- Pronunciation: hi-per-em-path-ee (hī-pər-em-päth-ē)
- Part of Speech: Noun
- Provenance: Speculative fiction (Octavia E. Butler’s Parable series)
- Example: In that tragic era of extinction her hyperempathy was sometimes a burden, but it motivated her campaign of direct action, which—some historians argue—precipitated the Great Transition to the world we enjoy today.
The Anthropocene identifies external transformation—of oceanic chemistry, of coastlines, of habitats—but it also suggests the internal of human experience. How do we think about our relationships to global environments and resources, and how must we learn to think differently? What scenarios and possibilities should we steel ourselves for, and what can we dare to imagine? What habits of feeling might help “us”—understood across scales, as local, regional, global, and even multispecies communities—survive? The inherent communality of human life is at the heart of each of these questions. This entry explores empathy as a possible tool for inspiring just action in the face of climate change.
I’ll begin with a story of empathy in action. In the second chapter of Octavia E. Butler’s dystopian 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, the teenage narrator, Lauren Olamina, recounts her morning adventure: joining a small group of family and friends as they bicycle beyond the walls of her gated Southern California community, Robledo. The group is heading to a nearby church where her father was a pastor before it became too dangerous to travel beyond the gated community; they’re taking the risk of leaving on this particular day because Olamina and the other children are scheduled to be baptized. As she bicycles, Olamina tries her best not to look too closely at the carnage evident in the ravaged landscape beyond Robledo. At first, this seems like fairly normal behavior for a teenage girl as she struggles to avoid succumbing to fear: “One of them was headless,” Olamina writes; “I caught myself looking around for the head. After that, I tired [sic] not to look around at all” (9). This resolve, however, doesn’t hold. “As I rode,” Olamina continues, “I tried not to look around at them, but I couldn’t help seeing—collecting—some of their general misery” (11). With the strangeness of phrasing—how precisely does one collect misery?—readers begin to wonder about the reasons behind Olamina’s practiced avoidance of pain. Olamina writes: “I can take a lot of pain without falling apart. I’ve had to learn to do that. But it was hard, today, to keep peddling and keep up with the others when just about everyone I saw made me feel worse and worse” (11). Finally, Olamina reveals that this is not a dramatic account of the general workings of empathy but an unusual psychological disability: hyperempathy, or “what the doctors call an ‘organic delusional syndrome’” (12). Because Olamina’s mother used a prescription drug whose side effects were unknown at the time, Olamina was born a hyperempath, meaning she physically experiences any pain or pleasure she observes in others. In typical teenage fashion, Olamina makes light of her condition: “Big shit. It hurts, that’s all I know,” she says. “Anyway, my neurotransmitters are scrambled and they’re going to stay scrambled” (12). But the toll it takes on her shines fiercely through her adolescent insouciance: the bicycle rides, she confesses to her diary, “were hell . . . the worst things I’ve ever felt—shadows and ghosts, twists and jabs of unexpected pain” (13).
In Octavia Butler’s world, life with hyperempathy is a state of constant low-level shame and anxiety. Sharers, as those with hyperempathy are called, are vulnerable, experiencing not only the pain they inflict but also the pain they merely witness; pleasure is a less frequently discussed component of the condition. Even fake pain sets Olamina off. When she was a child, her younger brother covered himself in red ink to trick her into bleeding in empathic response (Sower 11). Those with hyperempathy live their lives on a spectrum between overprotection and overexposure. As Olamina’s brother tells her after a year spent beyond the borders of Robledo, “Out there, outside, you wouldn’t last a day. That hyperempathy shit of yours would bring you down even if nobody touched you” (Sower 110). Even beyond these pragmatic concerns, the fact that sharing is produced by maternal drug use means that sharers are stigmatized—even though, as Olamina tells us in the second Parable book, the drug that caused her condition was a common prescription medication akin to Adderall (Talents 18). A combination of vulnerability and shame weighs on sharers. “I’ve never told anyone,” Olamina reflects, long after she has left Robledo, as she contemplates revealing her condition to her fellow travelers: “Sharing is a weakness, a shameful secret. A person who knows what I am can hurt me, betray me, disable me with little effort” (Sower 178).
