Illuminating the Issue of ‘Light Pollution’

Written by Daniel Silver

The notion that light can be a form of ‘pollution’ is relatively new. For millennia the word ‘light’ carried solely positive connotations. The Hebrew Torah begins with God creating light and declaring it good in Genesis 1:3. Influenced by this religious origin, light came to represent truth and reason in European philosophy, exemplified in the titling of the ‘Enlightenment’ movement [i]. Artificial light, used commercially starting in the late nineteenth century, was later associated with progress, with the rise of electric lighting coinciding with industrialization [ii]. Nighttime lighting was ubiquitous by the start of the twentieth century and, until recently, was considered wholly desirable [iii].

Today, nighttime darkness romantic and nostalgic appeal to many, embodying that which existed before human activities so dominated the planet [iv]. The first critics of injudicious lighting were naturally astronomers, cognizant that nighttime lighting inhibits one’s ability to view the cosmos [v]. However, concerns about anthropogenic lighting rose in prominence during the 1970s, in unison with increasing environmental awareness about global warming [vi]. Lighting was a conspicuous source of energy consumption and thus attracted scrutiny when energy conservation became a mainstream policy goal [vii]. The term ‘light pollution’ was also first employed by academics during the 1970s, starting with Rigel (1973)’s publication in Science, “Light Pollution: Outdoor Lighting is a Growing Threat to Astronomy”. Currently, the International Dark-Sky Association defines light pollution simply as “any adverse effect of artificial light”.

The scientific literature supports anthropogenic light’s designation as a ‘pollution’. Excessive light negatively affects human health [viii], harms wildlife by disrupting animals’ circadian rhythms and solar-based movements and migrations [ix], wastes massive amounts of energy [x], and degrades the night sky, an important cultural and aesthetic resource [xi].

Spider in the glare of artificial lighting. Photo by author.

In many cases, altering lighting design can inexpensively improve the illumination of an intended area, while simultaneously reducing unintended illumination, known as ‘light trespass’. Creative solutions to reducing light pollution abound. They include (1) Cut-off fixtures: lighting bodies that direct light from a lamp downwards (Lighting Research Centre);  (2) Computer Managed Systems (CMS): ‘smart’ lighting that can be operated remotely, enabling managers to more easily turn lights on and off [xii]; (3) Pre-programmed or motion-based dimming: reducing (or turning off) outdoor lighting during non-busy hours, usually through a CMS or a motion-sensor [xiii]; (4) and Warm-colored bulbs, which reduces the more harmful blue-light (IDSA). The usage of light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs is a more controversial solution. Though LED bulbs reduce cost and energy consumption [xiv], they tend to promote net increases in lighting due their lower cost [xv].

Example of different cutoff fixtures. Retrieved from

Despite being recognized since the 1970s, light pollution is still a very recent idea, and little is known about its social and ecological effects. Pioneer communities implementing strong light regulations generally have ecotourism-based economies that benefit from preserving a pristine dark sky. Such places have been largely successful in preserving their night sky, incidentally reducing energy consumption and benefiting their ecological and human communities at the same time. In Canada, the first ever Dark Sky Preserve was established in Torrance, Ontario, just two hours north of Toronto. Here, the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve was created due to strong environmental activism and advocacy. Gravenhurst and Muskoka Lakes, the municipal townships surrounding the Preserve, established by-laws to reduce the community’s light pollution. One of its main tenets is that all lighting must use cutoff fixtures.

By-law compliant lighting on Gravenhurst’s ‘Welcome Gateway’. Photo by author.

In my mind, the key going forward will be locating unneeded lighting, from both a spatial and temporal perspective. This necessarily entails engagement with residents to determine what classes of lighting people find necessary for safety. Existing technology can do much of the work from there. Though the Torrance Barrens municipal by-law approach is an excellent model from which other communities can draw, the question of who should be making decisions about lighting is still up for debate. Adjacent communities’ light may eventually encroach on the Torrance Barrens even though Gravenhurst and Muskoka Lakes regulate their lighting. Thus, light pollution may need to be regulated at scales broader than municipal governments if we wish to truly preserve the night sky in such areas as the Torrance Barrens.

 Ultimately, though the effects of artificial lighting and the loss of a pristine night sky may seem daunting, we can take solace in the fact that, unlike carbon dioxide, plastic, mercury, and all the rest, all we need do to eliminate light pollution is flip a switch.

