Empathy, place and identity interactions for sustainability / by Francisco Blaha

I see my self as a grounded person when it comes to very lofty ideals in term of technologies or solutions to existing problems. I guess it comes with my background and the fact that according to the World Bank, I work in a world where 45% of the population lives below 2USD/day and 71% below 10 USD/day… most of the people I deal with need to care more about eating tomorrow than about the future

fruit seller for transhipping FV in Rabaul, PNG

fruit seller for transhipping FV in Rabaul, PNG

Hence good and nice “words” like empathy don’t tend to cut into my world view… but then big part of my work revolves around empathy, place and identity, as a necessary part of the setup when you ‘literally” live in different societies for more than half my working year, and the pother 1/2 the year in a country i consider now my own… but I still an immigrant.

So reading the title of a paper that brings into the big picture of sustainability the concept of empathy, place and identity interactions did totally called my attention. Even if is not fisheries paper!

I like to be open minded in regards new approaches to our present problems… obviously the solutions we tried so far are not totally working, so let try different approaches… in the worst case scenario we will be not worst off than now.

I quote the abstract and the conclusions, but as always read the original and make you own mind about it. In my case it did made me think… and I really like when that happens!

Sustainability science recognises the need to fully incorporate cultural and emotional dimensions of environmental change to understand how societies deal with and shape anticipated transformations, unforeseen risks and increasing uncertainties. The relationship between empathy and sustainability represents a key advance in understanding underpinning human-environment relations. We assert that lack of empathy for nature and for others limits motivations to conserve the environment and enhance sustainability. Critically, the relationship between empathy and sustainability is mediated by place and identity that constrain and shape empathy’s role in pro-environmental sustainability behaviour. We review emerging evidence across disciplines and suggest a new model exploring interactions between place, identity and empathy for sustainability. There are emerging innovative methodological approaches to observe, measure and potentially stimulate empathy for sustainability

Empathy is, we argue, a critical but hitherto neglected variable in sustainability research because of its central role in human-environment relations. Evidence across disciplines has shown how empathic and emotional engagement creates cultural meaning and embeds the environment and pro-environmental behaviour in place-oriented norms and institutions. In the same way as the creation of exclusionary identities facilitates the demonization and exploitation of marginalised groups, so the distancing of humans from nature creates the conditions for over-exploitation of nature and disconnection from the biosphere.

These processes have been implicit in sustainability models in many disciplines: here we posited that empathy can promote sustainability when individuals have empathic relations with the consequences of environmental harm, when they have inclusive identities beyond their locality, and when empathy promotes collective responses.

The key limitation alluded to throughout this paper is that empathy for others is not sufficient for action. We have argued that empathy for nature, embedded as it is in relation to place and underlying identity processes or identities, is similarly limited because of the complexity of those relations.

Indeed, much evidence shows how attachment to place can both promote sustainability and act as a barrier to progressive action arising from particular circumstances.

Adding analysis of place and identity can provide important insights into how and why empathy might be related to sustainability. We show how these relationships are mediated through dynamic social processes around the meanings and construction of place and identity.

Better understandings of the empathy-sustainability relationship, and the mediating roles of place and identity, can inform policy domains from climate and environmental policy, urban planning, economic and trade policy, to international relations.

First, in order to avert unexpected negative impacts, it is important to account for the inadvertent impacts of policy on people’s place and identity and what this means for who or what they feel empathy towards.

Second, understanding how to enhance empathy offers different policy pathways for realizing sustainability outcomes.

It may be possible to enhance absolute levels of empathy that are durable over time, but it is also possible that empathy is a relative emotion whereby enhancing empathy in one direction diminishes it in another or where enhancing empathy in the short-term has implications for longer term emotions and actions.

These issues suggest the value of empathy, place and identity interactions as a cutting edge for sustainability research