Vicarious Empiricism

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

- The Environmental Case for Experiencing Reality through a Surrogate

“Closed in a room, my imagination becomes the universe, and the rest of the world is missing out.”

- Criss Jami, Diotima, Battery, Electric Personality (2013)

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word "Vicarious" is defined as:

"Experienced or realized through imaginative or sympathetic participation in the experience of another."

It is curiously similar to the word empathy, but as this user on Quora explains they are fundamentally different:

"Empathetic means able to feel what others are feeling. It usually comes from having felt the same thing earlier. Vicarious means secondhand, in the sense of borrowed or indirect. It is usually applied to feelings that you get when you see another person getting them. So, empathy is the ability to feel what others feel, and vicariously is the way (at a distance/remotely) that you feel what others are feeling at a given moment."

Unfortunately, the word vicarious doesn't have a direct translation to Portuguese (and possibly to other languages), as empathy has. Still, it is such a convenient word, and for this thought experiment, its interpretation is essential.

With this in mind, recall the last book you read. It can be fiction, biographical or scientific, although, it would preferably resort to real places. For instance, the book that I have in mind is called 'The Serengeti Rules - The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters' by Sean B. Carroll (2016), and as the title hints the author takes the reader on a marvellous and memorable journey through the African landscape, specifically the Serengeti geographical region in Northern Tanzania.

For those that might have already heard about the Serengeti but can't picture it exactly, search your memory for those images of massive herds of wildebeests, gazelles and zebras striding through what appears to be a dream world of endless plains, with lions roaming and waiting for their opportunity, amidst the great migration that takes place there every year. To give a little jolt to that contemplation, here is a display of what makes the Serengeti one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa.

Provided everyone has built a mental visualization of the Serengeti; we can now move South across the border to Mozambique. Through this expedition, I intend to arrive at the Gorongosa National Park, which is also the next step in Carroll's book, with an entire chapter dedicated to it.

The Gorongosa National Park is located in the heart of central Mozambique at the southern end of the Great African Rift Valley. Its history is brimming with life but also with one of the cruellest tragedies that have befallen our fellow non-human companions at the hands of Homo sapiens.

Gorongosa's inception dates back to the 1920s when Mozambique was still a part of the Portuguese colonial territory, which led to a substantial portion of the area being set aside as a hunting reserve. During the 40s and 50s, the first efforts were initiated towards banning hunting as well as establishing a viable infrastructure to house tourism. As a result, in 1960 the Government of Portugal named it a national park.

Afterwards, by the late 60s, the director of the Gorongosa hired an ecologist named Ken Tinley to conduct the first study of the park's resources and wildlife abundancy. In the first aerial survey ever done, Tinley and his team counted around 200 lions, 2200 elephants, 14000 African buffalo, 5500 wildebeest, 3000 zebras, 3500 waterbuck, 2000 impala, 3500 hippos and other herds numbering more than five hundred. When the team came back seventeen years later, they estimated no more than 129 waterbuck, sixty-five zebras, 108 elephants, six lions and few wildebeest. Overall, mammal populations had been reduced by roughly 95 percent. What sort of tragic fate had struck Gorongosa? The answer was war and famine.

After the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon that overthrew the Estado Novo regime in 1974, Portuguese authorities abdicated power in overseas territories, Mozambique included. Afterwards, the country became an independent republic. However, by 1977 the seeds of war were germinating as the People's Republic of Mozambique declared itself a Marxist-Leninist state. As a result, a new rebel army known as RENAMO arose. South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) began arming and supplying RENAMO, and in time, this conflict escalated into a full-blown civil war.

The human death-count was tremendous, with more than 1 million people being killed, thousands tortured and 5 million displaced from their homelands from of 1977 to 1992. Coupled with this, RENAMO established its headquarters near Gorongosa. As a result, by 1983 the park had been abandoned. Ensuing years saw fighting occurring inside and outside the domains of Gorongosa with wildlife suffering heavy losses. Both sides slaughtered hundreds of elephants for their ivory, to sell for arms and supplies. Hungry soldiers shot the herbivores indiscriminately, while lions and other large predators were gunned down for sport or succumbed to starvation due to the rapid population crash of their prey. A cease-fire was reached in 1992, but widespread hunting in the park continued at least until 1994. The once plentiful wildlife had been pushed to the brink of extinction.

In spite of these atrocious events, the post-war period after 1995 was a boon for Gorongosa. In that same year, the European Union and the IUCN funded a project to begin restoring the infrastructure of the park and remove landmines left from the conflict.

In 2004, Greg Carr, an entrepreneur from the US looking to do something with meaning in his life turned to philanthropy. Carr found that purpose in Gorongosa. Carroll writes:

"Carr had thought that his money could be used to build much-needed schools, or health clinics, or drinking wells, but it eventually dawned on him that even if young Africans were able to complete their schooling, there were no jobs for them. The obvious industry Mozambique could develop was tourism. Every other East and southern African country had a safari industry, but not Mozambique. Carr decided that rebuilding the tourism industry was his best strategy but he did not know anything about ecology or conservation. So he began devouring the canon of conservation - Henry Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and E. O. Wilson."

In October 2004, Carr pledged $500,000 towards the park's restoration. The following year he agreed with Mozambique's tourism industry to provide an extra $40 million over thirty years. But Carr's task was beyond just sending checks from overseas. He moved to Garangosa and along with a superb team they got to work on how to rebuild Gorongosa from the bottom up. The Sierra Club provides Carroll's full chapter on the marvellous adventure to revive Gorongosa to its former glory, so I hope I have enticed you to check that out. With this being said, I can now move to what compelled me to write this short essay.

