What do art, virtual reality and socializing with friends have in common?
They create environments where people can share experiences that are genuine, personal and specific. These types of experiences can drive the momentum for social change by fueling it with empathy.
Art, especially film, is notorious for sharing the stories of heroes and villains, oppressed and oppressors, famous and forgotten and people of all circumstance, colour and culture around the world. Art is a breeding ground for emotive responses. It challenges us to see the world through a different lens and even for a brief moment feel a true sense of empathy for the plight of another.
Virtual reality presents us with a new experiential opportunity: see a place in 360 degrees and interact with the situation around you. Virtual reality takes our stories to a whole new level. In this way, it should be seen as more than simply a gamer’s utopia, but a tool to recreate an experience so close to reality that it can build authentic understanding of issues and challenges around the world.
Socializing is among our most primal instincts as human beings. Our ability to share stories and create social bonds within huge groups is one feature of humanity that differentiated our species from other mammals and set us on a trajectory to eventual take over the planet. Through ‘word of mouth’ we express personal and genuine stories, feelings and experiences about a product or situation making it an influential marketing strategy for any organization, public figure, or movement.
How will these activities save the world?
I recently attended two events that were focused on raising awareness about different environmental issues. The first event was a virtual reality night with guest speakers from Toronto-based organizations that are addressing climate change in different ways. During the discussion Katherine Bruce, the Development Director at Toronto’s environmental film festival Planet in Focus, spoke about the opportunity that quality content can play in sharing the stories that connect us to environmental issues. Emmay Mah, Project Director at Environmentum, emphasized that through empathy we can cultivate lasting behavioural change and Robert Shirkey, founder of Our Horizon, reminded us that in a democratic society such ours, major social impetus for reform is key to changing laws and regulations for the protection of our environment.
The panelists were knowledgeable and well-spoken; they articulated their ideas with precision and evidenced their claims in science and relevant anecdotes. The only problem is that they were mostly preaching to the converted. The question of how we get more people to care about climate change seemed to linger in the room.
The next night, I went with a good friend of mine to watch two short documentaries on
fracking for the World Water Day at Ted Rogers Hot Docs cinema. After which was another panel discussion. This time with the filmmaker of A Fractured State, Jane Hammon, MPP Peter Tanbus (Toronto-Danforth), and Tara Seucharan, representative, Council of Canadians—Toronto Chapter. It was moderated by Professor Stephen Scharper from the University of Toronto.
I posed this question to the panel: what can the average Canadian citizen do to stop fracking and other industries that threaten our land and natural resources?
The response from the panel was simple: we need to put pressure on politicians and talk about the issues with our networks (friends, family, colleagues, etc).
After the movie, I had a drink with some friends at a pub across the street. We talked about fracking and the plethora of ways in which humanity is polluting and mistreating water. We talked about politics specifically the upcoming provincial election in Ontario. We talked about environmental as well as economic problems and solutions. These friends of mine are not environmental activists or green lifestyle bloggers, but they are voters; each of them will get a ballot that is just as influential as my own; each of them has consumer power; each of them has a vast social network; each them helped me see things a little differently.
Dialogue is our most powerful tool for creating empathy for environmental problems that plague our planet. Sympathy for the polar bears and the other victims of climate change is obviously not enough. We need to understand the situation and experience the injustices on a deeper level. A level that makes us want to stand on the picket lines, to write letters to the Prime Minister and to become allies with organizations fighting for our human rights to clean air, water and land for food.
Art, virtual reality and socializing can inspire discussions that have the power to right wrongs, cultivate empathy, and quite possibly develop solutions and attitudes that will save our planet.