- Climate Justice PedagogyInterdisciplinary Approaches to Proximity and Empathy in Contexts of Privilege
Over the last decade and a half of teaching environmental literature and cultural studies courses, first at the University of Washington and now at the New England Conservatory of Music, I have observed a shiftfrom students' debating whether environmental problems matter and whether they qualify as social issues to their avowing that these concerns do matter ecologically and culturally. Alongside this recognition, however, students often express resignation, compartmentalization, apathy, or feelings of powerlessness. Recently, my students have tended toward a consensus that they and their communities will do little to address climate change until it begins to affect their everyday lives more dramatically. As I planned a new Climate Change Arts and Culture undergraduate elective, I wondered whether this attitude—that it's not affecting me, here, now—might prime students for even deeper denial in response to evidence of already-severe climate change consequences that might seem distant from their daily lives.
A justice- and action-oriented climate change curriculum, I argue, must confront intersecting problems of proximity and privilege that undergird students' narrow focus on me, here, now. In her discussion of the importance of "relations of proximity" to "a spatialised ethic of care,"1 the cultural geographer Elspeth Probyn confirms that both spatial and temporal distance "can generate a total lack of compassion,"2 a crucial consideration for climate justice pedagogies. Although other scholars have questioned the value of "ethics of proximity" in addressing global environmental concerns, given the myopic, ultralocal [End Page 4] politics they may inspire,3 I propose that retaining and reorienting this concept—using interdisciplinary materials from the humanities, social sciences, and environmental sciences to question what makes a climate phenomenon or a community subjected to climate injustice seem temporally, spatially, and relationally proximate—can help move students beyond egoism, dismissal, and passivity.
As a literary scholar, I consider narrative a useful tool for helping students see beyond their own experiences, reimagine proximity, and care about climate justice, yet I am wary of relying solely on narrative empathy to bring other places and everyday lives closer. In the face of the spatially uneven, slow and immediate violence of climate change, narratives of climate injustice may disrupt the presumed temporal distance that may breed passive resignation.4 Moreover, they may engender empathic connection across geographic distance, fostering a form of emotional or interpersonal proximity to people experiencing the dramatic effects of climate change, which may also establish urgency. In short, narratives can help students rethink the parameters of the me, the here, and the now. However, I also suspect, as scholars of cognitive narratology and multiethnic literary reception have cautioned, that empathy alone may not propel action or catalyze justice.5 In fact, egoism, dismissal, and passivity may arise not just from positions of climate skepticism or denial but even from empathic encounters. Stories about climate injustice and inequities across the globe may elicit not only feelings of relative security and immunity or stultifying guilt but also guilt-assuaging empathy or an overreaching empathy that reduces differential impacts to a universalized sense of victimization—responses I have encountered in other classes addressing diversity and inequality.
Instead, positions of privilege and disadvantage in economies of uneven carbon consumption and geographies of differentially distributed climate consequences require more nuanced understandings of relationality; proximity is not simply personal or interpersonal but mediated by ecological and economic systems. With these considerations in mind, I envisioned a curriculum that could move students from what Megan Boler calls "passive empathy" to the more active, reflexive interpretive practices she describes as "testimonial reading."6 Interdisciplinary materials provided a variety of ways to establish temporal proximity (through climate science and narrative), reconfigure spatial proximity [End Page 5] (through ecological and economic systems analyses), and prompt empathic connection alongside reflexive analysis of one's own position in hierarchical systems of climate injustice (through narrative and work from the social sciences). This approach cultivated in my students a deeper, more urgent, and more active engagement with climate change and its cultural complexities.
Before presenting students with narratives of climate injustice, I introduced scientific data to begin to...