Academic journal article Reading Improvement

Exploring Environmental Empathy in Action with Children's Books

Academic journal article Reading Improvement

Exploring Environmental Empathy in Action with Children's Books

Article excerpt

Adults and children around the world are actively engaged in making the environment a better place. Their efforts include recycling, adopting whales and acres of the rain forest, as well as, cleaning up after oil spills and revitalizing eco-systems. This caring for the environment is what is defined in this article as "environmental empathy in action" Environmental empathy in action occurs when a person realizes that there is an environmental problem, is concerned about the problem, and then actively tries to solve the environmental problem.

In addition to defining environmental empathy in action, this article highlights both fiction and nonfiction children's books where the characters are actively trying to protect the environment. These stories, which contain characters engaged in what is termed environmental empathy in action, provides a springboard for discussing both environmental issues and ways in which people are trying to solve these issues. A reference list of children's books is included at the end of the article.


"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." (from The Lorax, Dr. Seuss,)

"I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues." (from The Lorax, Dr. Seuss,)

Students raise money to "adopt" a whale, save acres of rain forest, or start a recycling program at their schools. Why are these students engaged in these types of activities? Why would they use their time, energy, and money to protect the environment? One explanation is that they care about the environment and are driven to action as they "speak for the trees?' An example of this is when, in 1987, a group of Swedish school children raised funds to purchase and protect acreage in the rain forest of Costa Rico.

Caring is a type of empathy. Empathy is viewed as an important characteristic of the socially intelligent individual (Goleman, 2006). There is not a universal agreement as to what are the characteristics of empathy. Empathy is sometimes referred to as a cognitive process (Deutsch & Madle, 1975). Feshbach (1975), however, views empathy as an affective process in which a person is able to "share an emotional response with another as well as the ability to discriminate the other's perspective and role" (p. 145). Eisenberg and Strayer (1990) view empathy as "an emotional response that stems from another's emotional state or condition and is congruent with the other's emotional state or situation" (p.5). Ekman, as reported by Goleman (2007) identifies three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. Ekman's three categories provide a useful way to frame an understanding of empathy. Cognitive empathy, according to Ekman, is the ability to know how another is feeling. It can be thought of as an intellectual knowledge. We can know that people are being hurt or killed throughout the world. We have an understanding that this is occurring. Emotional empathy is emotionally experiencing the feeling of the other. An example would be feeling the loss of a parent, whose child is killed in a war. Compassionate empathy, includes cognitive and emotional empathy. However, compassionate empathy moves a person to action. The compassionate empathic person must act.

Compassionate empathic responses are usually associated between and among people. And yet, when people are environmentally concerned, they too, are being empathetic. Sobel (1996) believes that children's empathy with the natural world is critical. When students have a cognitive empathic understanding of environmental issues and are emotionally connected to the environment, they are driven to want to make changes. This compassionate empathic response of wanting to protect the environment will be referred to as "environmental empathy in action."

Environmental empathy in action occurs when people help save animals covered in oil from an oil spill. …

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