52368359_2649483035091670_6546347946646962176_nDaniel is an undergraduate student at McGill University, majoring in environmental studies and minoring in organismal biology. He hopes one day to become a professor with a research agenda that focuses on conservation and ecology. In summer 2018, Daniel worked in the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve, surveying and interviewing local stakeholders about the Dark Sky By-law. Daniel’s work aims to illuminate (no pun intended!) what Gravenhurst and Muskoka Lakes do well in terms of dark sky preservation, as well as the areas in which they could improve. He hopes his results will help optimize management of the Torrance Barrens and offer insight to other communities around the world that want to take steps towards reducing light pollution.


Chepesiuk, R. (2009). Missing the Dark: Health Effects of Light Pollution. Environmental Health Perspectives,117(1).

Gallaway, T. (2010). On Light Pollution, Passive Pleasures, and the Instrumental Value of Beauty. Journal of Economic Issues,44(1), 71-88.

Hasenöhrl, U. (2014). Lighting conflicts from a historical perspective. In J. Meier, U. Hasenöhrl, K. Krause, & M. Pottharst (Eds.), Urban lighting, light pollution, and society (pp. 105–124). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Hölker, F., Moss, T., Griefahn, B., Kloas, W., Voigt, C. C., Henckel, D., . . . Tockner, K. (2010). The Dark Side of Light: A Transdisciplinary Research Agenda for Light Pollution Policy. Ecology and Society,15(4).

Jägerbrand, A.K. (2015) New framework of sustainable indicators for outdoor LED (light emitting diodes) lighting and SSL (solid state lighting). Sustainability 7, 1028–1063.

Kyba, C. C., Kuester, T., Miguel, A. S., Baugh, K., Jechow, A., Hölker, F., . . . Guanter, L. (2017). Artificially lit surface of Earth at night increasing in radiance and extent. Science Advances,3(11).

Lyytimäki, J., & Rinne, J. (2013). Voices for the darkness: Online survey on public perceptions on light pollution as an environmental problem. Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences,10(2), 127-139.

Navara, K.J. and Nelson, R.J. (2007) The Dark Side of Light at Night: Physiological, Epidemiological, and Ecological Consequences. Journal of Pineal Research, 43, 215-224.

Neumann, D. (2002). Architectural illumination since World War II. In D. Neumann (Ed.), Architecture of the night: The illuminated building (pp. 78–84). New York, NY: Prestel.

Shaw, R. (2014). Streetlighting in England and Wales: New Technologies and Uncertainty in the Assemblage of Streetlighting Infrastructure. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space,46(9), 2228-2242. doi:10.1068/a130313p

Sperling, N. (1991). The disappearance of darkness. In D. L. Crawford (Ed.), Light pollution, radio interference, and space debris (Vol. 17, pp. 101–108). San Francisco, CA: Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series.

Stone, T. (2017). Light Pollution: A Case Study in Framing an Environmental Problem. Ethics, Policy & Environment,20(3), 279-293. doi:10.1080/21550085.2017.1374010

Anthropocene, the movie

Written by Valentin Lucet

I have been wanting to write about the documentary Anthropocene, the human epoch for a little while. I had the chance to go see the movie at the student theatre at the Université de Montreal with a few other grad students. We had just been through six hours of multivariate statistics. The movie was a questionable choice, given our level of collective mental exhaustion. For me, it was a really rough ride, one that put me into a bleak mood for weeks, and an inability to write down how I felt about it for a whole month. Only now, when the emotions have faded, and only a vague, odd feeling remains, can I really start to explain what I saw and felt.

Anthropocene is the product of the collaboration between famed photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. It is not their first rodeo, the three of them having already produced two other documentaries together (Manufactured landscapes and Watermark). The three movies explore how humans have extensively modified landscapes in an “extractionist” endeavour. Extractionism is not a common word; I could not find a proper definition on Merriam-Webster. It qualifies capitalist activities like mining or forest clearing: an enterprise whose success and profits rely overwhelmingly on the mere extraction and distribution of natural resources (such as coal, rare metals, oil, etc.). “Extractionism” used to convey the lack of sustainability in such endeavors, it is meant as a blunt, unflattering designation. Extractionism has been contributing to climate change as extractionists industries are the dirtiest of all: they emit massive amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The movie is a companion piece to an exhibit currently showing at the National Gallery of Canada, which Lindsay has already shared her thoughts on. Now, I have not seen the exhibit, nor the other two movies. I cannot speak for how Anthropocene fits within the body of work of the three artists. I can, however, explain why it made me feel like not leaving my bed for two weeks after seeing it.

