Will Compassion Save Humanity?

I have looked squarely at the most pressing problems confronting humanity — global climate change, mass extinctions, resource depletion, increasing toxicity of our soils, over population, and more — and still I am hopeful.  How can this be?

The answer is that human beings are incredibly resilient creatures.  We are capable of love and beauty unparalleled in the animal kingdom.  And we are wired for empathy.

While studying cognitive science, the cross-cutting field of research dedicated to understanding the human mind, I learned something that has inspired me greatly.  The human brain has within it a set of circuits called mirror neurons that enable us to simulate and re-enact the experiences of others.  I can watch someone eat chocolate and feel stirrings of desire for the subtle combination of bitter and sweet.  And I can also look upon the hungry and feel a grumble in my belly.  This foundational discovery was made by neuroscientists in Italy in the 1990’s.  And it offers the possibility for salvation in the midst of crisis.

To answer the provocative title of this article, I want to suggest that a pattern of rising compassion may be what saves us.  Consider this possibility:

In the last several years, there has been a cascade of highly visible disasters.  People the world over have been riveted by streaming video and digital sharing of photographs for every major flood and earthquake, wild fire and drought, along with the regional conflicts that inflict devastation on desperate people in the destabilized regions of the world.

We now live on a digitally connected planet, where people can easily share information beyond the limits of geography through the internet, mobile phones, and social media platforms.  As these disasters unfold, we can observe the rise of compassion.  The elusive unification of humanity was almost within reach after the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil in 2001.  For a few days, it was often said that “everyone is an American now.”

In the decade that followed, we have watched global responses to earthquakes in Pakistan, Haiti, and Peru.  Our mobile phones have become fundraising tools to enable medical supplies and food to enter disaster zones.  And now an entire generation of emerging social entrepreneurs are fired up about the possibilities for using social media tools to dethrone dictators (as happened when many cheered on the Egyptians earlier this year) and create democratic financial systems through micro-credit lending and social investments.

Yes, we are beginning to see the effects of our rising compassionate response to the suffering of others… to which I ask what will happen in the coming decades as the world watches the innumerable disasters that are coming our way? Will the wave of natural disasters that wipe out cities and towns across the face of the earth drive us to a tipping point in global consciousness?  Will we finally begin to live as global citizens who laugh, cry, and struggle together?

Only time will tell what the answers are.  But the ability to acknowledge that empathy is fundamentally a part of humanity allows me to sleep at night.  And it encourages me to continue the struggle toward a just and sustainable world in the company of others who have already awakened to the compassionate response that makes a better world possible.

While I don’t welcome disaster, now at least I can see the silver lining that shimmers at its edge.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.