By instilling compassion and empathy for every individual animal, whether it is wild, domestic or farmed, we can nurture a sense of kindness, mutualism, and caring for nature and other human beings. By unleashing our innate compassion and empathy, we will build resilient social-ecological systems where all life is cherished and respected, ecological damage done to this planet repaired, and our well-being improved.
Why Empathy and Compassion?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another being . Humans value empathy so much that those perceived as lacking in empathy are viewed as having a fault in their character . Compassion on the other hand, relates to the motivation to relieve the suffering of others. It triggers our desire to take action.
According to many scientists, were it not for compassion and empathy, human beings probably wouldn’t exist today. Carol Gilligan, a well-known psychologist, states that "we are, by nature, responsive, relational beings, born with a voice and into relationship, hard-wired for empathy and cooperation, and that our capacity for mutual understanding was – and may well be – key to our survival as a species” . As a society we can’t lose these traits. They are part of our evolutionary inheritance and a foundation for our existence on this planet. It is from our 'hard-wired' ability for compassion and empathy that we derive the kindness, mutuality, respect, and, eventually, the affinity for ecosystems and landscapes we are part of.
Why are compassion and empathy needed for building resilience of our social-ecological systems?
It is only when our mind-set embraces compassion and empathy as social values that we can achieve a peaceful coexistence between people, nature and other living beings. By reclaiming our inherent connection to nonhuman animals we can become more attuned to the suffering and injustice that is happening to other human beings and our natural world in general. Observing and caring for animals can instill a sense of responsibility and increase sensitivity to and awareness of the feelings and needs of others - human and nonhuman animals alike. Caring for animals can be, thus, related to values such as caring for the world and life in the broadest sense. We won’t be able to remain within the ‘planetary boundaries’ if we don’t sufficiently value all forms of life around us. As Mark Bekoff states “compassion begets compassion” and in the times of navigating through the Anthropocene, we need to promote values of compassion and empathy more than ever. Our fight to save animals is ultimately a fight for restorative justice for humans, animals and nature altogether.
3) Empathy and Compassion for animals and their role in building social-ecological resilience.
This is where empathy and compassion become indispensable. They are critical tools for re-wilding our hearts for closer, more intimate, and reciprocal relationships with animals and nature. Compassion, Bekoff states, ‘’is glue that holds ecosystems, webs of nature, and circles of life together. Compassion holds us together.” By learning to view animals and nature with compassion and empathy, humans can learn that all species strive for the same goals; to have nourishment and shelter and to live without fear. When we have empathy and compassion for animals who have lost their homes and their families due to destruction caused by human ignorance and greed, we can see that these types of activities are just as abusive as our destruction of human societies through colonization, industrialization and war.
Ultimately, this process has pushed us and the world into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. The recognition of this is thus the acknowledgement that we are at a new juncture for humanity where we must question our values, beliefs and actions, and reflect on the past. This is exactly the moment - as Marc Bekoff in his book Rewilding Our Hearts. BuildingPathways of Compassion and Coexistence states - “to re-wild our hearts” before we push our planet beyond its planetary boundaries. It doesn’t mean that humans need to go back to a way of living that is long gone. This is neither possible nor necessary. However, for the sake of our physical, mental and spiritual health, we need to reconnect with the wider world, which includes the environment that constantly shapes our livelihood and the animals who occupy it. Ultimately, re-wilding is not solely an effort to save biodiversity and create ecological stability for human development and well being, as crucial as they are. It is also an effort to do right by other animals and all of nature to which we are morally accountable .
How do empathy and compassion play into our understanding of our relationship or lack, thereof, with nature and other animals?
Prof. Jared Diamond believes that humans had a more symbiotic relationship with nature and other animals when they lived a more nomadic lifestyle as hunters and gathers. Once we started to move away from hunting and gathering, we started to distance ourselves from animals in order to manipulate and dominate them . We tamed and conquered them in the name of progress and greater advancement. John Livingston, a famous Canadian naturalist, argues that through this process of separation from wild nature and conquering it for our own benefit, we destroyed almost everything natural about ourselves .
The emotions of empathy and compassion expand our world and allow us to see that humans and all other animals have rich emotional lives; and that we all have complex ways of communicating . The commonality we all share is a broadly-defined family that we need to protect and nurture. Animals deserve our respect in the same way that human life deserves respect and protection. Compassion and empathy unite the living beings of our planet and create a strong foundation for building resilience in our social-ecological systems.
© Jennifer Sundram
The concept of social–ecological systems, also termed 'coupled human–environment systems' or 'coupled human and natural systems', represents a set of interdependent social and ecological components [1, 2]. People are part of the biosphere – the sphere of life - and they interact with it in constantly evolving manners. In other words, we use and modify ecosystems, from the local to the global scale (Figure 1). At the same time, we are also dependent on the capacity of these systems to provide services for human development and well-being . Ecosystem services provide us with food, water, and fuel. They regulate our climate, support soil formation and produce oxygen. But as a human society, we also derive spiritual and religious values from interacting with nature and other living beings. Fundamental aspects of human well-being, such as health, poverty, power, security, human rights, freedom of action, and peace all rest on the life-support capacity of ecosystems .
Foremost among these, our health is a measure of our well-being. It affects our perception of all other aspects of our live. However, when we discuss health, we define it as "a state of physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Numerous scientists demonstrated that we have an innate psychological attraction to what is alive and vital or what we could call “nature”. It was Erich Fromm , a German social psychologist, who first called this trait ‘biophilia’ or, in other words, ‘love of life’ . Edward. O. Wilson, a world-renowned biologist, defined ‘biophilia’ as “the connection that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” He has argued that humanity has a deeply ingrained love of biodiversity that we inherited during the long process of human evolution . This deep affiliation with nature is, thus, rooted in our biology. Damage done to our landscapes, habitats and animals adversely affects us. Wilson has given extensive and compelling evidence showing that degradation of natural environments can deeply upset our psychological well-being, sense of identity, purpose in life, and our overall quality of life .
