Upshifting our limited empathy to face Big Issues

Our empathy is built in us with a kind of disconnect which can make it hard to usefully integrate our feelings with our reason. This has profound implications for the climate crisis, the possibilities of nuclear war, and many other “extinction level” issues. A leading negotiator offers a provocative story to stimulate our thinking about this, to which I add some videos.

Dear friends,

Our empathy is built into most of us, but with a kind of disconnect which makes it hard for us to integrate our feelings with our reason – especially when we face giant issues with widespread but distant or hidden dangers.

Our bodymind knows how to respond to what’s happening or could happen to individuals now – especially to ourselves and those we love or identify with. It has a much harder time responding to what’s happening or could happen to everyone or to all living things at some undetermined but very possible time in the future.

We can sense, feel, and think locally much more easily than we can globally. That made a lot of sense, of course, when we were organisms living and evolving during all the centuries, millennia, and eons prior to the last hundred years of globalizing technopotent economy.

But that last evolutionary step – our ubiquitous powerful globalization – has changed everything. Now what we do or say, the things we produce and consume, the investments we make and cancel, the germs we pick up and distribute – can easily have global consequences. And what others do or say far away can have significant consequences for us and our children, often in ways we find hard to comprehend.

To all of this we can add – if we are aware and willing enough – the additional consequences that all of today’s human actions have on animals, plants, natural systems, and future generations.

This creates serious obstacles that interfere with us rising up together to deal sensibly with the crises we face, most notably the escalating climate crisis. Naomi Klein talks about that in my last blog post. And this poignant cry calls us to free ourselves from our comfort zones and habitual lives to act in powerful ways – even as its forcefulness suggests just how difficult that is to do.

Given that context, I stumbled yesterday on the little story below, written by the late Roger Fisher, co-author of the watershed negotiation classic Getting to Yes: How to Negotiate Agreement Without Giving In. His story was written 33 years ago at the height of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union when many people – myself included – felt that we were on the edge of a global thermonuclear war which would have quite thoroughly wiped out all higher forms of life on earth – and which could have happened at a moment’s notice, even by accident (and still could).

Even though we’ve taken down a lot of nuclear weapons since then, we and the Russians (among other countries) still have thousands of them which could do a pretty thorough job if we stumbled into such a total war today.  For those of us who lived through that Cold War era, rising tensions between the US and Russia today bring up old memories, reasserting buried concerns about the vulnerability of our collective future.

It is ironic to note that a war using hundreds of nuclear weapons would likely cancel global warming – temporarily, albeit totally – generating a “nuclear winter” that could make agriculture impossible for years, starving and freezing almost all humans and most animals (even without taking into account the extreme radiation from fallout and ozone destruction that would beset any survivors).

In light of that, it is interesting to contemplate the story below which invites us to consider the implications of the president having to kill one person before (s)he could launch a nuclear attack.

I invite you, after reading it, to then imagine comparable strategies to counter the prospect of somewhat longer-range but also quite thorough destruction available through runaway climate destabilization caused by rapidly rising carbon emissions and deforestation. What could we do to consciously bypass our cognitive limits on facing such a monstrous possibility?

What would make us act with the immediacy and superhumanity that comes naturally to us when the threat is visible, present, and personal… such as exemplified in this video and this one and this one

How do we tap this profound energy to address the shared falls, fires, and collisions of our civilization and planet?




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There is a young man, probably a Navy officer, who accompanies the President. This young man has a black attaché case which contains the codes that are needed to fire nuclear weapons.

I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: “On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative, Communicate the Alpha line XYZ.” Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.

My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.“


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

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