Monday, September 26, 2011

Types of Compassion

I had a bit of a discussion with my significant other a couple days back that got my juices flowing. We started talking about how it appears that the governments of the world really won't do anything at all about greenhouse gas emissions until it is much too late to prevent significant change.  I suggested that the thing that gives me hope is the option of geoengineering.   That is, that it should be possible to manipulate the climate in order to deal with some of the worst aspects of climate change, which would give humanity time to work at our greenhouse gas emissions.

Mention this subject to most people and they get very nervous about monkeying around with the climate.  I do too, and all things being equal, I'd be opposed to even thinking about it.  But things are not equal, they are seriously out of whack.  And even if we have serious qualms about what would happen with geoengineering, we might end up having to do it if we want to avoid climate catastrophe from runaway climate feedback.  If we get into a feedback loop like that, we could end up with a population crash that would result in billions of people starving to death as their agricultural systems collapse.

What surprised me about this discussion was the blythe way my significant other contemplated the nasty, horrid deaths of these people.  It isn't because she lacks compassion, indeed, she freaks if her cat catches a bird and makes a huge personal investment of her scarce resources to help friends when in need.  In this sense, she is a far more compassionate person than I am.  Yet I become extremely fretful over the prospect of billions starving in a way that she doesn't.  Could it be that Stalin was right when he said "One death is a tragedy;  one million is a statistic"?  

Being the wise person she is, my fiancee didn't get all emotional about this, but instead talked the point through with me.  She said that if a village of people were starving right in front of her she would get involved in trying to help them. (Of this I have no doubt.)  But contemplating numbers in a theoretical scenario was too abstract for her.  In contrast, when I am confronted by an actual person who is in dire straights, I often become fearful about that person dragging me down, in a way that she does not.

Ultimately, who is the more compassionate person?

Another element that she pointed out was that no one on the earth is able to avoid a death sentence and one way or another, the population has to shrink.  We all die.  My response was that it is better for people to die of old age than for them to die of hunger.  I'd rather that the population shrank through birth control than through a mass die off.  She could respond, "yes it would----but what are the chances of that happening?"   Not great, of course.

This leaves us with another issue.  If the population doesn't crash because of climate change, and it simply will not decline any other way, won't geoengineering simply postpone the inevitable and ensure that a population crash will come for some other reason?

She makes a very good point.

At this stage, all I can do is try to analyse my emotions and try to understand why I get so cranked up about climate change.   I understand that emotions are the drivers of behaviour.  I have been very involved in a wide variety of environmental projects simply because I get so emotional about all this stuff.  But this emotional response ceases to productive when things have reached this stage.  The rational response is to understand that the Dao is not going to deal with climate change the way I would have wanted it to.  Instead, it looks like we are on the edge of a crazy mega-experiment that will directly affect the lives of everyone on the earth.

My emotions, therefore, come down to a sort of existential dread, and not much else.   In a sense, my fear of the nasty, painful death of billions is ultimately connected to my fear of personal death.  If I can accept either one with equanimity, I can accept the other.  I understand this point intellectually, but not "in my bones", as the Zen people say.  When I can do this, then I will have achieved true equanimity.

I suppose many people who call themselves "Daoists" would say "well duh".   Certainly many folks I've met seem to not be able to understand why it is that i fret about this so much.  But I've always had a certain suspicion that this sort of thing is worthless unless it comes from real soul-searching and perhaps even suffering.  My feeling is that glib affirmations rarely stand significant stress tests.  So until someone really understands the horror of existence, they don't have the right to suggest that it is nothing but an illusion.  My better half has suffered a fair amount in her life, which is why I tend to believe her when she makes statements about this sort of thing.  Perhaps others I've met have too, and I was too callow to understand that.

Either way, I've spent a lot of time ruminating on the issue of compassion, what it means for the future of the earth, and whether my equanimity will ever be able to completely stand in the face of mega-suffering.


The Rambling Taoist said...

The death of millions tends to overwhelm the senses. We can intellectually understand it, but it's very hard to understand it emotionally.

