Towards an Age of Empathy

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Emanuel Pastreich

Director, The Asia Institute

We have taken it as a given that our economy is driven by intense competition and that we must become only more competitive if we wish to solve the complex problems that we face today, from the downturn in the economy to the rising military tensions in East Asia and around the world. But if we step back and think more deeply about the profound crisis that we face today, the combination of the increasing disparity of wealth with the overwhelming risk of nuclear war and climate change, it is cooperation and not competition, that is required for humanity to survive.


The risk of war is increasing because we do not know each other and do not have personal interactions to match the ties of trade and finance that bind us together in unnatural ways. We have the means to build those bridges, but we need the will and the vision if we wish to move forward.


The lack of empathy for others, for those with whom one is not directly connected, that has led to the crisis we face. It does not take long to see that the only way to avoid the threat of war in an increasingly militarized society is to engage in dialog and build, person by person, a consensus for a new approach to the economy and to international relations in which cooperation, the sharing of resources and of knowledge will be the basis for larger projects aimed at promoting interdependence in a positive sense.


We cannot solve the threat of climate change unless we have a sea change in the thinking of people around the world. We must see how our actions here, our wastefulness, our indulgence and our refusal to recognize how the world has changed, impacts others far away, those whom we cannot see. Without that combination of imagination and of empathy, we will not be able to respond to this overwhelming crisis because we will not be able to conceive of our role in creating it or our role in resolving it. Rather we will see the problem as statistics unrelated to our own role, or as a matter of polar bears and penguins.


As the environmental scholar James Gustave Speth wrote,

“I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation.”


The primary threat is not the technology, nor the concrete impact on the ecosystem, but rather the spiritual hole into which we have fallen that generates this endless need for more. We have pulled back from each other and thus the decay in our institutions of governance.


We need to think above all about how we can work with others and come up with new global systems for cooperation that will address these threats in a meaningful manner, not just as a show for entertainment. We need to have the empathy for others on the other side of the world that allows us to work together for a common goal over decades. To get there we first need to have the imagination to conceive of what is happening elsewhere in the world and to feel, with confidence, that others are significant, critical to our project, even if we never meet them.


Albert Einstein once summed up the crisis of our modern age most concisely, saying,

“The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly, prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely and deprived of the naïve, simple and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Many can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.”  


When we truly embrace the social aspect of our human experience we will find greater meaning and we will find the path forward to effectively address the global challenges of our age. Let us start by imagining the challenges faced by others, rather than the challenges that we face.