During one of my PhD classes, the teacher asked us the following question:

"Does anybody here know about Gorongosa?"

I, along with a few other students, said yes. However, as the professor followed with an in situ description of the place and its landscape, I retorted:

"Professor, when you asked us if we knew about Gorongosa, were you wondering if we had knowledge about it or if we had been there?"

I was met with a very short-lived and non-malicious smirk and the reply that:

"To know something, you have to be there!"

While acknowledging the value to experience seized from physical presence, I still asked:

"How do you justify the carbon footprint of such travels?"

A swift reply was provided:

"For work purposes."

I pursued the subject no further at the time, although in the next few hours, while cooked up inside the long-distance bus taking me home, I could not help but get overpowered with thoughts about that exchange.

  • Was the knowledge about Gorongosa that I've collected from books and other sources not valid? Could it be regarded as experience, or is the latter inherently linked to sensory observation and experimentation?

  • Could books ever supplant the 'real thing'? If not replace, maybe they could be the best next thing in an age in which everyone should be conscious and accountable for their activities and emissions?

  • Could travelling for work be an admissable vindication to take a multitude of long-distance flights? And what about climate advocates like Bill Gates who have such an extensive record of total flight hours pilled up as to surely invite the epithet of pharisee?

  • Was I really debating in my head the philosophies of rationalism vs empiricism on an overcrowded and unpunctual bus? Why would I put myself in a situation where I would have to choose between Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz on one side and Bacon, Locke and Hume on the other? If I didn't know better, I would say I had a fever.

Enter the term 'vicarious' which introduced this text. Through Carroll's detailed and exhaustive account of the events that took place in Gorongosa, I was capable of discerning its past and present situation. In all probability, I was still missing many pieces of that puzzle for not having travelled there myself. However, I had saved the surprisingly round number of 1 Tonne of CO2 by avoiding the aerial journey from Lisbon to Maputo, according to the data from the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization.

What is 1 TCO2 in the big scheme of things you might ask? Well, it is actually a big thing. According to the Paris Agreement, by 2050, every one of us should be living with a carbon footprint below 2.1 TCO2e (even worse, the metric established includes every greenhouse gas and not just CO2). Well, this one flight generates half of the allowed carbon budget for a single individual, one still has to account for basically every other human activity, such as the food and water we require, the energy we demand, the transports we use, the waste we create, the materials we claim, the stuff we buy, and any other additional flight one might feel like taking.

Additionally, at our present moment (data from 2013), 80 percent of humanity is living above the 2.1 TCO2e mark as displayed in the graph below. Worse still, the population keeps growing by roughly 80 million a year and the number of people entering middle-class/year is double that amount. That will mean that the share of the pie attributed to every single individual will continue to be reduced and that the 2.1 TCO2e might become even more austere.

Under these circumstances, should there be an environmental case to acquire knowledge and experience by proxy, such as by books? With carbon offset programs being increasingly shown to have 'no scientific legitimacy and being dangerously misleading' as Kevin Anderson writes for Nature, one certainly has to wonder if having first-rate, privileged and palpable know-how shouldn't be scaled down to the realm of creative thought and mental agility through commissioned exposure?

Without a doubt, there is crucial work that requires one to accumulate substantial flight distance which one would be unwilling to forego. John Vidal gives a valid example in The Guardian:

"I must travel to Malawi in southern Africa to help Gumbi Education, a small, Guardian-led kids’ education charity that I chair. There’s no Skype option, no railways or boats, and travelling 3,000 miles across Egypt, Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania by bus is not recommended. I’ve cut my annual holiday flights, I’ve reduced my work travel, and my carbon footprint is nothing to what it was. But realistically, I must fly the 10,200 miles to and from Lilongwe."

However, we can venture a guess that most air travel done under the guise of 'work' is not so virtuous, or even done for occupational motives (in this case, no guess is needed as there are statistics pointing out that only 12 percent of airlines passengers travel for business, meaning that most air travel is done for personal reasons or leisure). Even in the case of the annual COP meetings (regarded as the most important United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), there is quite possibly an argument to be made about some restraint regarding the thousands of delegates and participants that flock to these meetings (COP24 in Katowice, Poland had a grand total of 22,771 individuals attending and an estimated carbon footprint of 55,000 tonnes of CO2, and a commitment to offset all those emissions), while global carbon emissions and fossil fuel use keep increasing.

In short, can we trust that individuals will be able to act on this self-control and hold themselves accountable? As I have already written in 'Your Passport, Please! Should we fly in the Age of Climate Change?' the answer is most likely a resounding NO, at least not a critical mass of people that will enact any meaningful change. As long as people have the surplus income, they will want to emulate the behaviours of a small elite, which travel repeatedly, and have a taste for themselves of what life has to offer.

In either case, I have read countless books detailing many different places and stories. I have, through sheer vicarious will, seen the world from myriad authors and story-tellers. I have shared their knowledge and experience and in the process, became curious to gather more information about the settings they have called home or just transitory work-stations. Although I haven't been able to step into the same turfs that they have, I haven't shared their carbon compromises either.

Undoubtedly, there is an ethical argument to be made for the environmentalist to forego extravagance, a fortiori, if that indulgence is heavily saturated on greenhouse gases, as in the case of air travel. Ultimately, in the clash between Empiricism and Epicureanism (Hedonism), vicarious involvement should be the decree of the environmentally-minded citizen. Books are the perfect medium for that.

"A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slighly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading."

- William Styron, in Conversation with William Styron (1985)

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