Empathy and the more-than-human world

Drawing from cognitive and affective empathy studies, and positioning theory, this education outreach project will produce an illustrated book and teaching notes that elicit empathic relations with non-human others and planetary systems.

Empathy and the more-than-human world

If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused – a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration, love – then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response.
Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder (1965)

Dr Tom Bristow will work with CHE education and outreach officers, the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (University of Melbourne), and the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy (University of British Columbia), to develop ‘Our planet + you’ -- a picture book of poetic algebra to help primary school children understand the complexity of our planet. Each page will be dedicated to a single equation with a rich image, inviting the reader to slowly explore scientific phenomena; from the energy that can grow a tree from a seed, and melt a snowcap into a river, to the systems that sustain life on earth: climate, water, food. Supplementary teaching materials aligned to the Australian Curriculum will accompany the book.

The algebraic equations are designed to exercise the mind, particularly with a view to envisioning the relationships between ecological and planetary systems. Each equation enables the reader to practice and rehearse this envisioning process while feeling out the position of the ‘other’ -- an animal, a landscape, a process.  From here, emotions of and for the planet are developed. The premise is thus: abstract, emotionless scientific data does not inspire loving relations with the environment. By adding a degree of simplicity, colour, life and vibrancy --alongside registers of empathy --these equations will inspire sustainable and emotional connections with Earth’s systems, and they will sow the seed for ecological literacy in adulthood.

Image: 'Equation 12: Food chain' draft illustration for prototype of 'Our planet + you’ by Sally Rippin.