America’s inability to come to grips with the climate issue is rooted in cultural weaknesses that have undercut our society from the very start. Those weaknesses date to the slavery era and before. Slavery was not merely an economic system, more importantly it was also a moral system. The moral order created by slavery badly undermined the human capacity for empathy across the entire nation. And it particularly taught wealthy Americans to live within a culture of malicious contempt for others.
America abolished slavery in the 1860s. America outlawed Jim Crow in the 1960s. But even today, in 2018, we as a people have yet to shed the habits of cruel arrogance toward others that we have learned from the corrupted rich. We have yet to cultivate the capacity for empathy that is so essential to America’s brighter future.
It is this deeper weakness that explains why it has been so easy for so many to turn away from the challenge of climate change. “We haven’t needed a culture of empathy up till now. Why change?”
There’s a simple answer. A capacity for empathy makes each of us better as human beings. And a capacity for empathy across our entire society is crucial to America’s long-term success as a modern nation.
It takes empathy for others to care about the cause-and-effect workings of our economy, our politics, our government, our cities, and our rural communities. And it is only by caring about America’s cause-and-effect functioning that we will find the best approaches for strengthening our nation.
The climate problem is a cause-and-effect problem. If we come to the table with a capacity for empathy, we can overcome the challenge it presents. But if we have no capacity for empathy, we will inevitably flunk the test.
It’s a pretty simple cause-and-effect problem, really. Yesterday’s energy technologies are the source of the threat. The only way to end the threat is to retire yesterday’s technologies in favor of tomorrow’s technologies, every time we get the chance.
But we cannot bring ourselves to this realization if we persist in believing that empathy is a source of weakness rather than recognizing that it’s a source of strength.