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The Empathic Civilization

Empathic Civilisation
A few weeks ago I saw economist and author Jeremy Rifkin speak on his new book The Empathic Civilization at the RSA. It was a sweeping, provocative but affecting discourse on the nature of empathy.

Rifkin framed his argument within the context of two spectacular
failures: the shut-off of the global economic engine that followed the
price of oil rising to an unprecedented $147 a barrel in July 2008
precipitated by growing demand for diminishing fossil fuels from both
the developed world and emerging economies ("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"), and the failure of world leaders to reach accord in
addressing the accumulated legacy of the fossil fuel age in Copenhagen,
December 2009.

The real crisis, he argues, lies in the enlightenment
thinking spawned over 200 years ago at the dawn of the modern market
economy. Thinking that champions unlimited material progress,
and assumes human beings' essential nature to be utilitarian, rational,
detached, autonomous, acquisitive:

"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."

Yet recent scientific research into child
development and brain science (including the discovery of Mirror-neurons) suggests that rather than being softwired for
self-interest, utilitarianism, and aggression our natural tendency is toward sociability,
attachment and companionship and that the first drive is the drive to
belong. Rifkin talked about the expansion of empathy from blood ties, to
religious ties, to ones based on national identity and then asks whether it is such a stretch to imagine that new connective
technologies could enable us to make the leap to a connected, global
empathic consciousness such as that which is now required if we are to
resurrect the global economy and revitalize the biosphere. The pivotal
turning points in human consciousness occur, he says, when new energy
regimes converge with new communications revolutions. The distributed,
networked internet combined with distributed, renewable energies make
possible a sustainable, post-carbon economy that is both globally
connected and locally managed.

"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."

Rifkin believes that we have to rethink
the human narrative. That connective technologies give us the opportunity to do just that. And that a younger generation is fast extending its
empathic embrace beyond our legacy, artificial boundaries to include
the whole of humanity and the "vast project of life that envelops the
Earth". I hope so. I certainly believe that we have yet to appreciate a
fraction of the meaning or potential behind a world with a wholly unprecedented level of connection
between people (and things).
Some highlights of Rifkin's talk are captured in the short film below,
in the style of the RSA's excellent animate series. It's ten minutes

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