Her status as a sharer clearly shapes Olamina’s character, but hyperempathy seems at first to be incidental to the larger themes—particularly the ecological ones—of Butler’s Parable books. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, two of the most famous and beloved environmental science fiction books of the last few decades, are not ultimately stories about hyperempathy. Instead, most of their energy is dedicated to tracing the contours of the novels’ dystopian near-future America—marked by climate change, resource shortages, economic collapse, and the rise of violent fundamentalism—and to following Olamina as she founds a new religion, Earthseed, which aims to form more adaptable and sustainable communities on Earth while laying the groundwork for those communities to travel to other planets and “take root among the stars” (Sower 77). The bulk of the two novels focuses on the evolution of Earthseed from a vague concept with which the younger Olamina is preoccupied to a full-fledged religion that secures widespread prestige, masses of followers, and, as Parable of the Talents ends, funding for an interstellar colonizing mission. The path is hardly smooth. In the first novel, Olamina is forced to flee Robledo when it is razed, and she undergoes suffering, danger, and loss on the road north from Los Angeles before finally founding the first Earthseed enclave, Acorn, in Northern California. In the second novel, Acorn, which has developed into a thriving Earthseed community, is invaded by recently empowered fascist Christian fundamentalists. Most of its inhabitants are killed. Others remain enslaved until Olamina spearheads a revolt and eventually rebuilds Earthseed. Hyperempathy guides Olamina’s choices and reactions in moments of immediate danger, but Butler doesn’t foreground sharing as central to Earthseed or to the dystopian conditions in which Olamina lives.
Yet hyperempathy is a key part of both Olamina’s and Butler’s ecological projects. One might, in other words, see sharers not as a tangential departure from Butler’s (and her protagonist’s) efforts to imagine a way out of violence, environmental degradation, and injustice. Instead, one might view hyperempathy as the motivation for and core of Olamina’s vision of climate justice. The intimate relationship between hyperempathy and Earthseed explains why hyperempathy belongs in Butler’s critical dystopia, and why only a sharer like Olamina could build a path from dystopia to utopian possibility. Olamina’s resistance to environmental and social injustice, and her vision for egalitarian and ecotopian futurity, are each rooted in her status as a hyperempath. Moreover, hyperempathy marks both the productive and the deactivating aspects of consuming environmental media in the Anthropocene. What are the possible relationships between empathy and ecological justice? Does being empathic necessarily make one averse to causing pain, or, problematically, can it make one merely averse to witnessing it? When do (hyper)empaths tend toward action, as opposed to stasis? Olamina functions as a useful narrative laboratory in which to investigate these questions—questions that are not only theoretically engaging but are in fact critical to the way we produce, consume, and navigate media in the Anthropocene. In a moment of resurgent interest in the Parable books, including a new operatic adaptation by Toshi Reagan that premiered in 2017, hyperempathy seems poised to play a significant role in contemporary conversations about resistance, community, justice, and sustainability.
Twice in the series—once in each book—a narrator posits a psychological link between Olamina’s hyperempathy and her unnervingly unwavering commitment to Earthseed. Early in Parable of the Sower, Olamina herself questions why she “can’t do what the others have done—ignore the obvious. Live a normal life,” why Earthseed “won’t let [her] alone, won’t let [her] forget it, won’t let [her] go.” “Maybe. . . . Maybe it’s like my sharing,” she thinks: “One more weirdness; one more crazy, deep-rooted delusion that I’m stuck with. I am stuck with it” (26). Strikingly, this is the only time Olamina acknowledges what may seem like an evident connection between her defining characteristics. In this formulation, utopianism and hyperempathy are both delusional and inevitable: you have them or you don’t. Olamina marks herself here, as she does frequently in the Parable books, as singular, extraordinary. She may recognize her qualities as off-putting and rare, but she doesn’t seem able to consider the common seed from which these qualities grow.
