It is a pity that empathy is not more of a highlighted skill in school, as it is important in human resources, especially for those who actively work on solving pressing world issues. Ari Wallach’s article in the BBC, Why We Need to be More Emotional to Save the World, points out, “If our species wants to enjoy a long-term future, it might need to tap into the very human qualities of emotion.” This is an idea that many funders of potential solutions and problem-solvers underestimate during their grant review processes or pitch sessions. In my line of work, which aims to address climate change and environmental degradation by stirring humans towards action, our teams understand that emotions are key to solving humankind’s most pressing problems. When we asked a group of engineers, who were building a climate-change-themed escape room with close associate Rainshadow Studios last November, what made them adopt climate actions as individual citizens, they mentioned having watched Instagram reels of struggling animals on thinning ice sheets. They subsequently adopted empathy for the fatty, blubbery mammals and changed their actions in Singapore in hopes that actions here would improve life for seals and polar bears in the Arctic and Antarctica.
How long did their actions last? About one month.
A billboard for Protein World asking whether you are "beach body ready" in Times Square in New York in 2015. The advertisement featuring model Renee Somerfield elicited controversy when they appeared in the UK where they were accused of fat-shaming and perpetuating an unrealistic body type. Photo: Richard Levine / Alamy
Many of the people who join our teams are not themselves permanent environmental activists and need materials like visual reels to continue their engagement in environmental action. Many of them, like our target audiences, go through spurts of climate action which wane over time and need jolts to remain activated. It is not unreasonable or academically dubious to expect emotions to do this work of boosting. Daniel Goleman’s seminal text on emotional intelligence, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ, outlines how deeply rooted emotions are in the brain, contrary to popular sayings that link them to what has subsumed the role of an intellectually inferior organ in decision-making — the heart. Wallach sums up the reasonableness of working with emotions, writing, “We have learned that emotions can be harnessed to guide us toward rational choices and cooperative action. Emotions can be geared toward long-term thinking and behaviour and are essential to the evaluation of simulated possible futures, known as ‘pragmatic prospection’.”
I look for emotional intelligence in the job candidates whom I interview for the growth of my company, Two Glasses. Two Glasses works closely to develop partnerships for Rainshadow Studios, but also on its own specifically within the scope of textile waste — a growing, yet entirely preventable problem. While technological innovations to create circular consumption in fashion are heavily and urgently needed, Two Glasses works on changing consumer mindsets, arguably the root of “all that buying” that leads to “the dirty secret behind the world’s fashion addiction. Many of the clothes we donate to charity end up dumped in landfill, creating an environmental catastrophe on the other side of the world” (Besser, 2021).
Marketers understand well that consumption is a product of psychology. Technology, at most, is the enabler and accelerator of consumption, not the root of want. Many marketers do what our teams wish was not done: they infiltrate traditional and social media and remind the ordinary citizen to fantasise, to want, to buy, even when the latter has no need. In other words, they ‘empathise’ with the feelings of inadequacy that many consumers have and suggest to them that buying their products is a solution.
The fast fashion trash mountain
Around 40% of the used clothes imported into Accra, Ghana — one of the world’s largest second-hand clothing markets — are unsaleable due to their poor quality and end up rotting in landfill sites, creating an environmental catastrophe. The issue of overconsumption is exacerbated by the rise of fast fashion. Photo: Muntaka Chasant / Shutterstock Editorial
I look for emotional intelligence and am especially thrilled when I see signs of practised empathy in a potential employee. In the business of changing mindsets, we cannot do our work if we cannot put ourselves in the shoes of the people we want to change, since the change we want to create forms best without antagonistic confrontation — a style which many deem as off-putting — but through alliance. Today’s global politics exemplify that trying to change someone through overtly antagonistic measures leads to backfiring and deepened divisions, with both parties reinforcing their own behaviours. Understanding why someone disagrees and where he, she or they are coming from can help build trust between speakers. From here, a meaningful and sincere dialogue can help to develop a shared conversation, within which differences are better understood. Here, if one wishes to not only listen but also make a change, one can gain insight into how opponents think and thus be influenced. Middle Ground, a YouTube series by Jubilee whose self-inscribed description is ‘Feel more. Think more. See more in others.’, is an example of a platform that activates emotional intelligence in difficult conversations to address contemporary issues.
