Clifford Dean Scholz’s piece The Self-Inflicted Injury of Emotional Callousness is well worth reading. He argues that emotional callousness is endemic in both the public and private spheres, and in an increasingly vicious circle as they feed off each other. While a certain level of ruthlessness has always been needed to survive, we’ve taken it to new extremes. I particularly liked the following image:
The emotional callousness currently endemic on the global corporate and political scene, as well as in our consumer culture, works a bit like leprosy. Contrary to popular belief, leprosy does not cause limbs to fall off. What happens is that the disease attacks the nerves, resulting in a loss of feeling. Without the conscious feedback loop of feeling and physical sensation, nearly constant unintentional self-inflicted injuries result. Chronic infection and continuous scarring further the process, until disfigurement and deformity occur.
It’s this sort of attitude that Scholz is at the root of most of our current crises, and he argues that seeking to heal ourselves and become more truly human is the way forward. Quite spiritual language possibly (I don’t know what religious beliefs if any Scholz holds).
I’ve seen some related ideas in the work of two other people I’ve come across recently. One is Eleanor Stoneham who is applying ideas of spiritual healing, such as Henri Nouwen’s “wounded healer” concept, to sustainability issues (environment, economics, communities) and beyond. Once again, looking at our own soul first then going wider. I hope to find time to look at Eleanor’s work in more detail soon. Corrected this paragraph after publication.
The other, very different, is an American, Chet Sisk who is a educator in sustainable leadership, again using the idea of self as a starting point, and again drawing upon spiritual traditions.
What these two have in common though is that they came to where they are today through a personal crisis which forced them to reconsider their life and goals – Chet through losing his job and business, and Eleanor through a mental breakdown.
This led me to think about the analogy between “conversion” to sustainable behaviour and “conversion” to (deeper) religious belief. The latter has been well-studied by Christians and others – for obvious reasons! Fortunately, while a point of crisis is a common link in many conversion stories, it is not needed – but something is necessary to cause the start of what will become a fundamental rethink of a person’s values and being. More often than not, this is interaction with friends and family, and (far less often than one might think) it is some intellectual challenge, although that is usually part of the process somewhere.
So in seeking to persuade people to be less callous, we can probably draw two conclusions: first, it isn’t going to be too easy – which we already know, I guess – and second, doing it through personal contacts and communities will be much more effective than just talking about it. Not least having someone you know living a more sustainable life to present an example and help counter the “I could never do that” argument.