Can we learn empathy for nature through literature?

Can we learn empathy for nature through literature?

Can we learn empathy for nature through literature?

Books can deepen our compassion for other humans. They can also broaden our sense of humanity. But can they evoke in us a sense of empathy toward nature?

There are many examples of animal narrators and characters in literature like Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Salten’s Bambi. But these types of stories often impose human sentiments, aspiration and beliefs on to animals. Our empathy for animal characters is often evoked by their display of ‘human qualities’. This can make it difficult to feel empathy for critters that are different from us.

However, some books, like Gowdy’s The White Bone, position animals at the centre of the narrative without imposing human characteristics on them. It did so by sharing the elephant perspective and experience of the ivory hunt.

One group of researchers wondered if stories like this could bring about feelings of empathy and compassion for animals and nature. If successful, many people may feel a moral obligation to help a bird, a tree or nature as a whole.

In the study, participants read Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs and Kaneko’s Art you an Echo? They felt these books helped increase their overall empathy and appreciation for nature. Many even felt an intense sense of grief and remorse. But overwhelming feelings of despair can lead to inaction. That’s why they concluded the study with Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass which explores Indigenous ways of thinking about and being with nature. It also taught participants a deeper and more sustainable relationship with nature.

The study ultimately showed that books that share the perspective of animal characters can lead us toward a better future for nature as a whole.

To learn more about this study, check out Learning empathy through literature.

Todd Thexton, Ajnesh Prasad & Albert J. Mills (2019) Learning empathy through literature, Culture and Organization, 25:2, 83-90, DOI: 10.1080/14759551.2019.1569339

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