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The Role of Empathy in Environmental Protection


Terence Lester says that “to really understand something, we often need to experience it for ourselves or at least hear the story of someone who has experienced it.”

This captures the importance of empathy when it comes to problem solving.

And when it comes to understanding our environment and its challenges, empathy is especially important. Without it, we run the risk of working only at a broad theoretical level, while missing the urgent heart of the matter.

Empathy gives us a truer picture of the problem

I remember how clearly some of my earliest visits to Plant With Purpose’s programs spelled out how change was possible.

Tui, our former Thailand director pointed off the side of the road towards some barren hills. The whole thing was brown and rocky, with only the occasional patch of dried up grass.

“Ten years ago, this is what that village looked like," he said.

The village we had just spent time in looked like the complete opposite. Lush and thriving.

Being able to visually see the effects of both environmental degradation and restoration made everything more real. Drought, food insecurity, and deforestation were no longer abstract concepts- they could be vividly felt.

Empathy is what happens when love opens our eyes to the way other people see and experience the world. Just because an issue might not be right in front of us doesn’t mean that it’s not in front of someone.

We can remember what global problems mean for people like us

There have been so many studies that show people are more likely to help a single child when they know her name, see her face, and know one fact about her, than they are to support efforts to help a larger number of people.

As humans, we are wired around stories more so than statistics, and while both play an important part in helping us understand the world, the former repeatedly shows a stronger ability to erase apathy.

Desire works in Haiti

Desire works in Haiti

This is not faulty wiring. It stems from the fact that we are built for relationship. And that’s why we’re better able to understand a global issue through the example of a small story.

These remind us that our climate crisis isn’t just about scary numbers. It’s about somebody like Emma being able to put her kids in school. Deforestation is a matter of someone in Haiti like Gernita being able to feed her family.

Empathy focuses on our greater identity

The way we see ourselves influences the way we interact with others. If we see ourselves as responsible parents, that affects how we relate to our children. If we see ourselves as stewards of the Earth and not just consumers, that influences our daily decision making.

When we are able to come alongside partners in rural Mexico or Burundi, we are reminded of our identity in God’s global family. We grow motivated to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters as partners, not projects.

When you listen to somebody’s story, their life or their experiences, with an open heart and mind, you start to lose a sense of us and them. Unity grows and we are reminded of the spirit of unity and diversity that God intended for the world.

By staying true to our identity as followers of Christ, we can approach issues of environmental justice in a way that frees us. We are free from both the pressure to save the world and the temptation to choose apathy.

Do you want an opportunity to stand in solidarity with villages facing poverty and environmental challenges all around the world? Sign up here to become a Purpose Partner!

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