Compassion Conversation Series
Thoughts on compassion in the environmental sector and climate movement
This is the sixth article in a series of interviews where I explore how purpose-driven professionals who are dedicated to contribute towards a just, equitable and sustainable world relate to the notion of “compassion”. What does compassion mean and look like in practice in our professional lives? What opportunities, challenges and tensions arise when we think of applying compassion? 10 professionals offer their personal stories and perspectives.
In this conversation, I am gaining Berta Moya’s perspectives on compassion in the environmental sector and climate movement. We discuss how feeling compassion towards those who do not share our values may be the ingredient to free up more personal mental space as well as allow collaboration on the global, encompassing climate crisis we inevitably need to face together.
Berta Moya is a biochemical and environmental engineer with a passion for resource recovery from wastes. She has spent the last 10 years working on various projects turning waste into valuable products in low income countries, from turning faecal matter into fertilisers to turning rice husks into biochar. She has a curious restless mind, which she usually directs towards exploring sustainability challenges from different angles and thinking up a future where humans live comfortably within the resource limits of our planet and in harmony with nature. She is an avid traveler, world music fan and loves going on adventures in remote nature. Her dream is to live on a remote piece of land where she could live off-grid, grow all her food and use it as a learning and research hub for sustainable living practices.
SJ: How do you think “compassion” relates to your experience in the environmental sector?
BM: I think of compassion in three ways, which I am curious about exploring.
- Firstly, I think of compassion as a key foundation for the environmental sector. I would argue that the desire and need to defend nature and the environment is based on compassion for all living species as well as compassion for future generations.
- Secondly, I am interested in exploring how I can feel compassion for someone who either does not share my values or even actively goes against the causes I am defending — for example around climate change.
- Thirdly, I also see a need for compassion in the work environment. You might be in an organisation whose values are based on compassion because it seeks to improve the environment and improving people’s lives but where employment conditions are precarious or colleagues — for example in local country offices of NGOs or international organisations — are not all working under the same conditions.
SJ: Related to your second point, what benefits would it bring you to feel compassion for someone who goes against your values?
BM: In my mind compassion is about accepting another person beyond their beliefs or opinions and also trying to understand them to a greater extent without necessarily trying to actively change them. In that sense I think compassion could free me from a lot of frustration and give me more peace of mind. To me, compassion is about accepting and understanding another person to a greater extent. I think I waste a lot of energy wishing that other people would think or act differently. Being compassionate with people who have opposing views to me would give me more freedom and a lot more mental space to direct my efforts and energy towards more fruitful things.
I also think that feeling compassion for someone who doesn’t share my opinions or values could put one in a much stronger position when trying to effect a change in behaviour for instance. If someone feels accepted and not under attack, they are much more likely to listen, engage and take in information, which would lead to more fruitful exchanges than if that person feels antagonised or attacked.
Having said this, I haven’t quite figured out myself how to achieve this universal compassion ideal - it takes a lot of conscious effort and possibly years of practice.
It would almost be like a super-power to have the ability to be compassionate towards someone who goes 100% against my values.
Related to this, protecting the “compassion fire” that got me and everyone else into the sector in the first place is relevant to be aware of. The cynicism we are warned about at university is not something I want to settle into. It is hard to avoid, and this is why compassion is something to preserve — it isn’t always easy!
SJ: What benefits do you think it would add to the environmental sector to feel more compassion towards those who may not share the same ambitions?
BM: In general, I think there is greater joy and peace to be harnessed for people who work in the sector. In the environmental activist movement, you are always fighting and are often “against” something, which can be an efficient driving force at first to unite against a cause.
However, staying in this “anti” frame of mind can get both frustrating and exhausting in the long run. I therefore think there is a balance to be found where you can deal with climate change issues on one hand *and* also bring joy and peace into your existence.
I believe that bringing out the joy that is still in you as well as having compassion for the people who are completely against you can give you the peace of mind to enjoy your own existence more.
SJ: I think a lot of people can relate to this “fighting” frame of mind — both within and outside of the environmental sector. What do you think compassion can bring to the climate movement as a whole?
BM: We live in a very polarised society where it is easy to fall into a trap of “us” and “them”, which deters positive interactions between people and hence also makes it difficult to move forward collectively.
I believe more compassion towards people who are not in the climate movement is a key ingredient to bringing everyone on board with protecting and advocating for the environment.
If I do not have compassion for someone I most likely will not have the patience to listen to their arguments — really listen. In a way, this is the biggest challenge to bringing everyone on board. I think it is a case of connecting with people on another level, without imposing any rules or attacking them.
I think that every single human can feel compassion for future generations. No one wants to leave this world in a worse place for future generations — so it is about building the movement around this and understanding that everyone’s path will be different to support this goal. Perhaps some choose to change things up in their day-to-day lives, others would want to defend the planet and start their own projects etc.
Ultimately, climate change is not a political issue, it is not an economic issue, it is not a matter of ideals — it is something we all need to face together, because it is inevitable and it is going to affect us all in different ways.
The climate crisis is complex in nature and a range of actions and changes are needed across all sectors to tackle it. Solutions will look different to different people but I think everyone can find a cause to support or a change to implement no matter their ideals, values or economic status.
SJ: What do you think about the potential clash there might be between the patience required for compassion and the urgency the current climate crisis demands?
BM: Because I have spent over 10 years digging into different challenges and solutions in the sustainability sector, I tend to feel impatient, wanting people to immediately be on the same page as me. Bringing more compassion to the situation would allow me to take a step back and realise everyone is on their own journey. The best I can do at times is simply to plant a seed that will hopefully sprout and bloom in the future.
Compassion holds the potential for letting all of us embark on a journey of discovery around what we can do for the environment.
SJ: Where do you think we should start in terms of bringing more compassion into the environmental sector?
BM: As a sector we could really benefit from thinking about what compassion is and how we relate to it. It is particularly relevant to consider because we work in a sector that is “doing good” which makes us all feel compassionate as our motivation is supposedly self-less.
You begin to assume that compassion is there all the time but on closer inspection, big question marks can be raised about how capable we are at being truly compassionate on a day-to-day basis.
Learning to be compassionate with others — especially those who disagree or directly work against our cause — will likely take some hard internal work with a few punches along the way. However, I really do think this is the place to start.
We need a less polarised world to bring about more change and bring more people into the movement, so we must start by investigating how we can be compassionate outside of our comfortable echo chamber.
SJ: What other thoughts are arising for you about compassion based on this conversation?
BM: I am wondering if compassion is always linked with tolerance? If I am being compassionate does that mean I agree with the existence of certain things that I am radically opposed to? Does my acceptance of the status quo mean that the challenge is dropped, and things just continue as they always have?
SJ: These questions point to some of the barriers we can encounter in practising compassion for others, and which require further investigation and exploration on our self-discovery journeys. The paradox you are raising is one I find Ram Dass to capture and soothe beautifully: “Compassion in action is paradoxical and mysterious. It accepts that everything is happening exactly as it should *and* it works with a full-hearted commitment to change”.
This conversation is based on Berta Moya’s own personal views. They do not necessarily represent the views of any organisation that Berta has worked for.