Empathy: our strongest weapon against climate change?

Outrospection video screen

“The Power of Outrospection” argues that we can only save ourselves by becoming more aware of others and starting to care about their fate.

Socrates said that the best way to live a good life is to know yourself.

In the twentieth century, knowing yourself meant introspection, the practice of looking within popularized by Freudian psychoanalysis.

But introspection can easily lead to navel gazing, self love and egoism. Such narcissism is unlikely to help deal with the big problems that threaten human society today, from climate change to global poverty to war in the Middle East.

So perhaps what the world needs more than looking inside at ourselves is to look outside at others, what Roman Krznaric, a cultural theorist and founding faculty member of The School of Life in London calls “outrospection.”


In a new animated video, “The Power of Outrospection,” Krznaric explains his theory that empathy is not a wimpy quality best exercised in encounter groups in Northern California but may instead be humanity’s best hope for future survival.

“Empathy is about radical social change,” Krznaric says. “A lot of people think of empathy as sort of a nice, soft fluffy concept. I think it’s anything but that. I think it’s actually quite dangerous.”

Dangerous? For example, empathy can turn a physician, who’s angry that poor families can’t afford life-saving medical treatment for their children, into a revolutionary, as in the case of Che Guevara.

Today, empathy brings ordinary Arabs and Israelis who’ve lost family members in war together in a citizen peace initiative. In the past, empathy helped eighteenth-century abolitionists convert Britain, at the time the world’s greatest slave power, into a global force for emancipation.

Now, empathy is needed on climate change.

A gap, not in missiles, but in empathy

Krznaric finds an empathy gap across space — Third World nations like India are already suffering from climate crises worse than the rich countries whose emissions are mostly at fault. On climate, there’s also an empathy gap across time, as people alive today fail to realize our responsibility to protect future generations from climate chaos.

To fill that deficit of empathy, we’ll need to bring empathy into our lives. Krznaric offers one big idea to do that, an “empathy museum” where you can literally walk in the shoes of others. What does this museum experience look like? For example,”encountering” a former Vietnamese sweatshop worker who relays how to make a T-shirt in inhumane working conditions for pennies an hour.

In the twenty-first century, Krznaric argues that Socrates’s injunction to know yourself must go beyond introspection into an outward gaze that helps us all identify better with others.

After a few years of weird weather around the world and distressing climate news culminating in Superstorm Sandy, you’d think trying to save our own skins would be motive enough to start taking climate seriously. But appealing to self-interest, even the enlightened kind, hasn’t seem to have accomplished much.

Starting to worry about others for a change couldn’t do any worse. Watch the video here.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. vera says

    Ok, you are a smart and thoughtful man, Erik, and so I will bite on this one. Does it make sense to create a museum where people are expected to step into other people’s shoes, irrespective of the harm those people do? Should we be treated to a rich person’s yacht in the museum, or the banksters’ party where they divvy up their obscene bonuses, or to witness the rape and destruction of that medical student in India? Or perhaps we might be given a glimpse into Bernie Madoff’s prison? Somehow, all this seems… not quite right.

    I fear all these calls for empathy without deeper thought are just part and parcel of looking for another meme to cash in on… soon, all those books will be out, then the “business self-help” books, and then empathy-washing will become the order of the day. Then the word will be coopted and ruined, just like “sustainability.”

    • says

      Thanks for the nice opener, Vera! I like your style of arguing :)

      You may be right, that empathy becomes the next hot buzzword in business schools, just like sustainability or cause marketing or flat-organizational structure (ie, non-hierarchical), another clever way to just make more money while trying to seem like you’re not.

      The video actually does go so far as to suggest that ordinary folks should try to empathize not just with the poor but also with the rich. I think he may have something there. It’s not to condone bad behavior but to understand better what might motivate rich people to do things that seem incomprehensibly selfish to the rest of us.

      Perhaps in America in particular we cut the rich too much slack already and what we really need is to get angry at the top 1% instead of always trying to be more like them. But we’ve seen how that’s turned out in other countries, and I’m not sure a violent revolution of the masses is something that the world’s leading nuclear armed power should aim for. Better I think is to keep our principles intact — not to compromise on dethroning plutocracy and getting off fossil fuels, for example — while at the same time exploring how different kinds of people might agree to head off climate disaster.

      • vera says

        :-) It’s a pleasure to be here, arguing!

        It is to me besides the point why people who do willful harm do it… such an approach quickly turns into rationalizations. If harm is done, then those who do harm must be held responsible. Period. It reminds me a little of the time when an abused wife would go to the priest for help and he’d tell her to have compassion and put herself in the abuser’s shoes. Excuse me!? In cases of harm, empathy ought to go the victims and targets of harm.

        I am not arguing for a violent revolution. I am arguing for limits on power and wealth. And firm boundaries when it comes to people who do harm. Me and what army, huh? :-)

        • vera says

          There is one other point I wanted to make. You are right… in order to get things done, people from many different points of view need to come together. Political segregation no longer works. But at the same time, if people cannot distinguish between allies and adversaries (especially as they reach out to other classes, political groupings et al) they’ll come to grief. Allies will further your project. Adversaries will often pretend to be allies but undermine your project because they have another agenda. Empathy, yes, but smart.

  2. James R. Martin says

    Yes, there does seem to be a sudden boom in interest in empathy.:

    Ode to empathy
    by Jen Hinton, originally published by Postgrowth | Feb 20, 2013

    “The discussion around empathy seems to be growing exponentially. From the huge splash Brené Brown is making with her work on shame, vulnerability and empathy to Jeremy Rifkin’s vision of our moving towards an Empathic Civilization, empathy is becoming a 21st century buzzword. And rightfully so.” >>> continued >>> http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-02-20/ode-to-empathy

  3. says

    Great article/video. Krzranic makes a good point that in a capitalist, GDP-driven economy, empathy can be a radical and destabilizing concept. After all, the state of the world is never more than the expression of our shared goals and values. As Americans now possess values that orient us towards unfettered markets and “I’ve got mine” individualism, it’s natural that our communities are eroding and we have high levels of inequality. Replacing those core values with empathy and the tenets of a “happiness economy” would result in nothing short of revolutionary changes to our economic and social systems. I firmly believe that if we’re going to address climate change and our other sustainability problems going forward, this kind of cultural shift is precisely what is needed.

    Empathy is also a useful tool for bringing people in to the fold. The biggest mistake that climate advocates make is to assume the facts speak for themselves, and that people will connect the dots to their own lives. Empathy helps us put those facts within a larger narrative for people, to tell the story of what climate change MEANS and not just what it is. It’s a very emotional thing to realize the scale of danger we now face, and empathy helps us make those connections and process the feelings that come with them.

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