When humans care about the natural world, it means revising our place in it and acting accordingly, not giving nature "rights and concessions" that are figments of our self-serving imagination.
BOGOTÁ — One of the most contradictory elements in the human condition is the dual ability to be moved by or remain indifferent to the suffering of creatures. The poverty starkly evident on city streets for as long as there have been cities prompted the creation of welfare systems just as soon as institutions emerged. Today, those systems fall short of the needs of our collective welfare, which we now recognize as vulnerable for depending on the state of natural ecosystems.
The structural inequities and injustice we see require political decisions, but also pose challenges of coexistence in our day-to-day lives. We must thus act on the basis of compassion and empathy, even if such concepts may be understood differently, as the histories of the great religions and their critics illustrate.
Talking of compassion from the scientific perspective (always said to be heartless) or from the perspective of social ideologies are not the same.
Ideologies have frameworks in which convictions are turned into acts of solidarity, equity or charity. And we know there is a gap between sympathy and action, or significant and meaningless action like changing governments to change nothing else. Has the self-defeating gap between empathy and action affected our ecological sense?
The problem with compassion
The problem with empathy is its tendency to be sucked into the vast business of sermonizing and publicity wherein we lose sight of the complexity of issues. We come to infantilize our relations with other creatures, and ultimately view the ecosystem in which we live as a friend. A motherly (but not feminine) Earth gives us its blessings if we want them, chastises the ill-behaved and can make us feel guilty.
Recognizing landscapes or rivers as sentient beings may elevate our conscience and sense of responsibility to them but also turns them into ineffective caricatures. Like the singing shrub shown on our television, Frailejón Ernesto Pérez. I admit he is lovable. If only he could encourage research into the highlands where the espeletia shrub grows, though in this land, he'll probably want to become a senator (and seeing some of our senators, frankly, why couldn't a shrub do the same job?).
Recognizing our responsibility in the world is more than discussing the rights of a bear.
Empathy for animals and rejection of their suffering, as components of biophilia, imply the ability to put ourselves in their place in the course of our regular or occasional interactions with creatures. This means enjoying our evolutionary kinship with all living beings to give meaning to our own existence.
Recognizing our responsibility in the world is more than shoddily humanizing our pets or discussing the rights of a bear (a neurotic, crowd-pleasing gesture, rather than empathetic). Domesticated animals have helped us reach our present, human stage, which, at the very least, demands that they be respected, as U.S. writer Donna Haraway observes.
What do compassion and empathy mean in the context of taking decisions on living with ecosystems? This is presently a debate distorted by emotions of urban dwellers, molded by schooling systems that rarely include the experience of living in anything resembling the woods. For we know that being what it is, nature would engulf us without further ado — or empathy.
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