Most of us in the western world don't see a lot of death, except in isolated cases involving family and friends. It would be hard for me to imagine the death of a whole village, let alone millions upon millions worldwide.

Like you, climate change is one of my greatest concerns and I worry about the millions who will suffer. I suppose my concern is more intellectual than emotional, but sometimes I don't know.

baroness radon said...

"Mention this subject to most people and they get very nervous about monkeying around with the climate."

Of course, we've already monkeyed around with the climate. The issue is whether people believe that we can have an influence or not. Those who think we shouldn't are probably people who don't want to admit that we have. Or one wants to geoengineer because we do have power, and we want to assuage our guilt. In any case, all systems decay and decline. There is no steady state and there is no physical immortality.

And regarding compassion:
I think a lot of people like to do the loving-kindness thing, ala the Dalai Lama, and it makes them feel they are accomplishing something positive, but they're really only making themselves feel better. A lot like driving a Prius.

"In a sense, my fear of the nasty, painful death of billions is ultimately connected to my fear of personal death." Famine, war, and even climate change, have always been part of existence as civilizations rise and fall. And what look like bangs were probably whimpers. Who knows, perhaps you have already been through this a few times? And really, the Buddha saw this I think, the death of one is no less than the death of many. And conversely.

Help someone when and how you can, but wringing hands and living in "existential dread" does no one any good. (Used to be fear of The Bomb; now it's fear of icecap melt.Maybe things wwere better when we just feared Hell.) To the extent you are able, help people who are suffering now, right in front of you. At what point is contemplating numbers in a theoretical scenario abstract? It's the same as history or recent news.

The Crow said...

If climate change is actually caused by billions of people doing what billions of people do, then the deaths of billions might be the best answer to it.
If one pulls one's head out of one's ass for long enough to stop wondering if their feelings about things are "valid", then one might, finally, be responding in a "valid" way.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Rambling Taoist:

I fear that you've pretty much explained why Stalin was correct. We respond emotionally to one death, whereas most of us seem incapable of wrapping our heads around the individual facts of mass death.

One of the things that I've heard terrorists say is that in a democracy all the citizens bear some responsibility for the decisions of their government. That means that office workers in the World Trade Centre were "fair game" for their attacks.

I certainly don't agree that anyone should be killed this way, but I do have some "gut agreement" with the idea that insofar as each of us has some ability to act as free citizens, we also have a responsibility to try and "do the right thing". That's how I've viewed my environmental activism: as "paying my dues".


All good points. But about angst or existential dread, this isn't something that one seeks out and holds onto, it is something that one feels whether one likes it or not.


I understand that you don't communicate much using prose, but I think I have to call you to task for the statement:

If climate change is actually caused by billions of people doing what billions of people do, then the deaths of billions might be the best answer to it.

The question is which billions? And who does what? Every climate change collapse scenario I know of predicts that the people who waste the least energy will be the ones that suffer the worst. People in the South live lives constrained by their culture, people in the North have (at least theoretically) the education and means to consciously understand the forces around them and make decisions about the future.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that far too many people in our society use glib turns of phrase to confuse themselves and others about the crisis we face ourselves with. (Look at the political careers of people like Sarah Palin, when has she ever made any sort of reasoned reply when a wink and a vacuous, yet pithy statement would have sufficed?)

That is, IMHO, the reason why so many religious teachers have offered programs to teach people equanimity. The point is to think more calmly and, hopefully, more rationally about the world that confronts us.

baroness radon said...

My observation is that the real (Chinese) Taoists I have had the privilege to meet and study with do not walk around in a cloud of existential dread and despair. That seems to be a Western thing. If you feel it, work to overcome it. Not that I don;t have my monets, but I think it's like depression. There are ways out. But some people only seem to feel alive when they're depressed.

The Crow said...

