic doctrines as well as how economists are incentivized Economists and the Powerful exposes how, when and why the theme of power was erased from the radar screens of mainstream economic analysis and the influence this subversive removal has had upon the modern financial world. [NP] For more information please see the book website:
Imagine this: a mere century ago, the purchasing power of an average American was one-tenth of what it is today. But what will it take to sustain that growth through the next century? And what can be said about economic growth to aspiring nations seeking higher standards of living for their citizens? In Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism, and the Economics of Growth and Prosperity, William J. Baumol, Robert E. Litan, and Carl J. Schramm contend that the answers to these questions lie within capitalist economies, though many observers make the mistake of believing that capitalism is of a single kind. Writing in an accessible style, the authors dispel that myth, documenting four different varieties of capitalism, some Good and some Bad for growth. The authors identify the conditions that characterize Good Capitalism the right blend of entrepreneurial and established firms, which can vary among countries as well as the features of Bad Capitalism. They examine how countries catching up to the United States can move faster toward the economic frontier, while laying out the need for the United States itself to stick to and reinforce the recipe for growth that has enabled it to be the leading economic force in the world. This pathbreaking book is a must read for anyone who cares about global growth and how to ensure America's economic future.
Is more economic growth the solution? Will it deliver prosperity and well-being for a global population projected to reach nine billion? In this explosive book, Tim Jackson a top sustainability adviser to the UK government makes a compelling case against continued economic growth in developed nations. No one denies that development is essential for poorer nations. But in the advanced economies there is mounting evidence that ever-increasing consumption adds little to human happiness and may even impede it. More urgently, it is now clear that the ecosystems that sustain our economies are collapsing under the impacts of rising consumption. Unless we can radically lower the environmental impact of economic activity and there is no evidence to suggest that we can we will have to devise a path to prosperity that does not rely on continued growth. Economic heresy? Or an opportunity to improve the sources of well-being, creativity and lasting prosperity that lie outside the realm of the market? Tim Jackson provides a credible vision of how human society can flourish within the ecological limits of a finite planet. Fulfilling this vision is simply the most urgent task of our times. This book is a substantially revised and updated version of Jackson's controversial study for the Sustainable Development Commission, an advisory body to the UK Government. The study rapidly became the most downloaded report in the Commission's nine year history when it was launched earlier this year. In 2017, PWG was published in a second, substantially revised and re-written edition that updates the arguments and considerably expands upon them.
Use of traditional counseling methods is examined in regard to multicultural populations. We argue that traditional counseling methods should not be used in non-White/White counseling situations because of the disparity of life experiences of the two participant groups. However, we propose that a transcendence of cultural boundaries between the counselor and the client can be achieved with effective use of cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy, defined as cultural role taking, enables the counselor to cognitively understand and work within the cultural framework of the client. Cultural role taking is recommended for use with White counselors and clients of color. Future researchers are advised of the qualitative and quantitative empirical work yet to be done in this area. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), economista y crítico social norteamericano, dejó un amplio legado de sociología y antropología cultural indispensable para conocer un aspecto importante del alma colectiva de las nuevas sociedades opulentas surgidas como consecuencia de la revolución industrial. En este volumen analiza y hace una crítica a los mecanismos que llevan a una determinada clase social a apropiarse del ocio y entregarse al consumo exacerbado, mismo que cumple una función social fundamental en la reproducción económica y en la reproducción simbólica a través de la emulación, que incentiva el consumo de las otras clases. Aunque fue publicada en 1899, muchos de sus análisis y observaciones se mantienen en vigencia, guardando distancia con los cambios que se han llevado a cabo en el siglo XX.