In Parable of the Talents, however, Olamina’s estranged daughter, Larkin, offers a less exceptionalist account of why Olamina so single-mindedly dedicated her life to Earthseed’s success: “Well, my mother was a sharer, a little adult at 15, and a survivor of the destruction of her whole neighborhood at 18. Perhaps that was why she . . . needed to take charge, to bring her own brand of order to the chaos that she saw swallow so many of the people she loved” (103). Other characters tend to echo Larkin’s perspective, articulating Earthseed and sharing not as isolated expressions of Olamina’s idiosyncrasy but as causally linked: the experience of debilitating trauma produces the desire for a community that more equitably distributes (and more insistently minimizes) pain. As Olamina’s partner, Bankole, says, “It might not be so bad a thing if most people had to endure all the pain they caused” (Sower 277–78). Though Olamina openly rejects Bankole’s formulation as naive, his comment echoes an earlier reflection of hers, a record of her grief after her brother is found murdered:
It’s beyond me how one human being could do that to another. If hyperempathy syndrome were a more common complaint, people couldn’t do such things. They could kill if they had to, and bear the pain of it or be destroyed by it. But if everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain? I’ve never thought of my problem as something that might do some good before, but the way things are, I think it would help. I wish I could give it to people. Failing that, I wish I could find other people who have it, and live among them. A biological conscience is better than no conscience at all. (Sower 115)
This formulation of the sharer as a person with a “biological conscience” is striking: it naturalizes politics and ethics, relying on affect and involuntary physiological response to accomplish what culture and morality do not. Hyperempathy offers both ecologically oriented consciousness and ecologically rooted conscience.
Olamina’s experience with hyperempathy thus suggests that empathy itself—specifically, the empathy that arises from watching someone else suffer—can produce both more socially just and more ecologically sustainable communities. Olamina consistently notes that hyperempaths naturally resist individual violence: “Sharing pain . . . makes us very slow to cause pain to other people. We hate pain more than most people do” (Talents 37). Yet hyperempaths would presumably suffer equally from witnessing those forms of pain that are disproportionately inflicted by structural, indirect, or slow violence—forms of pain that, as the Parable books insistently record, climate change is bound to produce. Sharers don’t require malicious infliction in order to feel pain as their own; they feel all kinds of pain, not just pain inflicted by spectacular acts of violence. This suggests that the only society in which a sharer could be safe and secure is a society in which all forms of pain are scrupulously avoided, regardless of social status or even species. Hyperempathy thus literalizes philosopher John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance.” Rawls suggests that citizens can make truly moral decisions only if they lack previous knowledge of their social position. In other words, people cannot make a moral decision unless they would be willing to accept the consequences of that decision from any position—as the most or as the least privileged member of society. Like the citizen behind the veil of ignorance, the sharer can’t rely on a position of privilege: if suffering exists to be witnessed, she will experience it. She therefore must strive to create a world in which suffering is avoided whenever possible.
Hyperempathy also materializes a solution to the problematic politics of sympathy in environmental media. In some ways, the sharer performs what Adam Smith describes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) as the workings of sympathy: she experiences that which she witnesses others experiencing. Yet Smith’s formulation of sympathy opens up troubling gaps: not only are we are more likely to sympathize with those we already recognize as akin to us, but also sympathy (feeling-for) is a more mediated and malleable emotion than empathy (feeling-with). If apathy operates in the third person (“somebody else is suffering”), sympathy operates in the uneasy speculative first person (“what if I were the one who suffered?”). Empathy, by contrast, operates in the first person (“I am suffering”). As South African novelist J. M. Coetzee puts it in his metafictional novel The Lives of Animals (1999), sympathy “allows us to share at times the being of another,” but ultimately it “has everything to do with the subject and little to do with the object.” Hyperempathy closes this gap: for Olamina, there is no such thing as critical distance from perceived suffering.