The goal, actually, is to think as little as possible.
Get far enough along that path, and one is no longer troubled by much of anything.
But then, the Western version of taoism is about one-up-manship, more than anything else.
The taoist - as opposed to the usual Western parody - deals with reality, and intervenes as little as humanly possible.
He does not behave as others, and activate others to do stuff in the way he thinks it should be done.
Do you think the world is perfect?
Lao Tzu (who at least one of your commenters believes never existed) decided that it was.
And it is.
It falls to people and their various neuroses, to make it into a nightmare that nobody can wake up from.
Nobody but the taoist, who is able to not think when he so chooses.
Don't worry: I will likely not linger long.
The very presence of at least one of your commenters suggests there is no future in it.
Western taoism is an excuse for leftism, wouldn't you say?
When it could have been about balance...

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Ms Baroness:

OK. So it never bothers you to contemplate the starvation deaths of billions of people. Does that mean you have equanimity? Or does it make you a monster?

I'm generally a pretty happy guy, but I'm really concerned about all the people I meet who never think about this question.

Change the situation and think about the Holocaust. What about all the people who never thought twice about the Jews, Gypsies, etc. "Nothing I could have done, so I just put it out of mind"?

I understand that "ordinary folks" aren't expected to think about this stuff. But I've been involved in politics at the level of being a confidant of the leaders of a national political party. I wish that I had some feeling that people like Obama, Palin, Perry, etc, thought about this stuff, but I don't see any evidence that anyone except Al Gore does. And politicians only think about stuff that voters do, so as long as people don't think about the consequences of runaway climate change, there is absolutely no penalty that any politician will suffer for similarly not giving it a second thought.

"Compassion" is supposed to be one of the Daoist "three treasures", but I wonder sometimes if it is in rather short supply amongst Western Daoists.

The Rambling Taoist said...

I don't understand the following phrase: "My observation is that the real (Chinese) Taoists..." Are you suggesting that only a person from China can be an authentic Taoist?

That would be like me writing, My observation is that "real (Roman Empire) Christians..." or "real (Palestinian) Jews..."

Carrying your qualification even further, it would mean that almost all the religious people of the US, Canada, Australia and much of Europe aren't real believers either.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Rambling Taoist:

A further point comes to mind. I wonder how aware your average Chinese Daoist is to the implications of runaway climate change. The vast majority of Westerners, who presumably have had access to at least some scientific training, haven't a clue about this sort of thing. How many Chinese Daoists would understand the issues at stake?

baroness radon said...

Perhaps I was being too glib, certainly, and what I was thinking of was the Chinese Taoists (and the laobaixing)I have met and studied with in temples and schools in China. Perhaps I should have said "traditional", but in fact, I do think there is a different mentality that is sometimes hard to bridge from west to east. My point was that "existential dread" is a very Western idea. I think Chinese concepts of fate and destiny override it in that culture. Maybe it's the same thing, but I rarely hear Westerners attribute things to fate and destiny. The more people try to control and plan things (Western style) the more frustration and existential dread there seems to be. But if you are from a culture that is informed by routine flooding and crazy imperial failures from dynasty to dynasty, you begin to have a "tomorrow will take care of tomorrow" attitude. Chicken Little is a western story; in China they'd just eat him.

"Contemplating the death of billions", meditating in a future charnel house, accomplishes nothing; if there is action I can take, I should do that, but it doesn't keep me awake at night. Perhaps I sounded callous; I am quite aware of the historical horrors that we have visited upon one another, and the ongoing fouling of our nest is probably one of the current manifestations of the fact that there are too many of us fighting for limited resources and an easy life.

Curiously, while China is certainly one of the foulest of the foulers, China is certainly applying a lot of green technology and practices.

baroness radon said...

And, also regarding RT's comment, I do believe there is a difference between Eastern (original?) Taoism and Western Taoism as it is understood or practiced by people of Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian (and Islamic, perhaps) heritage through their society, just as Chinese Catholics and Baptists still have Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian social heritage that colors their outlook and practices. Chinese teachers are often happy to share their cultural, artistic and philosophical treasures with Westerners because we are "interested." But not growing up in the culture leaves something begging. You can learn to speak Chinese, maybe really well, but you'll always be a Westerner speaking Chinese. And the Chinese can tell.

(I think this applies to Western Buddhism as well.)

