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Encouraging an Empathetic Foundation for Ecological Intelligence

onewhowalks's picture

              A shifts towards ecological intelligence becoming a salient approach to human interactions and reactions with our ecosystem relies on a shift in the way we talk and learn about the environment and a boost in the practice of human empathy.

              There needs to be a paradigm shift in how we see our place in our ecological system and how we speak about and spread that place. The recognition of an environment as a system in which humans interact and not a background for our actions is an immensely important shift. But can this be instigated by a call for such a change, or does it just happen organically? Our discussions in Changing Our Story have often become stuck at the point of wondering how to talk about the way we might speak about concepts now that we’ve realized the current diction is archaic. It seems to me like there is this refusal to accept that we have the agency to change rooted in the refusal to see that we have actively and consciously changed our mindsets before. Not only are there changes in approaches and actions between eras, but there are differences in actions and intelligence between countries. At every present we think that the Others, chronologically and geographically, are archaic and incorrect, so it makes little sense that we should believe that our current present is fully realized and has no room for improvement. To avoid discourse and to stop believing that there is room for improvement is to withdraw into oneself and not take part in the system that we are inherently a part of, and to refuse to participate in ecological intelligence.

              Othering in general is a predominant problem in ecological intelligence. Ecological intelligence itself rejects the idea of othering ourselves as humans from the environment we act on and that acts on us. Also, our othering of each other within our species is destructive in that in prevents us from further practicing ecological intelligence and empathy. If we are creating divisions, hierarchies, and objectification in our own species (a fragment of our piece of the ecological system) how can we expect to interact with the environment in a way that does not establish divisions, hierarchies, and objectification between us and it? The intra-species othering and distancing also creates issue when approaching teaching ecological intelligence, because it devalues the contributions of those outside the present norm towards the conversation.

“Reduction” of the environment and previous knowledge has come up in a couple of our readings, including the Oreskes and Conway, the Latour, and the Bowers. Eco Reduction and exclusion leading to an inability to embrace or practice wide spread ecological intelligence. Because EI relies so heavily on acknowledging the connections and agency all the parts of our ecological system contains, to reduce and exclude parts of the conversation and history is to go against ecological intelligence. Ecology has been reduced to being simply post-mechanisitic. Bowers writes about enclosure, a form of exclusion from culture (and therefore interaction with the environment). He says, “enclosure involved the different ways members were excluded from sharing in what was part of the local cultural and environmental commons.” I feel like this is especially prevalent in the classroom. Already, due to privilege structures, education has selective access and therefore contains students and teachers often with an already determined background of some sort, but each actor in the environment brings their own background and “codifications,” to cite Freire, to the environment. Each player, as there is agency in each piece, must also have a voice.

              In the “Lexicon of Archaic Terms” from Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s The Collapse of Western Civilization, there is an entry on physical scientists that describes them as being “overwhelmingly male, they emphasized study of the world’s physical constituents and processes… to the neglect of biological and social realms and focused on reductionist methodologies that impeded understanding of the crucial interaction between the physical, biological, and social realms.” Earlier in the book there’s a similar phrase, introducing physical scientists as “named as such due to the archaic Western convention of studying the physical world in isolation from social systems.” (Page 2) I believe that there’s a serious problem with a lack of interdisciplinary learning. If ecological intelligence relies so heavily on integration of the man, manmade, and that which is neither, then why would the popular approach to figuring out the environment be based primarily in scientific inquiry? Both Bowers and Latour write in favor of interdisciplinary approaches to ecological intelligence. Just as ecological intelligence itself promotes a realization of the fluidity and connectedness of everything, there needs to be recognition that there is a place for many modes of intelligence in the conversation regarding ecological intelligence This idea of distancing the self from the natural world, creating actors and objects to be acting on, is reflected in the way we treat different modes of knowledge- physical or hard science as separate from social science as separate from the humanities. But if we are connected so deeply with our environment, then the study of the outside (physical/hard science) becomes one with the study and expression of the “inside” of humans (social science, humanities and arts, even biology).

              I believe empathy is the key to increasing our societal level of ecological intelligence. With Friere’s notion of reading the world in mind, what would be the difference in the way we interact with the world if we were able to learn to being compassionate in our interaction with it instead of being taught to objectify and analyze it? I think a heightened exhibition of conscious empathy is key to breaking down the codification seemingly socially accepted of the environment being something to act ON, something able to control for and observe and buffer from.  Given its implications for positive and healthy relationships, it is important to consider how the capacity for empathic responding develops, and it seems from my light research as though there is some benefit to even starting the conversation about heightening our active empathy. The scientific journal piece “THE CASE FOR MINDFULNESS-BASED APPROACHES IN THE CULTIVATION OF EMPATHY: DOESNONJUDGMENTAL, PRESENT-MOMENT AWARENESS INCREASE CAPACITY FOR PERSPECTIVE-TAKING AND EMPATHIC CONCERN?” found that, in a study about capacity for empathy in humans, “reducing the time they were exposed to the images and the tactile stimuli and rushing them to guess about their partner’s emotions [made the subjects less aware of their partners’ feelings]. The more time and attention they could devote to thinking empathically, the more sensitive they became.” The more effort we put into trying to be empathetic, the more time we take to think about our actions, reactions, and interactions, the more able we will be to successfully tap into that empathy. There are numerous studies on the positive effect of conscious empathy on interpersonal relationships, and If empathy is necessary for bettering interpersonal relationships, is it not necessary for bettering our relationship with the environment, with bringing us closer together? Stopping to think about the effect we have on the world and the world’s effect on us is an important part to being in educational environments. Akane, in our class in Taft Garden, spoke of the Japanese culture of allowing and expecting time to think, ponder, and reflect before speaking or responding. The same must be adopted for our actions and reactions, I believe. We cannot afford to simply go with our first reaction; I think we need to stop and consider a world outside of ourselves before we act. We are not the only actors and we are not the only objects being effected by actions.

