18 February 2010

The Empathic Civilization

Reposted in full from the New Scientist, 10 February 2010

'In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin argues that before we can save ourselves from climate change we have to break a vicious circle. He explains why to Amanda Gefter:

What is the premise of The Empathic Civilization?

My sense is that we're nearing an endgame for the modern age. I think we had two events in the last two years that signal the end. In July 2008 the price of oil hit $147 a barrel. Food riots broke out in 30 countries. That was the earthquake; the market crash 60 days later was the aftershock. The second event was the breakdown at the Copenhagen climate summit. Why couldn't our leaders anticipate or respond to the global meltdown? And why can't they deal with climate change?

So why have our leaders failed us?

They are using 18th-century ideas to address 21st-century challenges. The Enlightenment view is that human beings are rational, detached agents who pursue their own self-interest; nation states reflect that view. How are we going to address the needs of 7 billion people and heal the biosphere if we are all agents pursuing our individual interests?

A lot of new discoveries suggest that human nature might not be as the Enlightenment philosophers imagined. For instance, the discovery of mirror neurons suggests that we are not wired for autonomy but for empathy. We are a social species.

How does an empathic view of human nature change the picture?

We see how consciousness, which is wired for social engagement, changes over history. My belief is that when communications and energy revolutions converge, this changes consciousness by shifting our boundaries, causing empathy to expand.

For instance, wherever there were agricultural societies based on large-scale irrigation, humans created writing. Writing made it possible to manage a complex energy regime. It also changed consciousness, transforming the mythological consciousness of oral cultures into a theological one. In the process, empathy evolved. Oral communication is limited: you can't extend empathy beyond blood ties. With script you empathise further.

In the 19th century, the printing press converged with coal and steam. This led to mass literacy. In the 20th century the second industrial revolution, the electronics revolution, gave rise to psychological consciousness.

Each convergence of energy and communications technology extended our social networks and in turn expanded our empathy.

But all of that happens at the expense of the environment.

It's the conundrum of history that more complex civilisations bring more people together, but they create more entropy in the process. If we are going to ward off the dangers posed by climate change we need to find a way to increase empathy while decreasing entropy. The question is, how do you do that?

You argue that the answer is another convergence of technologies. Can you explain?

In the last 15 years we have had a very powerful communications revolution with the internet. This revolution is beginning to converge with distributed renewable energy. When they converge, it's likely to change consciousness once again.

How will this "third industrial revolution" change our consciousness?

As people begin to harvest renewable energy, they can share electricity peer-to-peer across an energy grid that extends across nations. With everyone taking responsibility for their swathe of the biosphere and then sharing their energy, that would allow us to think biosphere politics and give us a possibility of breaking the empathy/entropy paradox. It's a tough challenge, but if human nature really is Homo empathicus we can begin to create new institutions that reflect our core nature. Then I can see how this revolution will happen.'

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