I knew what I was getting into; I knew the movie was going to be about how humans have damaged landscapes to make them manageable and unrecognisable, how we have made something foreign and new out of them, and how their novel aesthetics can be sadly pleasing. What is beauty? What is part of nature, what is part of culture? That is what some of the movie is about. I was also expecting to see depictions of the injustices that capitalism inflicts across the world. Meager and silent faces, laborers with broken backs living off the crumbs left behind by decades of extraction. This one spends her days picking up plastic bottles to sell every kilo for a few cents. This one risks his health in lithium pools. Image after image, as my “expectations” were more than fulfilled, I kept feeling more sadness, desperation and guilt.

And yet, that was no foreign state of mind. I had felt the same watching An inconvenient truth. I felt the same during Before the flood. Same deal with Chasing corals. But something about Anthropocene was different. The cinematography is truly, breathtakingly appropriate for the topic. The movie takes a landscape approach to the environment, a remarkable method. It reminded me of Home, a documentary by Yann-Arthur Bertrand, quite well known in France: the same aerial shots of the landscape, the same attempt to capture how humans and non humans can, or cannot, coexist. Nevertheless, I think that The Anthropocene is unique. And the thing that contributes the most to this uniqueness might very well be the ending of the movie.

The type of landscapes we see in the Movie: mining terraces. Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

I will not reveal the final scene here but will spoil the final message of the movie. The last few images are hopeful, in comparison to the rest of the movie: they express that things are slowly improving in the way we go about treating and valuing our environment. But the tone of the narrator is chilling: although it can be shown that we are improving… it just might not be enough. The credits roll, and “making progress” from the group Rheostatics, plays:

Right now, we are making progress

We are making dreams come true, just like we discussed

And our most recent letters, communiques, measures,

Of memories and treasures, kept in bricks and mortar

And I won’t last forever, I won’t even try to

I’m just making progress, I don’t know what else to do


Our hammers fall in silence, knocking down forest

Exploding all around us, and I’m committing treason

Cause I’m in love with reason

This is where we step into pure speculation, but to me, the choice of this music to roll the credits, given the tone of the ending, cannot be fortuitous.

I see two possible meanings in the lyrics, which reflects the film’s messages. The first meaning echoes the optimistic ending: we are, undeniably, making progress. These are the first words we hear once the narrator is done talking. The other possible meaning is revealed shortly after in the song, and echoes the ambiguous tone of the narrator, with regard to how much hope we should have in our environmental progress. Humans “are making progress”, read, pursuing a different kind of progress, one we could call technological progress. We are “making dreams come true, just like [they] discussed”, just as planned. Indeed, they “don’t know what else to do”. We are “knocking down forest” and “committing treason” against the earth, because we are “in love with reason”.

I would most certainly love to ask the makers of both the song and the movie, if they had environmental concern in mind when they wrote the lyrics. Here I choose to treat the movie and the song as conveying the exact same meaning, and that might very well be completely wrong. But bear with me. This is the whole movie in a nutshell. The movie asks the hard questions: is it too late? We know, that objectively, it isn’t. There is still time for us to prevent the world from warming above two degrees. And there are signs of environmental progress, but for every sign of such progress there are thousands of signs of technical progress in the opposite direction.

The film left me questioning many things. First, who is “we”? If “we” is the set of extractionnist western societies, maybe the way the west goes about environmentalism is wrong. We think that individual actions will amount to something. We eat less meat and buy electric cars. But we know this is not enough. The patronizing narratives of personal responsibility in climate change is outdated: we know that unless larger organizations (companies and governments) get involved, we won’t go very far. And how well is the implication of such organisation in de-carbonisation progressing? Maybe it is not going fast enough. Maybe something bigger is needed. Maybe the west needs a revolution.

So, is the movie/song a call for revolution? An ecological civil war, a fight between the powerful and polluting classes ; and misrepresented, non-polluting classes? I do not think the movie goes that far. The song actually tells us it doesn’t matter, that even that would not be enough.

