This interview, part 2, was conducted by email on 13 May 2020
Bryn Jones Square: How might we address the dire threats of climate change?
Todd Dufresne: That’s a hard question because the problems of catastrophic climate change are, frankly, beyond the capacities of anyone to fully conceptualize. First off, it impacts every facet of the social and natural worlds. Second, there is no position outside of climate change; there’s only immersion inside it. And third, it’s pretty obvious to everyone that environmentalism hasn’t been able to save us from this catastrophe. So we don’t really have a road map.
BJS: What should we do, then? Is a change in consciousness enough?
TD: I think that consciousness is part of the solution. Of course, critics sometimes pooh pooh the idea of a ‘shift in consciousness,’ treating it like empty rhetoric. But it isn’t. It’s just an insistence that the ways we think are not given but made. And since they’re made, they can and do change. This is why researchers study history, namely, so we can see how different times and cultures think and live differently. Part of a shift in consciousness is the realization, made painfully obvious during the Covid-19 pandemic, that we, too, are capable of thinking and living differently. Far from being an artsy fartsy fairy tale, this realization has the power to change the world. And so, for example, it is suddenly possible to rethink the inevitability of capitalism and its dominance over Western life and, by extension, over everyone else. It is suddenly possible to revalue life ahead of profits, an idea that, if taken even half-seriously, would change things for the better.
BJS: And help save the planet?
TD: Maybe. It is, at the very least, a fundamental feature of any roadmap to survival. If our ideas have been able to destroy the planet, pushing us to the sixth mass extinction and into the Anthropocene, then they can also change to save the planet. Ideas make and remake the world.
BJS: What about feelings, including what you call the “globalization of empathy”?
TD: In the book I argue that our experiences of catastrophic climate change are enough to change our ideas about everything. Or, if you prefer, our feelings of fear, anxiety, and suffering in the face of hunger, thirst, and death are of a magnitude that will transform our thoughts about the social and natural worlds. This will happen, for example, because devastating droughts, fires, and hurricanes will happen. At the same time we are fully capable of experiencing these things vicariously, through empathy. We don’t need to live in Australia, be Australian, or have friends or family who are Australian to weep over the loss of a million animals in the great fires of 2019-20. All we need is a television screen, social media feed, or a newspaper. As we finally realize that there’s no escape from climate change, and that it’s impacting every aspect of our lives – from our food and water supply to our housing and pension plans – we will be forced to become different and, I think, better people. Instead of the “globalization of indifference,” a feature the Pope finds at work in the world of capitalism, we will experience something like the globalization of empathy.
BJS: What about the skeptics of global empathy?
TD: I respect their skepticism to the point of almost complete identification and empathy! Look, I’m not saying that everyone will come along for the ride or that some people will achieve a kumbaya moment of enlightenment. I’m just talking about a collective shift toward greater empathy for others. Indifference won’t go away any more than empathy disappeared under capitalism. It’s not really one or the other, but the relative weight given to each characteristic by society at large. The problem with ‘rational’ self-interested individualism, the philosophical bedrock of indifference, is that it won’t help us survive in conditions that no longer favour life on earth. Or rather, to be more precise, it won’t make it easier to survive and lead lives full of meaning and happiness. This, I should add, is a highly practical matter. It’s not an abstraction.
In other words, if we don’t shift toward the globalization of empathy then we will live out our lives in a fascist dystopia. I don’t deny that fascism is one way of organizing a world undone by climate catastrophe, since it’s obvious that many parts of the world are currently doing so now. I’m just saying that a world of indifference is not worth living in, even for those of us lucky enough to enjoy its best rewards, because it amounts to the destruction of our civilization just as assuredly as climate catastrophe. In short, surviving climate catastrophe through fascism is a winning by losing. To the extent that we prefer to survive with freedom, compassion, and humanity intact, then we must embrace a global empathy. It’s as plain as that.
BJS: And the Covid-19 pandemic?
TD: I’d only add that our myriad responses to the pandemic, ranging from indifference to empathy, has shown us what choices lie ahead. Like the pandemic, climate change will make these choices unavoidable, necessary, dramatic, and world historic. I think that the shift toward empathy will make these changes palatable, too. That’s important, because otherwise the really big changes, like degrowth and a universal basic income, are for many of us still too hard to imagine, let alone support. But caring about, sharing with, and loving each other represents a far more attractive future than its opposite. The plucky naivety of that statement must, I think, become our common sense if we are not only to survive climate change, but survive it well.
Bryn Jones Square received her PhD from Oxford in 2017. She is an English Instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and her current research explores empathy through the lenses of literature and neuroscience.