Climate change inertia

Yesterday’s The Independent published a graph illustrating the extend of the Artic sea ice. The decline in comparison to recent years is obvious and shocking. So shocking that we should all be worried, worried to the extent that we are out on the streets taking part in mass protests demanding that our various governments around the world do a great deal more than they are – and start doing it now, not in the future! But we are not, are we? Why do so many of us rationally accept the evidence but fail to act?

The sociologist Kari Marie Norsgaard has noted a “disconnect between abstract information and everyday life”. She accepts that there is still a degree of “outright climate scepticism” (particularly in the USA), but points to a more worrying phenomenon: that the accepted way of accounting for this scepticism, information deficit, cannot account for the paradox slowly being revealed – that whilst the evidence and scientific consensus is increasing, people’s interest is declining. She argues that people know about global warming, but do not integrate this knowledge into everyday life. So, what is to be done? How do we not only encourage people to integrate the wealth of information and evidence of climate change into everyday life, but transform it into social action? Social action that brings about mass change?

In her report, Norsgaard refers to the work of fellow sociologist Eviator Zerubavel, and his argument that “notions of what to pay attention to and what to ignore are socially constructed”. She also points out that few scholars have paid attention to the relationship between emotions and climate change. I would like to suggest that an ethical response to this situation may be of great value and interest.

George Monbiot has recently argued that despite the promoters of neo-liberalism (and many economists from Adam Smith onwards) claiming that we are all motivated and governed by self-interest, many people, if not most people, do good things for other people – often at the expense of their own self-interest. Generally, despite either an understanding of abstract ethical theory or a general consensus about which system of ethics we should follow, people do good things and are moved to act or help people who they do not know. Take, for example, the public response to the photograph that appeared in the press / social media of a dead child refugee washed up in the Mediterranean. Many social ‘wrongs’ have been corrected by people becoming emotionally engaged in situations they think intolerable, and many social movements have emerged from such responses and gone on to radically change social norms.

The French philosopher, Michel Serres, has argued that in order to combat the havoc we are inflicting on our planet we need a natural contract to sit alongside our social contract. Without getting into abstract debates about actual contracts we can surely accept that in all societies systems of relations (both implicit and explicit, both coded and non-coded) have developed from which our norms and social structures have emerged. Contracting, in its root meaning of drawing together, describes this process. However, Serres argues, we have, over the centuries, been so focussed on these social relations, that we have been oblivious to the destruction we have inflicted on the planet Earth. Naomi Klein’s description of what she terms extractivism is a perfect example. What we need is a natural contract; we need to develop a system of relations that draw us closer to the planet – ideally one from which we feel the need to behave in a good way to the planet and our environment in the same way that we do to our fellow humans. Is it possible to respond ethically to the ‘suffering’ of the planet in a similar way we do to the suffering of our fellow human beings?

An interesting line of enquiry would be to start with what is arguably the root of all human ethical responses – our evolutionary developed ability to empathise with our fellow human beings. If we could better understand the emergence of our social and ethical structures from such a root we may be able to discover a similar root from which we are able to develop a natural ethical structure.

A good starting point could be the work of one of the world’s leading researchers into empathy, Martin L. Hoffman, and in particular his book Empathy and Moral Development. For Hoffman, empathy is not an outcome, but a process – a very complex process. He describes five modes of empathic arousal. The first three of these are preverbal, automatic and involuntary. These are very much our genetic inheritance and very focused on the survival of the tribe in as much as they are responses that bond us, contract us, to people who are directly present. However, he goes on to describe two cognitively advanced modes that “add scope to one’s empathic capability and enable one to empathize with others who are not present”. The first of these advanced modes to develop is ‘mediated association’, a response that is mediated through language. So, for example, I read recently that we have a natural response that favours our ‘in-group’; that if shown photographs of a selection of people from different ethnic backgrounds, and given no other information, we respond emotionally and automatically more favourably to those of the same background as our selves. However, as soon as we are given information about the people in the photographs, as soon as we have a cognitive response as well as an emotional one, the initial emotion is replaced by a much fairer and less discriminatory rational reaction. The second, and further developed of these advanced responses, promotes role taking – putting ourselves in the situation of the other even when they are not-related to us, of a different ethic background, and living far away. It may even be possible, with training, to develop these cognitive responses much further.

I have argued elsewhere that our ‘social contract’, the norms and social structures that have emerged to form our system of social relations, have their ‘natural’ roots in such an empathic development. If this is so, does a similar root emotion connect us to our natural world? If it does, could it be developed in a similar way (through the development of a cognitive response on the back of an emotional one)? Could a natural contract be developed that had the same efficacy as our social contract? And if it could, would it bridge the disconnect between our understanding of climate change and the damage we are inflicting on our environment and our everyday life? I obviously do not have answers to such questions. However, I do think that they are not only important questions to be asked, but very urgent questions to be asked. And if they can be answered in the affirmative I suspect that the starting point may be the emotional connection each of us is capable of feeling for our immediate environment.

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