Earth on Fire: Facebook, Tinder and…climate change?

We each play a role in our families. Your grandma drags everyone to church on Easter, your uncle recounts his tour in Vietnam every Thanksgiving and your dad orders you to make your bed each morning even though, well, you’re in college. In my family, I’m known as the environmentalist and the Luddite.

So suffice it to say that I was hardly surprised when on Christmas morning, I opened the presents my brothers had given to me. Both were books: from my twin, sociologist Sherry Turkle’s “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age,” from my older brother, Pope Francis’s second encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home.”

My brothers purchased these books for me for obvious reasons. I’m turning 22 this March, and despite my dad’s repeated attempts to force me to enter the 21st century, I still insist on keeping my flip phone. I’ve nagged my entire family about the need to diligently recycle since I watched “An Inconvenient Truth” in the seventh grade. What I never realized until reading these two books back-to-back, however, was the degree to which our use of personal technological devices and climate change are intimately connected.

In his encyclical, the pope posits that environmental degradation has one principal cause: humans’ lack of empathy for their counterparts, nature and other non-human beings. In recent years, we as a species have become less empathetic because of our increasing use of social networking applications like Facebook and Snapchat and devices like iPhones and computers.

Pope Francis argues that this decline in empathy occurs because social media and our gadgets suppress “real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail” and tend “to be replaced by a type of Internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature.”

Turkle contends that dating applications have similar psychological impacts on our ability to form stable romantic relationships. With hundreds of potential partners in our immediate vicinity, we no longer have to settle for the person we’re currently dating. As Turkle writes: “In fact, technology brings significant complications to the conversations of modern romance. We feel we have permission to simply drop out.”

Young people today appear more self-centered than previous generations, as Turkle and the pope maintain, and they reason that this is because our rush to post our entire lives on Twitter and Vine subconsciously makes us feel as though the universe revolves around us.

Taken together, the effects are highly damaging. Our use of technology and new digital applications has three major impacts on us: It engenders a throwaway culture, causes us to feel as though our stories and thoughts are the most important and diminishes our capacity for empathy.

Tackling climate change will require much more than the passage of a carbon tax or a repudiation of capitalism. If we want to ensure a livable future for ourselves and future generations, we’ll have to call into question our cultural habits, including our use of personal technologies. Let’s get started.


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