What good’s a revolution?

A rising and a setting sun, a trip around the bright one

Lets you off where you started from             

So what is the take home message of the film? Maybe it is about narratives. Although climate change is real, the way we go about communicating climate change can impact how people perceive it. Humans experience narratives all the time: culture itself could be said to be a complex narrative. The way you have learned history in school is a narrative; one version of a story.

The narrative of Anthropocene is different from previous movies of the same genre. We know for a fact that alarming narratives about environmental degradation usually do not work as well as optimistic narratives to spark change and awareness*. But Anthropocene takes a different approach. It is not alarmist, it is not dramatic, it is visually factual and, simply profoundly realistic. Right now, if we were to estimate the probability of “saving the planet”, it would be low, because we have come this far in degrading it.

And maybe this is what we actually need to “spark change”. No alarmism, no optimism, but the cold truth: times are bad, and some progress is being made, and you can see it wont be enough unless we seriously get on it. And maybe this is not at all what we need to spark more environmental progress. Because maybe this is just pessimism in disguise: the cinematographic equivalent of your pessimistic friend to whom you keep saying to stop being so pessimistic, and who replies to you that he is actually being realistic, not pessimistic.

I can sometimes be this friend who lies to himself about his own pessimism. This is why the movie left me completely lost. What am I supposed to think now? Which narrative should I believe in? I still do not know. These are important questions for me and I think they matter to anyone who feels as strongly as I do about global anthropogenic change.

I end this post with few answers, and many questions. If you have the courage to face them, go watch Anthropocene, the human epoch, this both dreadful and beautiful movie is really worth it.

Featured image: Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

* The work of Andrew Revkin is a good starting point to explore the science of communicating on climate change.

A scientist goes to an art gallery and finds her place

The AGO’s Anthropocene depicts the human signature on our planet

Written by Lindsay Potts

As I parked my bike outside of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) earlier this month, the exhibit announced itself on long banners with imposing block letters: Anthropocene.

Anthropocene is a term that I am very familiar with, having been exposed to it throughout my biology undergraduate degree, now carrying over into my own Master’s project working with an endangered fish, Pugnose Shiner. It is a term as second nature to me as global warming. However, neither of my two friends attending the exhibit with me had heard of it. The Anthropocene is what many geologists are calling the current epoch we are living in, one defined by the dramatic and disproportionately huge impact humans are having on the planet. The exhibit, a collective installation by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier, included an image of men and stray dogs sifting through a giant heap of multicoloured plastics in Nairobi (Kenya), of a massive green algal bloom alongside a phosphate mine in Florida (USA), and the barren landscape of a palm oil plantation encroaching on a lush forest in Borneo (Malaysia).

As a budding conservation biologist, I know the plastic problem is monumental, I know that the mining industry is contaminating our land and waterways, I know that deforestation is devastating wildlife populations. But it was a different feeling to walk through the gallery, to take in the visually stunning shots that depict a complicated and tainted beauty. It was troubling and it was emotional. I was overwhelmed, as I periodically become, by the truly tremendous scope of our collective destruction of the Earth. As an urban dweller, accustomed to concrete and convenience, it’s shockingly easy to excise ourselves from the natural world that we are very much a part of. But here I was, in the heart of downtown Toronto, with the bitter underside of our so-called progress reflected right back at me. It made me want to scream and cry at the same time.

An interactive monitor asked visitors to share their reactions to Anthropocene. Here are the responses as of November 10th, 2018.

I wasn’t alone in this feeling. As I moved around the gallery, I noticed that families, friends, and kids of all ages were here. A sense of solemnity hung in the air as each of us were confronted by the weight of our collective impact. At the end of the exhibit, an interactive monitor asked visitors to describe, in one word, how what they had just seen made them feel. The most common answers were worried, sad, and angry. And I was struck by the way that art, that this art, has the power to connect to the public in a way that science, as it is currently imagined, does not.

Let me explain. As a Master’s student in biology, my science exists within a narrowly defined academic silo. In fact, as grad students, we become the global expert on our research topic simply because the focus is so specific. And the more specific our work, the less relatable it becomes to the general public and the worse we become at communicating its relevance.

