By Hannah Lane
Compassion is supposedly key to making us human. It involves our ability to empathise, feel an emotion appropriate to another’s emotion and to be motivated to help. Acts of compassion exist throughout the archaeological record, evident even before the rise of anatomically modern humans. Our ability to feel compassion and extend caring beyond close relationships and kin to strangers, animals or even the environment is supposedly what sets us aside as unique. But our ability to be compassionate is also fragile and it seems that in a modern world we have lost our sense of compassion for the one thing that we all rely on most to survive: our planet.
Climate change is a global issue and, consequently, interventions have been made on a global level. Most recently, the Paris Agreement was adopted in December 2015, representing a new framework that aims to limit global warming to below 2°C. Whilst this agreement was hailed as historic, it was also regarded as only a ‘first step’ in our battle against global warming. The term ‘climate change’ first became widely used in the 1980’s. Why then did it take over 30 years before we took our ‘first step’?
Why don’t we care?
It is possible that the answer lies in our history. For most of our evolution, people lived in small, family groups. Cooperation was key to the success of these groups as if people cooperated they were more likely to survive, thus enhancing the survival of our genes and cultural practices. Gradually over time, this cooperation began to extend from our family groups to larger tribes and then, eventually, to the nations we belong to today. For such cooperation to be successful, biologist Walter Kennedy Dodds (2008) argues that it requires an ‘us against them’ concept. This would have originated from our small family groups in which we competed against other groups that were not genetically related. This ‘us against them’ concept has then also been extended and in contemporary society can be witnessed in larger contexts such as sports games, company loyalty and nationalism.
But it seems as though we have now extended this concept too far. We now view the environment as ‘them’ despite it being vital for our survival. When the term ‘climate change’ first emerged, it was framed as an environmental concern. This perception of climate change has dramatically impacted the ways in which we understand and act towards it. The environment is conceptualised, in much of western society, as comprising purely the natural world and separate from humans and the realms of culture. This conceptual boundary between humans and the environment is reinforced in much of the discourse on climate change: humans are the cause, the environment experiences the effects. However, by defining climate change as purely an environmental issue we ignore its impacts on humanity.
Climate change is, in fact, very much a humanitarian issue. It is expected to impact every corner of our lives, affecting food security, local economies and even human health. Rising sea levels and more extreme weather events will make our settlements even more vulnerable to flooding, particularly low-lying islands. One fifth of the population of Tuvalu, an island nation in the South Pacific, have been forced to leave their homes. These are the world’s first climate refugees and their unique cultures and traditional livelihoods are at risk of being lost completely.
Another aspect of cooperation, connected to the ‘us against them’ concept, is a lack of empathy towards less-related individuals. This allows us to be less concerned with issues that do not directly impact us or those we hold closest. This is most evident when examining the way in which we view human deaths. For example, if a family member dies, we experience extreme grief, however, we are less able to empathise with the death of a stranger.
It is now the environment that is suffering, and many species of animals and plants are at risk of extinction. But as we in the western world view ourselves as separate or ‘unrelated’ to nature, it is inevitable that we will struggle to empathise and care about the environment. Similarities have also long been known to enhance empathy between humans. But the boundaries we draw for ourselves between nature and culture mean that we struggle to view the natural world as sharing any similarities with us. This conceptual boundary therefore limits our ability to empathise with the natural world.
And it is this separation between humans and the environment that has been reinforced by scientific disciplines. It can even be witnessed in Anthropology. Language, culture, society and history are attributes that we view as distinctive to humans and, in anthropology, we use these as tools to help us understand a purely human world. But recent shifts within the discipline suggest that we are beginning to see humans as part of the natural environment and are looking ‘beyond the human’. For example, Anna Tsing’s (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World’: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins examines survival within a multispecies landscape. This ontological endeavour within anthropology allows us to rethink our previous concepts and create new ones.
Climate change challenges our conceptual boundaries between nature and culture and humans and the environment. And now, we have the chance to redefine ourselves within the world and eliminate the dichotomies that have hindered our ability to care for our planet.
Hannah Lane is soon to be graduating with a combined honours degree in Geography and Anthropology, with future hopes of working in conservation and a desire to travel.