Empathy between man and environment: a key factor for resilience and sustainability

Empathy between man and environment: a key factor for resilience and sustainability

December 21, 2017

Empathy between man and environment: a key factor for resilience and sustainability

Reaching the sustainable development goals and achieving resilience, that is, the ability to adapt to change, isn’t just a technical exercise. True transformation will happen only if social aspects remain on the forefront. We spoke to Katrina Brown, an expert in environmental change, about sustainable development. 

In a seemingly hyper-connected world like the one we live in today, the connection between humankind and nature has been lost. “We must work towards sustainability and resilience as our goal. That is, the ability to go from a vision in which human beings are at the centre of the universe to an eco-centric one that has the biosphere at its centre and which also places mankind as an equal among all other organisms”, explained Katrina Brown, Professor of Social Sciences at Exeter University in the UK. As an expert in environmental change, development and resilience, she answered a few questions to help us understand this incredibly complex issue. 

What’s behind this disconnect and how might we rebuild the link between humankind and the environment around us?

The main element that drives this disconnect and which makes it grow is the fact that we often lack a clear understanding of the consequences of our actions. This is a common problem when we talk about climate change. Just think, for example, of an international conference organised to find solutions to the problem: an incredible amount of energy is consumed to just reach the location where the event is held and the waste which derives from it only feeds into the problem of climate change itself. At the time, however, we don’t realise it and we often don’t even have a clear idea of what a better alternative might be in terms of sustainability and resilience


Are these ideas also true for the food and agri-food sectors? 

Food is a classic example: we buy and eat food that comes from the supermarket without thinking about how the agri-food system is organised and structured. We’ve lost the connection in which food takes on special value seeing as it’s much more than a simple means to satisfy the biological need for energy: it’s a way to build community, the nucleus which values and people revolve around. Small “experiments” in resilience and agri-food sustainability are essential, and we need to try to understand how to implement them on a broader scale. All of which must be thought of in terms of social-ecological systems that can combine the more technical aspects of sustainable development with its social and personal ones. 

Social-ecological systems are among the key topics for research on resilience and development. But what does the term mean exactly? 

The expression is used to describe the interconnected system between humankind and environment while also taking the complex social and ecological dynamics which are created into account. A few of those interconnections are very clear and easy to recognise, while others can only be identified according to the reaction of that very system itself. Today we have a series of sophisticated scientific tools that can be used to measure and recognise many of these connections. But from a psychological point of view, we’re still too far from this goal, which can only be reached through a sharp change of perspective. 

How might we change people’s attitudes and who should take on this challenging task? 

It’s important, first of all, to try to better understand what forces are driving behaviour and begin to discuss the values which support them. If the only goal is to produce food at a low cost, the current agri-food system is fine as is. But if, for example, we want to produce healthy food which aims for environmental, economic and social sustainability, it’s essential to try to get people coming from very different points of view in touch. The values we need to work on can’t just be “taught”. Instead, they must be transmitted through experience: we need to create empathy between humankind and the environment. Sustainability and resilience aren’t just technical matters: they also need to be approached from a social perspective.


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