              However, I’m stuck at where to locate the line between welcoming oneness with our surroundings and surrendering our personal identities.
I think this is also where we get lost in teaching and learning ecological intelligence. Where do we create boundaries to preserve our sense of self? Or should we not be doing that? In my Politics of Globalization class, I’m almost constantly struck by the lack of empathy present in our conversations, interpersonal and with the environment. We began the semester with talking about all the theories and thoughts about globalization, globalization in regards to money, to arbitrary border lines, to trade. Now we talk about the people and the environment. However, if we had started with the environment and the world as a world and an ecological agent of its own, the hierarchy of humans would be less perpetuated. Respect and empathy for others and for the world would be more present because it would no longer be through the lens of humans, humans, humans and, in the long scheme of things, trivial territorial and capitalist constructs. Anne was talking the other day about flipping the structure of the class from starting with personal identity and moving towards the ecological systems in which we play, starting instead with the environment. This is important, I think, would encourage us to think of the systems first, and how they affect and act on us; currently we are so fixated on our PLACE and ACTIONS on the environment that it is difficult at some points to imagine ourselves outside of that. Obviously, there needs to be a societal paradigm shift in what we prioritize. Success is most commonly defined now by an individual rise to the top of some structure: career, socioeconomic bracket, arbitrarily defined identity. Instead maybe we should be focused on success for as many people as possible, following a utilitarian mindset. Maybe this is too idealistic. However, maybe it’s just a piece of valuing those outside of ourselves, a step towards the empathy that could help us think ecologically and help give back to our earth.


              I think, in teaching ecological intelligence, there may also be room to point out hypocrisies and contradictions. In our ESEM class we keep getting stuck on contradictions. But perhaps we don’t need to worry so much about reaching a pure and perfect ideal before acting, instead just committing to trying. Freire said, “those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly.   …  Conversion to the people requires a profound rebirth.  Those who undergo it must take on a new form of existence; they can no longer remain as they were.” I think the same must be said for conversion and commitment to practicing ecological intelligence.










Anne Dalke's picture

Striking to me here is your opening presumption—that “othering is the predominant problem in ecological intelligence” (both within our species and in “intra-species othering and distancing’). What follows from that is your proposed solution: that we must cultivate empathy. You don’t pause to define this activity. And yet see my reading notes, below, which suggest that empathetic identification actually requires the other's difference....(!)

Do you want to revise this paper for your final one?


from Boler, Megan. Chapter 7: “The Risks of Empathy: Interrogating Multiculturalism’s Gaze.” Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. Routledge, 1999:

Who and what, I wonder, benefits from the production of empathy?...In what ways does empathy risk decontextualizing particular moral problems?...I am not convinced that empathy leads…to any shift in existing power relations…through modes of easy identification and flattened historical sensibility….”poetic justice” may simply translate to reading practices that do not radically challenge the readers’ world view….those “others” whose lives we imagine don’t want empathy; they want justice….encourage “testimonial reading”…an empathetic response that motivates action….in sympathy and empathy, the identification between self and other also contains an irreducible difference—a recognition that I am not you, and that empathy is possible only b virtue of this distinction….not a sufficient educational practice. At stake is …the ability…to recognize oneself as implicated in the social forces that create the climate of obstacles the other must confront….

The agent of empathy is fear for oneself. This signals the first risk…more a story and projection of myself than an understanding of you…to judge what “others need in order to flourish” is an exceptionally complicated proposition….Empathetic identification requires the other’s difference in order to consume it as sameness…social a binary power relationships of self/other that threatens to ….annihilate the very differences that permit empathy…

testimonial reading recognizes the…similarly exposed vulnerability. Rather than seeing reading as isolated acts of individual response to distant others, testimonial reading emphasizes a collective educational responsibility….what calls for recognition is not… the possibility of my misfortune, but a recognition of power relationships…The challenge to undertake “our own work” accepts a responsibility founded on the discrepancy of our experiences….active reading practice...involves challenging my assumptions and world views….[Felman ventures,] “if teaching does not…encounter either the vulnerability of the explosiveness of a …critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught”…I must learn to question the genealogy of any particular emotional response….As…alternatives to privatized and naturalized models of emotion, I offer two concepts of the analysis of emotion and power relations: “”economics of mind,” which refers to emotion and affect as models of currency in social relations; and as an alternative to theories of depth unconscious, I suggest we consider emotions as “inscribed habits of inattention.”