I am most reminded of that distance when I talk to my family. When I talk about the hours I’ve devoted to rearing a tiny fish species or about the weekends I’ve spent in the lab measuring how much oxygen a fish is depleting in a small chamber, most of them will smile encouragingly but inevitably ask polite variations of, “That’s nice, but what’s the point?” And to be honest, I ask myself that question sometimes. I have devoted the last year to learning about one aspect of a specific fish’s physiology – who, besides maybe that fish, cares?

Here’s where I think that we might be able to learn from art, by bringing it back to the big picture. Because I am not just looking at the capacity to which Pugnose Shiner is able to adjust their physiology in response to thermal and oxygen stress, I am looking at how an endangered species is able to respond to complex and interacting threats in their environment. I am looking at how we can integrate that understanding into a more effective management strategy for that species. I am looking at how the successful recovery of this species might benefit the ecosystem as a whole. And, when I integrate the new knowledge I’ve generated with previous knowledge from other experts, the path towards freshwater conservation becomes clearer. In short, my tiny, specific research on Pugnose Shiner has given me a lens to understand how we might more effectively conserve these larger systems.

The author stares lovingly at three Pugnose Shiner captured in the St. Lawrence River.

And by framing my own research in that way, I realized that the work that I do, along with so many other conservation biologists, is a response to what we’ve been worrying about for a long time, the same sense of worry highlighted in the Anthropocene exhibit. In fact, maybe art and science aren’t as dichotomous as we’ve been led to believe. By tapping into our emotions, art forces us to engage with our world. It challenges us and compels us to ask difficult questions of ourselves and of our fellow humans. But that’s where it leaves us: worried, sad, and angry. Here’s where science can come in. Science, with its tedious methodology and objective data, certainly doesn’t have the same capacity to connect and inspire us, but it allows us to answer some of those questions. It can offer us a path forward, meaningful solutions to the problems we care about. But first, we have to care. Science can pick up where art leaves off.

When we were leaving the exhibit, a little boy holding his mother’s hand asked, “Mommy, where do we go from here?” When his mom replied, “Well, we’ll go out these doors and down the stairs to the café…”, it immediately became apparent that he was asking the question literally. But in that brief moment when the question hung unanswered in the air, I was deeply moved by this six-year-old’s simple but intensely complicated question. Witnessing what we’ve just seen, knowing what we’ve just learned, how do we proceed? What is our common vision for the planet we share and what role will each of us have in actualising that vision? That’s a question that I’m trying to work through and I’m sure I’ll be answering for the rest of my life. But there’s no doubt that we’ve each got an important role to play, artists and scientists alike.  

Anthropocene is open until January 6th, 2019 at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). For more information, visit

Where To Begin: Realizing the Connecting Conservation Mission

Written by Kathleen Godfrey

Connecting Conservation is an initiative conceived of and powered by a four person team of current and former McGill University students coming from different academic and life experience backgrounds, and who have varied skill sets and passions. That being said, we all think about and act toward some kind of ‘conservation’ goal in our activism work, academic work, or personal side-projects.

In May 2018, we four met on the steps of the Redpath Museum at McGill University and had a conversation about our experiences as students focused on ‘conservation’ in the natural and social science disciplines. What emerged was a realization of how physically and infrastructurally separated the Arts and Sciences faculties, departments, labs, and offices are, but more importantly how the ideas generated within them are rarely shared or taught across the disciplinary boundaries. This has obvious effects not only on how different knowledges are ordered in some made up hierarchy (e.g. biological quantifiable knowledge is historically more valuable than indigenous or local perceptions of environmental change that might emerge through a social science approach) in the minds of students, but also how students perceive of conservation challenges and avenues of inquiry or action that might contribute to positive collective impact or some kind of solution. We conceive of these disciplinary ‘knowledge silos’, and the lack of connection or communication between them, as opportunities not challenges.

Through Connecting Conservation, our mission is to engage a diverse audience and community to discuss and think about topics related to sustainability, biological preservation, education, knowledge silos, activism, cultural conservation, and so much more to promote interdisciplinary dialogue. It is one thing to be following all the ‘right’ people on Twitter or get Google to send you articles related to a specified keyword daily, it is another to contribute to and engage with a boundary-spanning audience and community that is committed, in the broadest sense, to ‘conservation’. Moreover, in grounding the conservation conversation on core values of interdisciplinarity, accessibility, diversity, and inclusivity, we are looking beyond the walls of academia to the vast knowledges and experiences of people who are ‘doing the work’.

