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Jeremy Rifkin


'The Empathic Civilization': Rethinking Human Nature in the Biosphere Era

Posted: 01/11/10 07:30 AM ET

Two spectacular failures, separated by only 18 months, marked the end of the modern era. In July 2008, the price of oil on world markets peaked at $147/ barrel, inflation soared, the price of everything from food to gasoline skyrocketed, and the global economic engine shut off. Growing demand in the developed nations, as well as in China, India, and other emerging economies, for diminishing fossil fuels precipitated the crisis. Purchasing power plummeted and the global economy collapsed. That was the earthquake that tore asunder the industrial age built on and propelled by fossil fuels. The failure of the financial markets two months later was merely the aftershock. The fossil fuel energies that make up the industrial way of life are sunsetting and the industrial infrastructure is now on life support.

In December 2009, world leaders from 192 countries assembled in Copenhagen to address the question of how to handle the accumulated entropy bill of the fossil fuel based industrial revolution-the spent C0₂ that is heating up the planet and careening the earth into a catastrophic shift in climate. After years of preparation, the negotiations broke down and world leaders were unable to reach a formal accord.

Neither the world's political or business leaders anticipated the economic debacle of July 2008, nor were they able to cobble together a sufficient plan for economic recovery in the months since. They were equally inept at addressing the issue of climate change, despite the fact that the scientific community warns that is poses the greatest threat to our species in its history, that we are running out of time, and that we may even be facing the prospect of our own extinction.

The problem runs deeper than the issue of finding new ways to regulate the market or imposing legally binding global green house gas emission reduction targets. The real crisis lies in the set of assumptions about human nature that governs the behavior of world leaders--assumptions that were spawned during the Enlightenment more than 200 years ago at the dawn of the modern market economy and the emergence of the nation state era.

The Enlightenment thinkers--John Locke, Adam Smith, Marquis de Condorcet et. al.--took umbrage with the Medieval Christian world view that saw human nature as fallen and depraved and that looked to salvation in the next world through God's grace. They preferred to cast their lot with the idea that human beings' essential nature is rational, detached, autonomous, acquisitive and utilitarian and argued that individual salvation lies in unlimited material progress here on Earth.

The Enlightenment notions about human nature were reflected in the newly minted nation-state whose raison d'être was to protect private property relations and stimulate market forces as well as act as a surrogate of the collective self-interest of the citizenry in the international arena. Like individuals, nation-states were considered to be autonomous agents embroiled in a relentless battle with other sovereign nations in the pursuit of material gains.

It was these very assumptions that provided the philosophical underpinnings for a geopolitical frame of reference that accompanied the first and second industrial revolutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. These beliefs about human nature came to the fore in the aftermath of the global economic meltdown and in the boisterous and acrimonious confrontations in the meeting rooms in Copenhagen, with potentially disastrous consequences for the future of humanity and the planet.

If human nature is as the Enlightenment philosophers claimed, then we are likely doomed. It is impossible to imagine how we might create a sustainable global economy and restore the biosphere to health if each and every one of us is, at the core of our biology, an autonomous agent and a self-centered and materialistic being.

Recent discoveries in brain science and child development, however, are forcing us to rethink these long-held shibboleths about human nature. Biologists and cognitive neuroscientists are discovering mirror-neurons--the so-called empathy neurons--that allow human beings and other species to feel and experience another's situation as if it were one's own. We are, it appears, the most social of animals and seek intimate participation and companionship with our fellows.

Social scientists, in turn, are beginning to reexamine human history from an empathic lens and, in the process, discovering previously hidden strands of the human narrative which suggests that human evolution is measured not only by the expansion of power over nature, but also by the intensification and extension of empathy to more diverse others across broader temporal and spatial domains. The growing scientific evidence that we are a fundamentally empathic species has profound and far-reaching consequences for society, and may well determine our fate as a species.

What is required now is nothing less than a leap to global empathic consciousness and in less than a generation if we are to resurrect the global economy and revitalize the biosphere. The question becomes this: what is the mechanism that allows empathic sensitivity to mature and consciousness to expand through history?

