There is an abused urban legend called “The Boiling Frog”. Put a frog in boiling water and it will try to jump out. Place the same amphibian in a beaker where water is gradually brought to a boil and it will wait inert for its death.
While modern science has long discredited this theory, the story stays as a powerful metaphor. Our inability to be fully aware of danger hampers our ability to react: we will only take actions against perils we can understand.
Think climate change, for one. Our inability to act has been linked to powerful political and economic interest. But the boiling frog paradigm is also to blame. We perceive change as so gradual — a 0.02 degrees Celsius yearly increase in temperature anomaly — that we are unable to concern ourselves. Greta Thunberg’s message “our house is on fire” is so effective because it compresses the time-to-danger to mere seconds.
Zooming out, I believe that we — individually or as a community — can’t organise a reaction to economic or social problems that we can’t fully be aware of or comprehend.
I like to move beyond ‘awareness’ and introduce the stronger concept of compassion. Today this term has a quite bland connotation. Yet its etymology — a late Latin adaptation of the Greek ‘pathos’ (suffering) with the prefix ‘cum’ (together with) — suggests almost physical active involvement in someone else’s pain. It is this semantic drift that I want to address here. I believe that our inaction on sustainability — social, economic, and environmental — is partly due to our structural inability to comprehend emotionally (compassion) people affected by our unsustainable individual and collective behaviours.
Why are we so bad at feeling compassion?
I am convinced that our capacity to being emotionally aware of each other has been structurally diminishing as complex socio-economic change accompanied the development of civilisation. Urbanisation, population growth, the ethics of work, the great migrations, the high-tech revolution, all contributed to a massive increase in what I call our context. By that, I mean the set of human beings, institutions, objects, events, and all other non-human-made things that affect each individual’s life and that we can change with our…