The Empathic Civilization
I just finished a most extraordinary book. The Empathic Civilization, by Jeremy Rifkin is a new interpretation of the history of civilization, how we got to where we are now, and what we can do to ensure the highest probability of survival of our species. Jeremy Rifkin is one of the most popular social thinkers of our time. He is an adviser to the European Union and other heads of state around the world. He is also the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C.
Rifkin’s main argument in The Empathic Civilization is that empathy has played a larger role than previously thought in the formation of civilization. He argues that empathy has profoundly affected major shifts in human consciousness throughout human history and will likely be the determining factor of whether or not we survive as a species. Never before have we been so connected through technology and commerce, yet so torn apart by war, climate change, hunger and disease. Our human made environment is transforming the world, yet our existing modes of consciousness are from earlier eras of human history.
According to Rifkin, the ability to empathize is fundamental to human nature. He insists that it is time to rethink our earlier assumptions that human beings are naturally self-centered and materialistic, as the Enlightenment philosophers hundreds of years ago claimed. Recent discoveries in brain science and child development are forcing us to re-examine the old ideas of attaining happiness through unlimited material progress. Biologists are discovering mirror neurons, also known as empathy neurons, that allow human beings to feel and experience another’s situation as if it were their own. Empathy has been the driving force behind the evolution of individuals and of civilizations as a whole. Social scientists are discovering the evolution is measured not only by the expansion of power over nature, but also by the intensification and extension of empathy to more diverse range of people.
Rifkin argues that the core of the human story is the paradoxical relationship of empathy versus entropy. Entropy is the process of a system in degeneration. So, the paradox is this: our ever increasing technological complexity brings more diverse people together, which in turn heightens empathic sensitivity and expands human consciousness, but the growth of our empathic awareness is only possible because of an ever greater consumption of the Earth’s energy and resources resulting in a dramatic deterioration of the health of the planet. Empathy is at its highest point in recorded history. Entropy is also at its highest point in recorded history.
Rifkin advocates what he calls “the 3rd Industrial Revolution”. The 1st Industrial Revolution was enabled through steam power, the 2nd through coal. The 3rd Industrial Revolution, also known as the era of Distributed Capitalism, is comprised of four parts. The first is that we must switch to renewable energy. It’s free and it’s everywhere on the planet to some degree. The second is that we should turn every home, business and automobile into its own power generator. Rifkin calls these “buildings as power plants.” By attaching solar panels and utilizing other renewable energies, we can have every single building create all of its own energy. The third aspect is that we must have a way to store this energy for future use. Through the use of hydrogen cells, we can store renewable energy that is captured. The fourth and most important aspect of the revolution is that we need to be able to sell and share surplus energy with others through existing electrical and internet grids. The rise of open source sharing of energy, like open source sharing of information, will usher in collaborative energy spaces, much like the collaborative social spaces that already exist on the internet. When every family and business becomes responsible for its own energy creation and consumption by harnessing renewable energy sources and sharing it with others through smart inter-continental power grids, we will become more intimately connected by our most basic of need: energy.
We currently possess all of the knowledge and technical expertise to carry out these fundamental changes, but can we do it in time to avert global catastrophe? It’s no longer even debatable that our activities and lifestyles as humans are unsustainable and contributing to global climate change and threatening our very existence. We have no choice but to change.
The transition to biosphere consciousness has already begun. All over the world, a younger generation is beginning to realize that one’s daily consumption of energy and other resources ultimately affects the lives of every other human being and every other creature that inhabits the Earth.
We are on the cusp of global peak empathy. We are also on or possibly past the point of global peak oil. Our intensely interconnected world is on the verge of what Rifkin calls “biosphere consciousness.” To resolve the empathy / entropy paradox is the critical test of our species’ ability to survive and flourish. Whenever a new energy regime has converged with a new communications revolution, society is pushed toward further complexity. This time around is critical though, we may not have ample time to change. The Empathic Civilization is emerging, but will it happen fast enough to avert global catastrophe?
Thanks for reading!