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Sustainability and Empathy
Emily Gertz, 20 Aug 07
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In the heated cultural process of acknowledging the diversity of Americans and their different points of view, there are still voices that have remained largely unheard. Recently I was transfixed by "Special Ed," an installment of the radio show This American Life that let developmentally disabled people tell their own stories about their experiences of being "different." The interviews made virtually invisible citizens visible to me.

Naturally, their stories are incredibly interesting, revealing more points of connection between those who are developmentally disabled and those who aren't than I would have guessed at. (Who hasn't felt singled out or different at some point?) And that got me to thinking about how many other stories are invisible to me, and how much my empathy towards others could expand if they were revealed.

Radio seems like an especially powerful medium for this sort of thing. This American Life often offers opportunities to step into the lives of people we might never meet, and see the world from their perspectives. There's also the Radio Rookies series produced by WNYC-New York Public Radio, which puts recorders in the hands of teenagers in "predominantly under-resourced neighborhoods, training young people to use words and sounds to tell true stories." One is the story by Samr “Rocky” Tayeh, a teen who weighed 500 pounds by the time he was a high school senior, and decided to have weight loss surgery. (It's a tough call who's considered more outcast in our culture: the mentally impaired or the morbidly obese.)

Another amazing project in this vein is Storycorps, which sets up both permanent and mobile recording booths to collect interviews between family members. Storycorps has also undertaken a project called The Griot Initiative to preserve and present the voices, experiences and perspectives of African-Americans.

Games are also a fertile medium for gaining understanding and empathy about lives unlike one's own. There's Ayiti: The Cost of Life, for example, developed by New York City high schoolers, which makes the player responsible for the fate of a poor Haitian family. And there's PeaceMaker, which puts the player in the role of an Israeli or Palestinian head of government, trying to end the violence while also meeting the needs and demands of your own people.

Empathy: experiencing within oneself the perspectives or emotions of another. It's not a quality we tend to mention when we're talking about sustainability. But in an already stressed and violent world that's heading for more extreme weather, a less comfortable climate and constrained resources, it's going to be integral to sustainability to develop our empathy muscles, along with those of its allied emotion compassion.

Image: flickr/this is emily

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I agree wholeheartedly with Emily's point, but would like to take her thinking just a little bit further. Consider our beleaguered, increasingly unsustainable planet. We have never had a lot of time or empathy for Gaia. As long as we could savour the abundant flow of rich milk from her endlessly proffered breast, there was no consideration of her needs. We have taken our Mother for granted. And how wrong we were. Almost too late to say 'sorry'.

Posted by: Diana Korchien on 20 Aug 07

Nice thoughts, but I take slight exception taken the idea of "empathy muscles". It could be said it's "just a metaphor", but I don't think the power of metaphors are to be dismissed. And the empathic reaction is almost the opposite of a muscular reaction. It's a kind of stepping back and opening up, rather than an assertion that can be forcibly exercised. "Training" the capacity, with the metaphoric background we take from the "muscle" image, would probably lead to a flattened simulacra of empathy. The real challenge is realizing it's an opening up, and looking at how our culture prevents this from happening more often.

Posted by: Gyrus on 21 Aug 07



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