Olivia Walcott: The Answer’s in Empathy

Olivia post 2

“Empathy trumps psychology every time”

– quote written on Steve Charter’s kitchen whiteboard by his late wife.

It is especially easy to feel defeated as an environmentalist. We’re frantic for a short and sweet answer to the complex and urgent matter of climate change. At times, it feels as though the cards are already stacked against us, that there is not any world left to save. When entrenched in the study of all the different ways our environment is speeding towards disaster, I don’t know what fight to fight. But I do want to fight for something. I want to fight for a clean earth and a healthy environment, but can I manage that and not destroy the lives of the good employees at Signal Peak Coal Mine? How can I ensure that no more environmental injustice is done to those in poverty? How can I do that and maintain empathy for my fellow humans and not vilify others? I believe that is what makes the quote in Steve Charter’s kitchen so striking. I understand the greenhouse effect, rate of consumption of our natural resources and the data behind our changing climate, but all of this scientific understanding is pointless unless it’s put to use. Empathy for our fellow people will be the greatest tool we have in the environmental movement.

The complexity of the environmental movement is absolutely overwhelming, but at the same time I suppose that is what makes it empowering. The more I learn, the more questions I end up asking, a dichotomy that leads to nothing but a deeper understanding of the problem at hand.

The issue I find the most intriguing (and frustrating) is fracking. The development of horizontal fracking has driven the price of natural gas so low that it’s outcompeting coal. In some ways, the low price of natural gas can take credit for the closing of coal-fired power plants and blocked permits for new coal mines. Natural gas could act as our “blue bridge” into the future of renewable and clean energy. Currently, there is not the battery capacity to have a grid completely powered by solar and wind energy. These renewables fluctuate with the weather so the energy pushed onto the grid is uneven. The argument made for natural gas is that we will use it now, and then phase it out as we transition into the renewable future. However, this argument doesn’t account for the lack of regulations on fracking that can lead to destroyed aquifers, acres of farmland poisoned by saline water spills, and the correlation between fracking and seismic activity.

I find it difficult to support fracking when it’s causing more environmental damage, even though that’s what it’s supposed to be saving us from. I can’t imagine that pumping chemicals deep underground would ever have a net benefit to our earth. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel filled with hydrocarbons that are more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Additionally, we’re witnessing first hand with coal how difficult it is to “phase out” an entire industry so maybe the same fight is waiting down the road with natural gas.

When weighing the costs and benefits to the issue of fracking, a few speakers from our course come to mind. I think of Nicole Borner of Roundup, Montana, a county commissioner who supports the coal industry in her area. When we explained the Cycle the Rockies course to her she eagerly asked if we would be trying to come up with a solution. Steve Charter was actually the person that recommended that we speak with Nicole. She had published an op-ed (found here) about the damage it would do to her community if the Signal Peak Coal Mine shut down. Nicole is a self-proclaimed environmentalist but supports coal due to the large portion of tax revenue it brings to her stagnant community. Steve had read her op-ed and approached her to discuss the issue as his ranch is at risk of being undermined by the coal mine. In the end, the two were able to have a civil conversation on the topic despite the large difference of opinion.

When we had breakfast with Elizabeth Wood and her husband Wilbur the day after meeting with Nicole, Elizabeth pointedly asked how we would go about creating the change the environment so desperately needed. This, along with Nicole’s search for a solution, are both huge questions that I don’t feel qualified to give a concrete answer. But I can work at an answer. I suppose that it would circle back to the quote on the whiteboard written more than five years ago: “Empathy trumps psychology every time.” Every time people with differing views are able to come to the table and share what our changing environment will mean to them, we get a little bit closer to a solution. In the future, I believe that caring for our earth and fellow people will create the progress that we all continue to search for.

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