So-whatters, reason and empathy

One of the worst kind of people are “so-whatters”.  That’s unfair.  “So-whatters” perform an important service to force us to think through what we really mean.

A: “Climate change is happening here and now.”

B: “So what?”

A: “It’s affecting loads of people and different species.”

B: “So what?”

A: “That means lots of suffering that needn’t happen.”

B: “So what?”

and so on.

With impeccable reasoning, so-whatters ruthlessly drive you further and further down towards your fundamental assumptions about existence and then at some point they shrug their shoulders: “Whadever.”  Or “Shit happens.”

Climate policy needs to deal with this, because when faced with the challenges which cutting emissions demands of us, we can all become truculent so-whatters.

Reason is great if you are a scientist or a philosopher.  It is a wonderful tool for discovering truths, but it’s hopeless for persuading people of those truths.  Two intelligent and educated people on opposite sides of a cause slog it out with weighty, intellectual blows, but their feet are stuck in clods of mud and neither move.  There are things we love and hate, axiomatically, and we stick to that creed.  Then reason is powerless.

The tool of reason is useful in climate science, but in climate policy it needs help from another corner: empathy.

Empathy allows us to feel the pain that others feel and therefore see their point of view.  With empathy we can come round to someone else’s point of view; without it we remain so-whatters.

To win people over on climate policy, a super-abundance of empathy is needed: to feel the pressing urgency of climate change we need to be able to empathise with foreigners, people of other races, poor people, people not yet born, with beetles, with butterflies, with trees, mountains and glaciers.

There seems to be a small window of time for a child to develop strong empathy: the first five years of life are the best time, after that it gets really hard.  Get the first five years right – parents having plenty of time for the kids, showing them love and compassion – and a lot of the job is done.  Climate policy-makers need to worry less about how to link emissions trading schemes and spend a heck of a lot more time figuring out how to help mums and dads give quality time with their infant children.


1. Here’s an organisation teaching empathy:

2. On oxytocin and empathy:



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