The pivotal turning points in human consciousness occur when new energy regimes converge with new communications revolutions, creating new economic eras. The new communications revolutions become the command and control mechanisms for structuring, organizing and managing more complex civilizations that the new energy regimes make possible. For example, in the early modern age, print communication became the means to organize and manage the technologies, organizations, and infrastructure of the coal, steam, and rail revolution. It would have been impossible to administer the first industrial revolution using script and codex.

Communication revolutions not only manage new, more complex energy regimes, but also change human consciousness in the process. Forager/hunter societies relied on oral communications and their consciousness was mythologically constructed. The great hydraulic agricultural civilizations were, for the most part, organized around script communication and steeped in theological consciousness. The first industrial revolution of the 19th century was managed by print communication and ushered in ideological consciousness. Electronic communication became the command and control mechanism for arranging the second industrial revolution in the 20th century and spawned psychological consciousness.

Each more sophisticated communication revolution brings together more diverse people in increasingly more expansive and varied social networks. Oral communication has only limited temporal and spatial reach while script, print and electronic communications each extend the range and depth of human social interaction.

By extending the central nervous system of each individual and the society as a whole, communication revolutions provide an evermore inclusive playing field for empathy to mature and consciousness to expand. For example, during the period of the great hydraulic agricultural civilizations characterized by script and theological consciousness, empathic sensitivity broadened from tribal blood ties to associational ties based on common religious affiliation. Jews came to empathize with Jews, Christians with Christians, Muslims with Muslims, etc. In the first industrial revolution characterized by print and ideological consciousness, empathic sensibility extended to national borders, with Americans empathizing with Americans, Germans with Germans, Japanese with Japanese and so on. In the second industrial revolution, characterized by electronic communication and psychological consciousness, individuals began to identify with like-minded others.

Today, we are on the cusp of another historic convergence of energy and communication--a third industrial revolution--that could extend empathic sensibility to the biosphere itself and all of life on Earth. The distributed Internet revolution is coming together with distributed renewable energies, making possible a sustainable, post-carbon economy that is both globally connected and locally managed.

In the 21st century, hundreds of millions--and eventually billions--of human beings will transform their buildings into power plants to harvest renewable energies on site, store those energies in the form of hydrogen and share electricity, peer-to-peer, across local, regional, national and continental inter-grids that act much like the Internet. The open source sharing of energy, like open source sharing of information, will give rise to collaborative energy spaces--not unlike the collaborative social spaces that currently exist on the Internet.

When every family and business comes to take responsibility for its own small swath of the biosphere by harnessing renewable energy and sharing it with millions of others on smart power grids that stretch across continents, we become intimately interconnected at the most basic level of earthly existence by jointly stewarding the energy that bathes the planet and sustains all of life.

The new distributed communication revolution not only organizes distributed renewable energies, but also changes human consciousness. The information communication technologies (ICT) revolution is quickly extending the central nervous system of billions of human beings and connecting the human race across time and space, allowing empathy to flourish on a global scale, for the first time in history.

Whether in fact we will begin to empathize as a species will depend on how we use the new distributed communication medium. While distributed communications technologies-and, soon, distributed renewable energies - are connecting the human race, what is so shocking is that no one has offered much of a reason as to why we ought to be connected. We talk breathlessly about access and inclusion in a global communications network but speak little of exactly why we want to communicate with one another on such a planetary scale. What's sorely missing is an overarching reason that billions of human beings should be increasingly connected. Toward what end? The only feeble explanations thus far offered are to share information, be entertained, advance commercial exchange and speed the globalization of the economy. All the above, while relevant, nonetheless seem insufficient to justify why nearly seven billion human beings should be connected and mutually embedded in a globalized society. The idea of even billion individual connections, absent any overall unifying purpose, seems a colossal waste of human energy. More important, making global connections without any real transcendent purpose risks a narrowing rather than an expanding of human consciousness. But what if our distributed global communication networks were put to the task of helping us re-participate in deep communion with the common biosphere that sustains all of our lives?

