Compassion and Meaning

Flora and fauna may finally be getting their due.

Over the past decade, I’ve listened with great interest to a growing conversation surrounding the idea of extending compassion beyond human issues to make meaningful the suffering and endangerment of ecosystems, wildlife, and landscape.

The idea that nature should occupy the same moral ground as humans, is not new. Albert Schweitzer wrote in 1923 “Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.”Albert Einstein later wrote, in a 1950 letter, that “A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe”, he continued by explaining how man “experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something departed from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.” Understanding these ideas is to see that we are not separate from nature, and that nature deserves the same compassion we extend to other humans.

Going back eight hundred years we think of St. Francis of Assisi as someone who loved animals. As Edward Armstrong writes in his book, Saint Francis: Nature Mystic, this common assumption sells short his full belief. “…the compassion for nature which constitutes a golden thread in the Gospels and historic Christianity was one of his outstanding characteristics.” Armstrong makes his point clear by stating “that to separate compassion for man from compassion for nature in considering the outlook of St. Francis is to make an accurate evaluation of his personality impossible, for his compassion extended to all Creation.”3

Today, the idea that we need to extend our idea of compassion to include all living things is not just serving special interest groups but is fundamental to bringing about changes in attitudes about the role we actively play in determining the health of our planet, and by direct extension, our own health and survival. In fact, the idea that developing a more compassionate public may be a key to achieving the broader engagement needed to significantly move the needle on many issues. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University explains that “Compassion extends the notion of sufficiency to the Earth. Environmental ethics asserts that other animals, plants, and the elements (such as water, soil or air) are morally significant, and that humans have responsibilities to act so that their needs are met too.”

Recently, several studies have shown that “compassionate feelings for the suffering environment promote conservation of nature.” Another study concludes that “the stronger a participant’s compassion, the higher the chance that they would donate to one or more nature or environmental organizations.” Read more about these studies here, here, and here.

As I continue to follow this conversation I think about how the development of new narratives and stories utilizing a compassionate approach will make environmental issues meaningful to the public. By sharing our own stories of connection with the natural world we encourage others to include nature, the animals, plants, land, air and water, in their circle of compassion.

Gregg Garfin, Deputy Director for Science Translation and Outreach for the Institute on the Environment at the University of Arizona beautifully shares his own experiences of connecting with the physical world, and in extending his thinking and understanding so he could “cultivate an appreciation of interning–seeing the nitrogen and the algae, the pond and the fish, but also the farmer, the wheat in his farm field, the baker and the warm bread from her oven.” Seeing these interwoven connections allowed him to “better appreciate and feel compassion for all the parts of the complex web of life.”

  1. Albert Schweitzer, Kulturphilosophie. Munich: C.H. Beck Verlag, 1923. Translated as The Philosophy of Civilization. Translated by C.T. Campion; New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949.
  2. Albert Einstein, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein. Edited and compiled by Alice Calaprice;  Princeton University Press, 2010.
  3. Edward A. Armstrong, The derivation and significance of the nature stories in the Franciscan Legend. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973.

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