Sharers embody not sympathy but radical empathy, which prompts moral action and avoids a reliance on a distant, speculative, and often pitying relation to those who suffer. Hyperempathy thus exemplifies an emotional orientation that may be necessary to catalyze action in the face of environmental and climate injustice. Olamina’s status as a hyperempath is not incidental to her ecological politics; instead, her unyielding goal of a just, sustainable, and adaptable society is a response to her hyperempathy. The sharer thus stands in for the ideal audience of environmental media: a reader or viewer who, rather than responding with pity or apathy, is moved to act as though—or indeed because—the suffering she witnesses is understood and experienced as her own. Within the logic of Butler’s science fiction, this state must be conferred inexorably from without, a neurochemical deus ex machina, and Butler was certainly cynical about humankind’s capacity to craft better worlds without such imperatives. Yet read through the lens of what literary theorist Fredric Jameson, after Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, calls the utopian impulse (rather than the blueprint for utopian future often associated with the genre of utopia), the novels give us not a solution but instead a shared desire to feel better—to feel more deeply, to be guided by gut feelings with less cynical reserve or self-interest. Hyperempathy represents a transformative form of feeling as we receive others’ pain, a way to live in the unevenly distributed violence of the Anthropocene without becoming detached or complacent, a necessary habit of acting to prevent the pain of vulnerable others as surely and instinctively as you would act to prevent your own pain.
At the same time, however, Butler’s Parable books also illuminate the problems posed by a sharer, the aspects of hyperempathy that might in fact detract from environmental and climate justice in the Anthropocene. As Olamina writes, “It is incomprehensible to me that some people think of sharing as an ability or a power—as something desirable” (Talents 37). Butler’s sharers face a number of logistical difficulties. They are unreliable in dangerous situations where another’s pain might disable them, and knowledge of their vulnerability makes them easy targets for exploiters and bullies, making even self-defense a difficult task (Sower 278). Further, Olamina’s hyperempathy also runs the risk of making her avoidant, escapist, and calculating. Indeed, Olamina’s controversial commitment to leaving Earth behind and starting anew on other planets might be seen as an extension of her hyperempathy. After all, might sharers not prefer the immediate fix of retreating from visible pain to the more arduous task of working to craft a less painful social order? Butler’s novels raise questions about the assumption that painful empathy should play a central role in environmental representation: does bombardment with abjection and suffering make somebody more likely to take action, or more likely to look away? Are hyperempaths likely to succumb to apathy, to the NIMBYistic desire to shield (only) one’s immediate community from the effects of environmental injustice?
Butler’s Parable series thus asks us to understand empathy’s role in crafting environmental outcomes. Olamina demonstrates how (hyper)empathy can function both as an asset and as a hindrance to the pursuit of environmental justice. The sharer’s experience of the disproportionate violence of climate change is urgent and immediate; it is also capable of producing utopian commitments. Yet that experience can also produce apathy, avoidance, vulnerability, overstimulation, and uncomfortable divisions along gender lines. Hyperempathy requires us to consider how the cultural deployment of pain can prompt a counterintuitive retreat from environmental engagement even as it holds out the possibility of transformational structures of feeling.
Another Path: >Shikata ga nai
1. References to this text will be made using parenthetical citation: Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993; reprint, New York: Grand Central, 2007).
2. References to this text will be made using parenthetical citation: Butler, Parable of the Talents (New York: Seven Stories, 1998).
3. In Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000), science fiction studies scholar Tom Moylan defines “critical dystopia” as a hybrid genre that depicts a dystopian world but contains the embedded promise of utopian possibility that could be achieved. This characterizes Butler’s Parable books: while they depict a dystopian California, Olamina’s eventually successful work to create the Earthseed movement always embeds the hope and eventually promises the fruition of a just and sustainable community.