This work – of getting a project like Connecting Conservation off the ground – is hard. We don’t have big names, oft-cited papers, or any kind of blue print that tells us how to build a community of thought and exchange. It begs the question: “Where to begin?”

The passion behind, and realization of this platform’s mission is all about people. It’s about storytelling; getting that idea that’s been bouncing around your brain written down and out into the world; it’s about feelings and thoughts; it’s about emerging science; it’s ultimately about connecting.

Opportunities to connect with and contribute to Connecting Conservation can take a variety of forms, whether you’d like to be a guest on our podcast (forthcoming – stay tuned!), be interviewed by us, send in a piece of writing between 500 and 1500 words, or contribute a photo or photos with a text description.

If you’re reading this, then that probably means we would love to hear from you. It also probably means that we would love support in the form of a Facebook page share, the sending of a link, sharing resources with us, or a comment on the articles that we publish. We’re just four young people, screenshotting our Skype check ins, making a lot of puns, reaching out to our networks, and hoping that we’re not the only ones thinking about these things.

I’m fairly positive that we aren’t.


Overcoming the Empathy problem in Activism (Part II)

Written by Celeste Welch

Echo chambers of thought and opinion (closed ‘spaces’ that produce reverberations) are highly encouraged in a number of communities to which I belong. If you want to go for days without interacting with a particular demographic or with those who oppose your views, you can, through a form of isolationism that is practiced extensively in our society, especially online. The desire by many for these echo chambers is understandable – people want community, similarity, and common ground for acceptance. These places or communities can feel like ‘safe spaces’. Despite the comforting feeling of being in a room or an online forum of people who are all in support of you, this does not help environmental or other causes beyond strengthening resolve through validation and internally focused community building. The fact remains, though, that communicating your message and growing your movement requires an outward focus. Simply put: you are going to have to talk to people who dislike, disagree with, or may challenge what you are saying.

Instead of feeling aggressed or attacked by the viewpoints of others, environmental activists must pry ourselves out from our echo chambers to cultivate learning and, potentially, challenge our own belief systems. We must put our differences aside to have earnest conversations, instead of throwing emotionally charged statements, or media sound bites, around. We must connect to other people we disagree with and genuinely hear them out; listen attentively and deeply. Finally, we must center our approaches, words, and actions on empathy (discussed in Part I of this series).

At this point, it is important to clearly state what I am advocating for. I am not, by any means, petitioning for the removal of safe spaces. These spaces are inexpressibly important for many people. While I advocate for time spent outside of the aforementioned ‘safe’ echo chambers, it is also incredibly important to note that, while some people may have the energy and headspace to take on this type of activism, others will not be able to for a variety of reasons ranging from the colour of their skin to their health or mental and physical abilities. Putting oneself in a vulnerable position when already belonging to a marginalized group is always a risk, and it would be foolish of me—a privileged white graduate student—to think that this is something that everyone in every community can engage in without reservation.

That being said, I encourage the activist or movement-invested reader to follow me as I detail a few simple exercises to help us radicalize our empathy. The first, middle, and last step always: reflection. What kinds of friends do you have? What types of people do you interact with on a regular basis? I would venture to guess that, like me, many of your friends share certain commonalities with you, from pastimes to economic status. To move away from the details of socioeconomic standing, race, ethnicity, gender, and all of those intersections we live through (to be brought up later), I want to narrow in on how the communities of thought or opinion that we choose to be a part of – divestment or climate change denial groups for example – tend to reinforce our own views. What I propose is that forging friendships with people who think differently is crucial to social movements, and can help you develop or strengthen your capacity for empathy.

Citizens Protest Against Kinder Morgan’s Oil Pipeline on Burnaby Mountain. Image by Mark Klotz via Flickr.

Now, think about what causes or issues you are passionate about, and who you spend time talking to and engaging with on that subject. Think about the number of times a week, a month, or a year, that you spend talking to people who disagree with you. Recall how those interactions made you feel, and how your feelings influenced your communication style. Give yourself credit for interactions you have had where you were able to successfully communicate your viewpoint respectfully. Hone in on these situations and ask yourself how you can re-create this experience in the future. What did you do differently in these successful outreach attempts when compared to the failed attempts?