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Well perhaps my diary is just about me. I've been involved in a lot of projects over the years and developed a certain amount of success in them. But one thing that I have repeatedly failed to do is to come up with a strategy or tactic that would get across to people just how awful climate change could be if we don't take steps to avoid it.

Not only could I never come up with a strategy that the general public would buy into, I could never come of with something that would get the radical environmental community involved with the sense of urgency that the issue requires.

Indeed, I've ended up putting more and more of my energy into Daoism because I've come to the conclusion that there is nothing that can be done. But I still wonder about the humanity of people who can be aware of this and yet seem to have never lost a night's sleep over it.

baroness radon said...

Wondering about--questioning-- my humanity because I can sleep at night seems a bit sanctimonious on your part, especially since you say "nothing can be done." Maybe I can sleep because I think something can and will be done (but perhaps not as quickly and specifically as you might wish). And if not, it doesn't matter.

Sweet dreams.

Cym said...

A few questions to think about:

How much do you think individual people, regular people as a whole, are actually contributing to climate change? If you were to add up the "carbon foot print" of each individual person outside of industry, their resource consumption, pollution and waste contribution, how do you think it compares to industry?

Lately I've been seeing more of an emphasis being placed on the individual, for each person to take personal responsibility for the problem, to buy "green", which is good, but not if it takes the focus away from the big polluters of the world, the big corporations.

For instance, did you know that the United States Department of Defense is the LARGEST polluter in the US, and yet because much of what they do is considered part of national security, they are exempt from many pollution control standards that everyone else is bound by. It's like they're untouchable, above the law, and that whatever they do is deemed necessary no matter what the price.

Are people as a whole really the problem, or is it just a few bad seeds with too much money and power and lack of accountability who are responsible for the problem? Should billions of people have to pay the price with their lives for the mistakes of a few? If it is out of our hands, and happens anyway, then so be it, but if you want to understand the true culprits in this mess, you've got to focus on the big guys, not the little guys.

And by the way, Al Gore is a joke. Sorry I just had to add that. He's about as much of an environmentalist as Bill Clinton is an anti-war activist. An Inconvenient Truth aside, what they do is just a pittance, done for show, but lacking any real effective substance. Who do you think funds those guys? If you investigate that it'll show you where their true loyalties lie, perhaps that in itself will reveal an even more disturbingly inconvenient truth.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Well, my read of things is that we have cruised past the tipping point already, based on what I've been told my scientist friends. At this point, I think the emphasis needs to be on people who think the prognosis isn't that bad to come up with an argument why they disagree with what I believe is the scientific consensus.

My point was that this is a greater crisis than that of when the Nazis had conquered all of Europe and the Commonwealth was all alone opposing them. At that point our entire society was on full alert, people were volunteering for the army, everything was rationed and people were putting all their savings into Victory bonds. In contrast, people nowadays kinda yawn and change the channel.


The issue of where the carbon comes from is one that has been argued about and what ultimately ended up separating the Green Party from the Marxists. The East German Green theorist, Rudolph Bahro, was famous/infamous for saying that the environment could survive the wastes of a small number of wealthy people, but not that of a huge number of middle-class ones.

Marxists traditionally focus their critique of society on who own what. Greens point out that this is an irrelevant issue vis-a-vis the environment. What is important is how much is being consumed, and how. There is a absolute limit to the amount that an individual can consume and the jet fuel used by private jets is much, much less than that used by discount airlines. Rolls Royces and Range Rovers may use more gasoline than a Toyota, but there are a Hell of a lot more of the latter than the former.

With regard to Al Gore, I am disappointed to find out that he lives life as large as he does. But he is the only guy that I have seen who has managed to get climate change being discussed on the level of ordinary people. I just about fell over when I was at a family gathering and saw my brothers and sisters passing around a copy of "Inconvenient Truth".

Cym said...

Just want to add, that the problem with geo-engineering, is that aside from unintended consequences, like messing around with the weather without really knowing what the hell you are doing and possibly causing irreparable damage as a result, that besides having the potential of being used for benevolent purposes, weather modification technologies can also be uses as tools of war, to induce droughts and floods and hurricanes and tornadoes on enemy states. So that's the thing, that any technology has the power to do both good and evil, and whose to say that geo-technology will only be used to "save the world" and not to destroy it?