One of the projects that Two Glasses is working on with The Dance Circus uses empathy as a force for change. Changing Room is a short film that raises questions about how the feelings women have towards their bodies in changing rooms lead to purchasing behaviours that ultimately damage the environment. What does our time spent with insecurities have to do with environmental damage? Changing rooms, where many scrutinise their own bodies and spend time considering how they will fix or hide imperfections, are often where fantasies of solutions rooted in ‘the next purchase’ begin.
The film will premiere in mid-2023 with screenings followed by Q&A sessions, where our own team opens up, sincerely and empathetically, with the audience. As a team of mostly women who have been marketed at from our earliest memories, our goal is not to point fingers at other women who buy clothing they do not need, but it is to say: We see your desires for beauty and social acceptance in ourselves, and we see us in you. We think we understand at least a little of how the landfills of Accra, Ghana, have come to carry our globally derived textile waste, until the locals can only walk on clothes we used to think we needed or would love.
In our work, where the utmost dream is that most consumers would stop buying the average of 34 new pieces of clothing a year while throwing away 27 in the same amount of time, after wearing an item only seven to 10 times, it is necessary that we be able to form a mass — a community of a shared vision. If just half the Singaporean population subscribed to our call, landfills might be able to see 80 million fewer items of clothing each year.
When I am on the lookout for a new team member and see signs of emotional intelligence — be it in the way they behave towards a suboptimal waitress during a café interview, the way they apologise when they are wrong, the way they listen, or the way they handle feedback or a difficult question — I am on the lookout for human capital that can activate a cloak of invisibility on their own ego and focus on seeing the dynamics of the room, how their interlocutor feels, how their options of responses may pan out, and how they can steer conversations. After all, we are in the work of understanding how to trigger responses in others. This is not technology.
Hard skills can be found relatively easily in Singapore and though I do not discount their necessity, I would not relegate emotional intelligence as secondary in importance or desirability. The world relies on people who have emotional intelligence, who can envision the responses of others, to move the masses. My work sees job candidates with high emotional intelligence as central and crucial, in any line of work. Problems of any kind will need a mind that understands how to solve them, as close as possible to their root cause.
Many of us advocating for emotion-activating approaches for environmental action still meet funders who look at us with doubt, the irony being that many scientist colleagues advocate for our approach, as Wallach’s article shows. Funders will still prefer to put their attention and pockets towards technological innovations, which, no doubt, are utterly necessary. However, we would nudge them to do the work of understanding the central role that emotions have in creating social and environmental change. Education, too, would become a more effective driver of social change by focusing on hard and soft skills, with empathy at its core.
Technology can do a fantastic job of cleaning up the world, but mindsets can arguably do more. Overconsumption, wars, and many manmade atrocities towards one another and the environment are products of mindsets gone haywire. Empathy could come close to becoming a panacea. Today’s human capital, largely morally obligated to not cause more of a mess, would need this, among a host of other feelings known as ‘self-transcendent emotions.’ As Wallach writes, “These emotions — which include feelings of empathy, gratitude and awe — evolved to help manage social relationships with others and orient humans to a world that is bigger than themselves… Self-transcendent emotions allow people to manage complex, cooperative situations without needing to overtax their resource-intensive, rational thought processes. They also help delay the need for instant gratification or reward… Harnessing empathy – specifically transgenerational empathy – can help us make decisions that impact us for the better both today and for generations to come.”
What motivates action?
A study published in The Journal of Environmental Education suggests that focusing climate discussions on the risk to humans can cause people to unconsciously think about death, which activate defence mechanisms, such as denial and repression. On the other hand, describing a threat to other kinds of creatures people care about can elicit empathy, compassion, a sense of potential loss, and a desire to protect. Photo: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- Besser, L. (2021, August 12). Dead white man’s clothes. Retrieved from ABC News: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-08-12/fast-fashion-turning-parts-ghana-into-toxic-landfill/100358702
Thammika Songkaeo is Managing Director of Two Glasses, a company that combats textile waste in multidisciplinary ways, as well as Head of Partnerships and Development at Rainshadow Studios, which makes art and theatre that move audiences to confront their relationship with the climate crisis. Thammika graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (M.S.Ed., Higher Education) and the University of Texas at Austin (M.A., Comparative Literature), and has received fellowships and grants from institutions including the Smithsonian Freer|Sackler Galleries. She is also a former Penn Social Impact House Fellow, World Economic Forum Global Shaper and Bread Loaf Environmental Nominee and Scholarship recipient.
Thammika challenges her audiences to question their own habits of (over)consumption and creates tools that allow them to carry out their journeys of change. Changing Room, the film she is producing, will premiere at The Projector in Singapore in June 2023.