The biosphere is the narrow band that extends some forty miles from the ocean floor to outer space where living creatures and the Earth's geochemical processes interact to sustain each other. We are learning that the biosphere functions like an indivisible organism. It is the continuous symbiotic relationships between every living creature and between living creatures and the geochemical processes that ensure the survival of the planetary organism and the individual species that live within its biospheric envelope. If every human life, the species as a whole, and all other life-forms are entwined with one another and with the geochemistry of the planet in a rich and complex choreography that sustains life itself, then we are all dependent on and responsible for the health of the whole organism. Carrying out that responsibility means living out our individual lives in our neighborhoods and communities in ways that promote the general well-being of the larger biosphere within which we dwell. The Third Industrial Revolution offers just such an opportunity.

If we can harness our empathic sensibility to establish a new global ethic that recognizes and acts to harmonize the many relationships that make up the life-sustaining forces of the planet, we will have moved beyond the detached, self-interested and utilitarian philosophical assumptions that accompanied national markets and nation state governance and into a new era of biosphere consciousness. We leave the old world of geopolitics behind and enter into a new world of biosphere politics, with new forms of governance emerging to accompany our new biosphere awareness.

The Third Industrial Revolution and the new era of distributed capitalism allow us to sculpt a new approach to globalization, this time emphasizing continentalization from the bottom up. Because renewable energies are more or less equally distributed around the world, every region is potentially amply endowed with the power it needs to be relatively self-sufficient and sustainable in its lifestyle, while at the same time interconnected via smart grids to other regions across countries and continents.

When every community is locally empowered, both figuratively and literally, it can engage directly in regional, transnational, continental, and limited global trade without the severe restrictions that are imposed by the geopolitics that oversee elite fossil fuels and uranium energy distribution.

Continentalization is already bringing with it a new form of governance. The nation-state, which grew up alongside the First and Second Industrial Revolutions, and provided the regulatory mechanism for managing an energy regime whose reach was the geosphere, is ill suited for a Third Industrial Revolution whose domain is the biosphere. Distributed renewable energies generated locally and regionally and shared openly--peer to peer--across vast contiguous land masses connected by intelligent utility networks and smart logistics and supply chains favor a seamless network of governing institutions that span entire continents.

The European Union is the first continental governing institution of the Third Industrial Revolution era. The EU is already beginning to put in place the infrastructure for a European-wide energy regime, along with the codes, regulations, and standards to effectively operate a seamless transport, communications, and energy grid that will stretch from the Irish Sea to the doorsteps of Russia by midcentury. Asian, African, and Latin American continental political unions are also in the making and will likely be the premier governing institutions on their respective continents by 2050.

In this new era of distributed energy, governing institutions will more resemble the workings of the ecosystems they manage. Just as habitats function within ecosystems, and ecosystems within the biosphere in a web of interrelationships, governing institutions will similarly function in a collaborative network of relationships with localities, regions, and nations all embedded within the continent as a whole. This new complex political organism operates like the biosphere it attends, synergistically and reciprocally. This is biosphere politics.

The new biosphere politics transcends traditional right/left distinctions so characteristic of the geopolitics of the modern market economy and nation-state era. The new divide is generational and contrasts the traditional top-down model of structuring family life, education, commerce, and governance with a younger generation whose thinking is more relational and distributed, whose nature is more collaborative and cosmopolitan, and whose work and social spaces favor open-source commons. For the Internet generation, "quality of life" becomes as important as individual opportunity in fashioning a new dream for the 21st century.

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.

The Empathic Civilization is emerging. A younger generation is fast extending its empathic embrace beyond religious affiliations and national identification to include the whole of humanity and the vast project of life that envelops the Earth. But our rush to universal empathic connectivity is running up against a rapidly accelerating entropic juggernaut in the form of climate change. Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?

This blog post has been adapted from Jeremy Rifkin's new book 'The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis' (Tarcher/Penguin; January 2010)