An example might help. I am an environmentalist to the core, and have been engaging in environmental activism since early childhood. As a ‘know-it-all’ teenager, my way of interacting with climate change deniers was to curtly rattle off facts and hurl insults if they were deflected. I felt so enraged by one’s seeming inability to accept scientific data that I had an emotionally charged response. This results in a negative and unproductive interaction for both parties; no common ground is reached, no barriers are broken down, no learning has taken place.

Recently, I have had empathetic and difficult conversations with climate change deniers, anti-conservationists, and others whose views I utterly disagree with. I start by asking them why they think what they think. I check my tone; I am not condescending. Fully attentive, I listen to what they have to say. I think about why it makes sense that they feel the way they feel about a given issue due to the background that they have and what they have been exposed to. When they are finished speaking, I suggest that we exchange reading material. Even as someone who has only been practicing it for a few months, this approach has helped me to get through to people who are terrified by my ideas, and has taught me a great deal about what makes people subscribe to different ideologies.

Another exercise that is important for radicalizing your empathy is to think about other people as the products of a combination of random or non-random factors that they have been exposed to. As a mathematically minded individual, breaking situations down into mathematical terms helps me to get to the crux of the matter, but you can feel free to think of people as an amalgamation of other sorts—experiences perhaps— especially because numbers seem dehumanizing to many. For this exercise, I would ask that for a moment you think of humanity as fundamentally good, or, at least potentially good.

Allow me to elaborate: each human is influenced by nature and nurture. Studies have shown that children are likely to politically classify themselves the same as their parents. Political, social, and environmental awareness and understanding is influenced primarily by environmental factors. You are not born a racist xenophobe or a bleeding heart reformer. Your social upbringing teaches you; as a person you are effectively the sum of every interaction you have had, everything you have been taught or otherwise exposed to during your life. My point is that thinking that all anti-vaxxers or flat-earthers or whoever it may be are simply ‘uneducated’ is the first big mistake which will sink your activism dreams and shackle you to your echo chamber forever. Learning and growth must start somewhere, and it can only happen when radical empathy is practiced toward those with different views.

Lastly, an important exercise to engage in is to understand a person as a sum of not only their experiences, but their intersecting identities, tied to gender, race, sexuality, ability, socioeconomic status, first language, cultural background, family history, and so much more. Acknowledging that identity and experience are linked is inexplicably important in trying to understand another person and what makes their experiences of the world different from your own. Upbringing or socialization has everything to do with ideology, so, try to understand the circumstances of others if effective communication is your goal.

The idea and practice of radical empathy does not have to be for everyone. It is a taxing, frustrating, and occasionally fruitless process. It does, without a doubt, take work. However, I strongly believe that those who choose to engage in the reflective exercises outlined above will find themselves increasingly engaged in meaningful interactions with people they might not have previously reached out to. It is important that the environmental activist community understands that this cannot be done without attempting to understand the people on the other side as a small step toward dismantling chambers or communities of isolation.  My hypothesis is that once more people are able to practice genuine communication on the subject of environmental concerns, environmentalism will seem less like an inaccessible practice reserved for extremists and hippies. Radicalizing empathy is one way to hopefully reach a productive middle ground, to reflect collectively on a shared state of being in this world rather than an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality that too often overshadows forward momentum.

Celeste Welch, photo via WWF McGill Student Club Facebook page, with permission.Celeste Welch is a Biomedical Engineering graduate student at Brown University and a developer of accessible green devices. While at McGill as an undergraduate, they engaged in environmental activism in the McGill and Montreal communities, notably founding campus groups and working as a WWF ambassador. Celeste’s efforts as an activist have been recognized via the “Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25” award, in addition to others. Their interests lie in the intersection of STEM and environmentalism and making these disciplines accessible to the general public. They are interested in developing technologies for environmental improvement and are fascinated by how communication and social factors shape activism.

Overcoming the Empathy problem in Activism (Part I)


Written by Celeste Welch

During my privileged small town American childhood, I quickly learned that traits associated with conventional ‘femininity’ were akin to weakness. To purify myself of this, I engaged in countless behaviours that I associated with strength, independence, and worthiness. Years later, while reflecting on my childhood, I realized that the characteristics that I had endeavoured to purge from my being and activism were not femaleness, but compassion and empathy, which I thought I had possessed in excess simply by being female. The world had forced me, from the early age of four or five, to enact my own emotional hardening as a tool for survival in an American culture that tends to shame people of all genders for expressing compassion.