Either way, it's being developed whether we like it or not.

That's why developing equanimity, even more so than compassion, I think is a very important coping mechanism and survival strategy. If people are going to die and are suffering in mass numbers, letting it bring you down possibly to the point of wanting die with them, is a waste of energy. It doesn't help anyone, it doesn't help them or yourself, it just makes you feel worse. Do whatever you can to help, but also learn to accept the things you cannot change. If you can change them do so, but if not, what's the point in feeling bad about it. That's where equanimity comes in, developing inner strength and composure in the face of adversity, learning to still the waters within while facing a violent storm without.

Also regarding the Stalin quote: "One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic"?

Part of that I think comes down to the phenomenon known as the Monkey Sphere.'s_number

That it is only possible to form strong emotional bonds and feelings of kinship with only so many people...anything over a 100 people becomes more impersonal, more of an abstraction. In other words it is a natural response to care more about people you actually know and are part of your community than those who are not. Why should you mourn the death of someone you've never met? If you do that you'll be mourning all the time, because there is someone dying or suffering some terrible tragedy or injustice every single second of the day.

P.S. Your comment moderation is slightly annoying, but so be it...I'm sure you have a good reason for it.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


In philosophy there's the idea that it is important not to confuse "is" statements with "ought" statements. I'm not trying to say that people naturally think about others, I'm asking whether or not they should care about the others. Societies used to take for granted all sorts of things that we don't anymore, such as the inferiority of women, slavery, etc. Things have changed because people were willing to stretch beyond the question of asking how things are and started asking whether or not this state of affairs was right

My understanding of the Dao De Jing, for example, is that it is a statement about how people should live their lives, especially rulers. That is why it suggests that there are three treasures, one of which is "compassion". I suspect that it was considered somewhat laughable in some circles that the ruler of an ancient Chinese state would be "compassionate", yet that is what Laozi is suggesting.

I don't understand your bit about comment moderation. Are you annoyed that I respond to most comments? I've had folks say that they like that because it makes comments into a bit of a discussion forum. If you are concerned about my checking them before I post them, that's mostly to avoid things like advertisements cluttering up the comments section.

Cym said...

Of course I don't have a problem with you responding. That's the whole point. I dislike comment moderation only because it appears to slow down the discussion. It's just a personal pet peeve of mine, I like seeing my comment appear right away, because sometimes I think of something to add, that I forgot, and having to wait sometimes hours for a comment to appear, is annoying to me; but don't worry about it, you do what you've got to do. I shouldn't even have mentioned it.

As far as whether or not people should care, I think that in an ideal world people would care about the welfare of all lifeforms, but just because you think they should, doesn't mean they will, and very likely they won't, otherwise they already would and we wouldn't be having this conversation.

There is a difference between caring and doing nothing, and caring and doing something, and I think the whole point of caring should be to do something, otherwise it's like doing nothing at all. What is the difference between caring and doing nothing, and not-caring and doing nothing? I see very little difference.

I mean, having feelings of goodwill, is perhaps in and of itself a psychologically healthy frame of mind to be in, goodwill, compassion, caring, are virtuous traits, but without action it does nothing to actually help anyone, if all you feel is compassion, without action, isn't kind of fruitless. So perhaps it's not enough to simply care. It's not enough to feel compassion. Caring as a springboard for action, for actually doing something constructive to help, is what matters most. In my opinion, caring without actually doing anything, isn't much different than not caring at all.

So yeah, I think people should care and should not just think it and feel it but also be it and do it, put it into action, but what if people don't care? They should but they don't, so what do you propose we do about it? Should people be forced to care? Or does that defeat the whole point of caring being something freely chosen from the heart?

shadowplay said...