1) Social-ecological systems and 'biophilia'
Figure 1. Social-ecological systems are interdependent and linked systems of people and nature. In other words, we are part of ecosystems and we shape them. At the same time, we are fundamentally dependent on the capacity of these systems to provide us with services that are crucial for our wellbeing and development .
Consequently, our interaction with animals has an immense impact on our well-being. Our relationship with domestic animals is crucial in fulfilling our need to connect with other living beings and nature in general. Many studies have described significant physical and emotional benefits provided by interactions with companion animals. Animals enhance mental health and bolster self-esteem. They can buffer against loneliness and reduce anxieties among children who suffer from emotional neglect .
Since we are an integral part of the social-ecological system, our connection with nature and animals is morally, philosophically and spiritually necessary for us to function and flourish. On the other hand, because we are so inextricably nested in landscapes of social and ecological relations, our conduct can profoundly affect the lives of other creatures. This means that the treatment of animals and the rest of nature becomes a moral concern. We have a moral duty not to harm any life we are sharing this planet with.
© Jennifer Sundram
Over the past decades, the concept of resilience, which has a long history in psychology, has gained attention within the ecological sciences. In contemporary debates, resilience is assumed to be the ability of ecosystems and human beings to cope with or, more precisely, to recover from, disturbance, shocks, and stress . Studies on resilience seek to explain how and under what conditions ecological and human communities adapt and adjust, or transform and innovate in response to a shock or traumatic event, including social and ecological disruption such as a stock market crash, war, pandemics, or natural disasters (e.g., fires, drought, hurricanes, floods, etc). Thus, resilience in relation to social-ecological systems refers to the system's ability to persist and sustain ecosystem services and, in turn, maintain human well-being . For many of us, this also includes restoring the well-being of animals we share space with.
We are living in the era where biodiversity is threatened more than ever. To address this problem, in 2009, a new concept of 'planetary boundaries' was proposed by a group of Earth system and environmental scientists . Essentially, the concept of planetary boundaries refers to a tipping point “beyond which the planet and its ecosystems might enter new states, some of which are likely to be less hospitable to our current societies.” In other words, for our life to continue, planetary boundaries cannot be crossed. However, of the original nine quantified boundaries, we have already exceeded four: biological integrity, land use systems, the biochemical cycle, and climate change ( Figure 2) . So indeed, we are losing our biodiversity; we are losing habitats, and we are losing species.
2) Promoting resilience of social-ecological systems
This is why we should focus our attention on safeguarding biodiversity and consciously nurturing our interactions with animals.
1) Biodiversity is a key to resilience; it enables human life. As scientists say “human societies have been built on biodiversity” . Biodiversity promotes health, vitality, and ecosystem productivity , and hence enables ecosystems to deliver the benefits and goods we need in order to function. It is biodiversity that allows ecosystems to recover after disturbance and continue to supply their services. As a result, when biodiversity is threatened, ecosystems’ functions are diminished, and the services they provide are undermined.
Interacting with animals, both companion and farmed, also provides many therapeutic advantages. For example, children who have severe emotional handicaps greatly benefit when animals are part of therapies. They help children in controlling their impulses and understanding how others feel. In addition, farmed animals have been recently proven beneficial when treating children who have been neglected or have suffered extreme physical and emotional abuse. Daily contact with farmed animals and taking care of them can provide children with a lasting foundation for building self-esteem .
2) But social-ecological resilience is also about our health and personal resilience, based on our interactions with nonhuman beings.
Several studies conducted by psychologists indicate that loss or forced abandonment of companion animals can impact negatively the ability of their owners to respond during and after a disaster. In recognition that animal attachment contributes to disaster resilience , increasingly steps are being taken to allow animals and their owners to evacuate together during the disaster.
These are just a few of the ways in which our relationship with animals can heal our mental and emotional disorders and help to alleviate stress in our daily lives. Closeness with animals builds our resilience, giving us the strength to overcome difficulties, traumas and crises. Building resilience of social-ecological systems is about safeguarding our biodiversity by reversing ecological degradation, nurturing our relationships with animals and creating a space for a peaceful coexistence with all other living beings.
Our activities continue to change ecosystems around the world. In August, 2016, the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), an organization comprised of scientists from all over the world, officially acknowledged that our actions have had a profound impact on the Earth's systems. They have tipped us over into another geological epoch, the Anthropocene . In other words, it is recognized that we are in the ‘Age of Man’, where it is we homo sapiens who now constitute a major geological-size force on the planet. There is enough evidence to demonstrate that our actions exceed the impact of erosion, volcanic eruptions or plate tectonics. The consequences of this are astounding. Many experts agree that we have already entered a sixth mass extinction, with loss of species occuring at a rate up to 100 times higher than if humans weren’t around. According to a WWF Report released in 2014, the planet has lost 52 percent of its biodiversity within a forty-year period (1970-2010) . It is not climate change that is the major driver of this loss but our age-old activities, such as logging, hunting and farming. Promoting resilience of social-ecological systems is, thus, about reversing the trend of ecological degradation in order for all life to continue.
© Jennifer Sundram
© Gosia Bryja
Figure 2. Planetary boundaries. The green zone is the safe operating space, the yellow represents the zone of uncertainty, and the red is a high-risk zone. The planetary boundary itself lies at the intersection of the green and yellow zones.biosphere integrity 
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