Initially, this was terrifying to grasp. The anti-empathy culture around us is certainly palpable, but more as a background noise of interpersonal disconnection than the tidal wave of hatred it truly is. This discussion – Part I of II – aims to scratch the surface of how our empathy problem negatively impacts our potential to cultivate a more caring, functional, and productive society. In Part II of this series, coming out next week, I will introduce a few exercises which can help in the daily lives of individuals and potentially allow us as activists to get back on track towards achieving what we want.

Asserting that we as members of a western or American culture have an empathy problem is not, by any means, a revolutionary idea. More times than I can count, I have heard activists and nihilists from all walks of life come to the same conclusion: humanity is toxic. “We can’t do it” or “humanity is so selfish” are common downtrodden responses of disillusioned change makers upon realizing the true extent of our mainstream culture’s interpersonal and empathetic detachment through various means.

Rally against Kinder Morgan oil pipeline on Burnaby Mountain. Image by Mark Klotz via Flickr.

A political reformer watching a corrupt law get signed into action. An environmentalist staring at heaps of garbage on the way to the landfill. An animal rights advocate watching people gorge themselves on factory farmed meat. A human rights activist witnessing the current atrocities of the American internment camps. I could go on. We have all felt the sinking feeling that comes with caring about something and not being able to solve the problem or share that feeling with others who can. We have all felt our apparent uselessness as change makers.

Many of us want to believe that our individual effort will have the power to make a change, but, when faced with a constant stream of negative input – the realities of anthropogenic change, biodiversity loss, water pollution – it is easy to be discouraged. In fact, this feeling of daring to care and being crushed can be so painful that it leads many individuals to shirk activism or involvement in anything that does not directly impact their lives via a positive feedback loop of wealth and achievement. Thus, the first step towards reclaiming our empathy and humanness is to accept that it is okay to feel this pain. However, left unaddressed, much of that emotion can transform into a latent rage. This rage is often left unchecked, to slowly seep out and deflate our cause through pointed quips which serve no purpose other than to dismantle the objectivity of our arguments. In order to succeed, we must also come to terms with the pain that we bear as activists and learn how to transform it for positive social and ecological change.

We don’t teach classes in school about dealing with painful emotion. When I was young, I wondered why I would get so worked up about the cruelty in the world that I would cry hot tears. I felt such a strong desire to protect the Earth, humans, and animals from suffering that I often became lightheaded; I still feel that way at times. Although we like to pretend that we have lost touch with our childhood idealism, all of us still want something to believe in. Seeing people act selflessly fills even the emptiest hearts.

The crux of the anti-empathy society is that we are taught that we are alone. We are single entities, little data points floating through the world that can neither perfectly know ourselves nor others. Despite this, we are inherently social creatures. A society that tells us that it is wrong to ask for help, to practice empathy, to reach out to others, to express ourselves, to say how we’re really doing, to express gratitude, exists completely outside of the realm of reality which is applicable to social mammals. We are constantly in need of comfort and feelings of social belonging. We are taught that needing is wrong, we are taught that we are alone in our fights, whatever they may be. The misconception that we are alone in the world leads to fragmentation and hatred within any movement. Any viewpoint which even slightly verges upon ‘other’ or divergent is seen as a threat. Red warning lights go off: intruder alert.

Myself and other activists and attempted change-makers have spent collective hours considering and feeling the weight of this problem. Any good activist knows how to have a conversation like a salesman without being kitschy, but, only the best are able to truly practice radical empathy themselves. As I write this, I realize how much farther I personally have to go in the process of dismantling my hardened shell. It is a journey of learning through unlearning how we have been taught to make ourselves.

Celeste Welch, photo via WWF McGill Student Club Facebook page, with permission.Celeste Welch is a Biomedical Engineering graduate student at Brown University and a developer of accessible green devices. While at McGill as an undergraduate, they engaged in environmental activism in the McGill and Montreal communities, notably founding campus groups and working as a WWF ambassador. Celeste’s efforts as an activist have been recognized via the “Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25” award, in addition to others. Their interests lie in the intersection of STEM and environmentalism and making these disciplines accessible to the general public. They are interested in developing technologies for environmental improvement and are fascinated by how communication and social factors shape activism.