4. Olamina rarely reflects on her experience of other people’s pleasure. This gap has interesting resonance for contemporary environmental discourse, which often focuses on pain, suffering, and disaster, actual or projected. In the context of the Anthropocene’s human and other-than-human suffering, an emphasis on pain makes sense. As Butler’s novels seem to suggest, pain is what produces the strongest experience of empathy and the most urgent impetus to action.
5. The term “structural violence” was proposed by Johan Galtung in the late 1960s to describe any disproportionate or unnecessary experience of death, pain, or deprival; the concept was inspired by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s concept of institutional racism. These forms of violence also characterize environmental racism; meanwhile, as Rob Nixon has argued, climate change enacts “slow violence” against the global poor. See Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3 (1969): 167–91; Carmichael and Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Random House, 1967); and Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011).
6. The veil of ignorance requires citizens to design society from the original position (without knowing where they will land within the social order). As Rawls clarifies, the original position is not “an actual historical state of affairs” but rather “a purely hypothetical situation.” Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 11.
7. Smith understands sympathy as the “moral sentiment” that allows humans to experience an echo of what another must be feeling through the workings of the imagination. He describes it as intensely visual, “the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner.” Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759; reprint, New York: Arlington House, 1969), 3. Similarly, Olamina only shares the things she sees; hearing somebody screaming in pain makes her nervous but has no hyperempathic effect (Sower 132).
8. J. M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), 34–35.
9. As Gerry Canavan observes, the published Parable books and many incomplete drafts toward a third book from her archives in the Huntington Library evince both Butler’s cynicism about social and environmental devastation and her hope that even at the brink of catastrophe humans might ultimately be capable of change. Canavan, Octavia E. Butler (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2016).
10. As Jameson writes, the utopian is “not the commitment to a specific machinery or blueprint, but rather the commitment to imagining possible Utopias as such, in their greatest variety of forms.” Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso Books, 2005), 217.
11. Environmental justice cultural studies scholars are keenly aware of the role that empathy must play when transmitting or receiving the suffering of others. As Michael Ziser and Julie Sze put it, culture has the “privileged ability to articulate differences in worldview, facilitate mutual understanding, and even trigger the empathy that lies at the heart of global environmental justice.” Ziser and Sze, “Climate Change, Environmental Aesthetics, and Global Environmental Justice Cultural Studies,” Discourse 29, no. 2–3 (2007): 386. See also Sze, “Environmental Justice Anthropocene Narratives: Sweet Art, Recognition, and Representation,” Resilience 2, no. 2 (2015); and Nicole Seymour, Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013).
12. In his childhood, Olamina’s brother innocently comments “what good slaves sharers would make,” and it turns out that slavers pay more for hyperempathic children (Sower 300, 305). In fact, as the fundamentalist coup enables more and more slave labor, slavers develop a collar that controls the wearer’s pain, and Olamina notes the eerie similarity between this technology of violence and her own condition (Talents 80).
13. For more on representation and empathy from literary studies, see Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), and Suzanne Keen, Empathy and the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). However, scholarship on the failure of dire predictions to prompt action on climate change suggests that depressing dystopian visions of climate futures may not be particularly effective in terms of producing environmental action. See Per Espen Stoknes on the deactivating “Great Grief” of climate change in What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action (White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green, 2015), 172; Adam Seth Levine and Reuben Kline on the distinction between public opinion and political action in “When Does Self-Interest Motivate Political Engagement? The Case of Climate Change,” SSRN, March 12, 2017, https://ssrn.com/abstract=2931842; and Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer on the counterproductive effects of catastrophic climate discourse in “Apocalypse Soon? Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs,” Psychological Science 22 (2011): 34–38.
14. Raymond Williams, in Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), introduced this term in the 1970s to describe the social nature of subjective experience.