Years ago, the moral philosopher Immanuel Kant introduced the notion of “enlarged thought” — the idea that we can only truly comprehend the world if we are able to step outside of our own subjective understanding of it and consider the experiences of others. It’s a notion that has great currency in the debate over climate change, and the social and cultural inertia that has left us struggling to address it.
Enlarging our thoughts in an era of climate change would mean, for example, including future generations, faraway people, and non-human species in our everyday moral reckonings. And the imperatives for doing so are not hard to argue. Runaway warming will inevitably cause suffering in the world: ice melts, seas rise, coasts flood, people suffer.
But a sound argument doesn’t always translate into consistent moral behavior. How many of us take future generations, or the plight of individuals far away and unseen, into account on an everyday basis? “As creatures,” notes Yale political scientist Anthony Leiserowitz, “it is hard for us to spend a whole lot of time thinking about, and caring about, what’s going on with other people.”
Do we reach our empathetic limitations when we ask ourselves to grapple with a problem that stretches far beyond the visible horizon and deep into the future? Kant didn’t seem to think so — and as a filmmaker and documentarian, I guess I don’t either. I’m still hopeful that we can rise to this challenge, and that even those of us who are comparatively wealthy and comfortable by global standards — for whom climate change will register, at best, as a mere inconvenience for decades to come — are capable of enlarging our minds to consider the less lucky, the less culpable, and those generations yet unborn.
To cynical minds, that surely sounds naïve and improbable — not least in an era when the moral drift appears to be lurching in the other direction, toward inwardness, tribalism, self-protection, and denial. But one needn’t look very far to identify countervailing forces and more compassionate voices the world over. Religious leaders from across the spectrum of beliefs, along with philosophers, ethicists, politicians, students, and ordinary people everywhere — they’re calling out, more forcefully and in larger numbers than ever before, for progress, for transitions, and for dedicated, collective action.
As storytellers, we need only to tune in and listen for those voices, and to repeat them.
I guess that’s ultimately what I am doing here with “The Measure of a Fog.” Climate change is such an enormous and complex problem, with challenges on scales that, as a species, we’ve never confronted before. That’s why, in the first episode of this series, I suggested that the problem — a vast, interlocking puzzle of science and probability, culture and politics, wealth and poverty, and of energy, space, time — demands “a great stretching of our minds.” It does.
But as the series comes to a close, it strikes me that we might face an even more essential challenge than that: the need for a great stretching of our hearts.