Wow, this is definitely an controversial and emotional topic. Anyone who has seriously thought about the implications of climate change, ecological overshoot, resource scarcity, etc, has had to grapple with the fact that the earth more than likely cannot sustain the present population of human beings, especially not the five-planet lifestyle that the first world enjoys and which 1/3 of the world's population (China and India) is aspiring to attain as well. There is really no technical solution to this problem and in my experience this is not something that most mainstream environmentalist thinkers are willing to touch upon. It's extraordinarily gloomy stuff, and indeed I think the fact that it evokes depression and existential angst itself is an expression of an inherent compassion - compassion literally means "to suffer with", and I believe all human beings are endowed with an inherent sense of compassion (even corporate CEOs), although in some this sense is better developed than in others.

In terms of how we should regard the impending ecological crisis, the Dao De Jing tells us compassion is a virtue. But it also tells us that "heaven and earth are not humane, they treat the ten thousand things as straw dogs." Human beings are simply one among the "ten thousand things", and we are carried along by the flow of the Dao (i.e. subject to the same natural laws) as the rest of the universe. Overshoot brings with it a corresponding loss in population.

While I can understand these dire implications might tempt us to attempt some feat of geo-engineering to re-stabilize the climate, at the end of the day I trust the homeostatic capabilities of Gaia more than I do the schemes and meddling of human beings, no matter how well intentioned. History is littered with the corpses of people trying to "improve" upon natural processes, and indeed the mess we are currently in is the result of human tampering with these processes and an ideology that sees the natural world as something to be dominated and mastered. The Dao De Jing also tells us that the world "is a sacred vessel", and those who attempt to control it only bring ruin upon themselves. The consequences of our civilization's wanton disregard for the biosphere is proof of this.

I guess I'd like to end my comment by pointing out that for most of human history, human beings only knew those who were closest to them - members of the same family, clan, or tribe. Interaction with strangers was rare and usually limited either to occasional instances of trade or sometimes violence. Arguably we have not yet evolved the capability of living in crowded cities with millions of strangers, let alone the ability to manage a complex economic and political system with multiple global supply chains. It is precisely because of this evolutionary short coming that a million casualties are a statistic; we simply cannot comprehend this in anything but abstract terms.

Given these shortcomings, it may be more useful in the long run to cultivate compassion for every being in our immediate surroundings. We should maintain an awareness of the broader implications of our actions, but understand that everything starts close at home. An example of this might be indigenous societies, many of whom have an intuitive understanding of the interdependence of their local ecosystem and take care to cultivate an appreciation for everything in that particular locale. I believe this type of awareness is deeply compassionate in that it sees the self as inextrixcably linked and composed of a web of relationships with other living beings. I don't think it is is a coincidence that such societies are also among the most stable and sustainable in the world.

baroness radon said...

Just an observation: ci, the character in TTC 67 (about the Three Treasures) is sometimes (perhaps more correctly) translated as "mercy" or "benevolence", as in a benevolent ruler having mercy regarding his subjects, which isn't quite the same as the "compassion" we have been talking about here. None of my Chinese dictionaries translate ci as compassion, which is a whole other word, lianmin, which can also be translated as pity...Arthur Waley uses "pity" in his translation.

Mercy or benevolence seem to imply some sort of action; we tend to think of compassion as a kind of emotion which doesn't necessarily imply action (beyond tears and sleepless nights). Benevolence /mercy and compassion/pity aren't quite the same thing.

I give to certain charities out of benevolence, a merciful gesture to alleviate suffering. I find it hard or pointless to feel compassion for people who haven't been born yet, (those billions who will die) and probably shouldn't be conceived at all.

Re: Cym's comment about comment moderation. I thought i had submitted a further comment, somewhat off topic, in response to RT's question about my remark about "real Taoists." It was about the cultural (and linguistic) baggage we all bring from our own backgrounds--the Greco-Roman/Judeo-Christian heritage that is in the blood of Western Taoists, and the Taoist/Confucian/Buddhist blood in Chinese Catholics or Baptists. I wonder if you canned the comment or if in fact I failed to properly publish it. I will give you the benefit of the doubt.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

For some reason blogspot sometimes doesn't send me an email when there is a comment pending. I just came across three comments that have been pending for a while. Sorry.