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.

What is “Conservation”?

What does the word “conservation” mean?

If we take an etymological approach, we find its roots in the late 14th century noun conservacioun, or the “preservation of health and soundness, maintenance in good condition, act of guarding or keeping with care,” from the Latin conservationem, “a keeping, preserving, conserving” (www.etymonline.com). Later, toward the end of the 19th century, the word maintained its preservationist values, specifically with reference to the preservation of nature and wild places. This is all fine and dandy, but away from etymology toward a more general interpretation, what does ‘conservation’ mean? How did it come to mean? Where did it come to mean? All these questions and more relate not only to the etymological history of the English word itself but to what has become a dominant global discourse and practice; a crisis; anthropogenic change; species extinction; reduction in forest cover; an obsession with equilibrium.

What do you think of when you hear that word, conservation? A class of one hundred undergraduate students at McGill University (Montreal, QC) responded to the very same prompt, closing their eyes, and describing images of ‘pristine’ wilderness, caribou, pandas, elephants and lions, tall-treed forests, indigenous people, a National Park, a faraway place, safaris, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), biologists. These varied interpretations or imaginings align with a ‘global conservation story’ that has been mainstreamed not only into Eurowestern society, but across the world.

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In Nairobi National Park, prides of lions such as these can be found just a few kilometers from one of the busiest, most economically active downtown cores in all of East Africa. © Liam Ragan

Diversity and Inclusivity

The global conservation story is just one perspective, and from the earliest days of American conservationism which informed it, the conservation movement has perpetuated an ideology and set of practices which have often erased indigenous and local voices, lives, and worldviews. As Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us, there is danger in a single story, and so our aim at Connecting Conservation is to tell different stories – of success, of ‘failure’, of learning – from a plurality of perspectives. What does the word ‘conservation’ mean? We ask this question knowing full well that this word holds immense power, and does not adequately represent the diversity of approaches to environmental care and management that exist in the world. Here is where our two key values of Diversity and Inclusivity are so critical. One of the main purposes of this platform is to engage with and represent the voices and perspectives of individuals, communities, and groups who have traditionally been underrepresented due to colonial histories, access to information, or simply those who have less often been granted the opportunity to share their stories and knowledges. As we as a global community take on the largest problem our species has ever faced, it’s more pertinent than ever that those voices come to the forefront of the conversation, and that nobody is stifled in their efforts to build a sustainable society in which we all have a place.


Conservation is a daunting topic to discuss; the stage is immense, the rules are obscure, and the diversity of actors is neverending. More than that, we’re faced with the challenge of trying to figure out how this complicated thing fits into our society (or vice versa). The result is thousands of voices covering hundreds of topics, speaking a multitude of languages, having conversations which can barely be understood by anyone without an extensive background in the subject. This brings us to another of our guiding principles for this project: Accessibility. Since the care and management of natural resources is of crucial importance to every human, we believe it is the responsibility of those who study it to present their insights in formats that are accessible. That means doing so in language that the diversity of stakeholders can understand, and through forums that value multiple stories and productive conversation.

We also conceive of accessible information as taking different forms, because we know that folks learn and think differently; the written word is not always the best vehicle for knowledge. We want to experiment with audiovisual storytelling as well as written content. Thus, in the weeks to come, we’ll be reaching out to conservation researchers at McGill University whose work we think is important and asking them to share their perspectives with us through conversation. We want to think about accessibility as ‘two way’, bringing awareness to who usually gets to speak and who usually listens, which is why an emphasis will be placed on learning about the projects of students (both undergraduate and graduate), and publishing those interviews in formats that are both easy to understand but also critical and nuanced. Where possible, our hope is to include edited recordings of these ‘conservation conversations’, infusing a breath of fresh air into a field whose most common form of communication is often academic articles.

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A fisherman casts their line out over Havana’s Malecon, while the city inches upwards behind. © Liam Ragan


Acknowledging that ‘conservation’ has for many decades meant or represented a field of academic inquiry largely influenced by the natural or ‘hard’ sciences, in everything that this blog attempts to do, we will highlight and value Interdisciplinarity. For many young people – all four editors of this blog included – it is a socially learned fact: natural sciences study rocks and plants, stuff you can poke at, while social sciences study human organisation, culture, things which are less tangible or measurable. Much debate on the division between natural and social sciences has taken place in the realm of conservation, ranging from the general theory to the practical training that is given to conservation professionals. This is partly because conservation was first and foremost informed by natural scientists, who had little background or interest in attempting to understand the complex ways in which human communities are embedded in social-ecological systems.

This is why a critical discussion of conservation has to be interdisciplinary or boundary-spanning. Conservation practitioners must consider how cultural knowledge and human activity interact with biological diversity to form a complex social-ecological system whose parts cannot be studied in isolation. Put simply, biological conservation and cultural conservation are immensely intertwined efforts, the study and practice of which requires interdisciplinary training and thinking. While we’re certainly not the first to recognize the need for interdisciplinarity, in each of our academic careers we have encountered the difficulties that boundary-spanning education and action poses. By encouraging conversation across disciplinary boundaries, we hope to foster this type of interdisciplinary understanding.

So, what does ‘conservation’ mean?

To us, conservation is a biological, spiritual, scientific, and cultural endeavour, the traditional definition of which has not tended to include, yet whose success rests upon: incorporating a diversity of narratives through the inclusion of different stakeholders, as well as an interdisciplinary approach that values accessibility of its ideas.