The Empathic Civilization

Amanda Gefter, Books & Arts editor – New, interviews Jeremy Rifkin, 17 February 2010


…before we can save ourselves from climate change we have to break a vicious circle and embrace a new model of society based on scientists’ new understanding of human nature…the premise of The Empathic Civilization…We have to think deeper, to think as a human family…Empathy goes hand-in-hand with selfhood; if you know you’re a self you can see yourself in relation to the other…Increasing individuation and selfhood is critical to increasing empathy… Empathy is the invisible social glue that allows a complex individuated society to remain integrated…

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In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin argues that before we can save ourselves from climate change we have to break a vicious circle and embrace a new model of society based on scientists’ new understanding of human nature. I asked him how we can do it.

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 singular events in the last 18 months that signal the end. First, in July 2008 the price of oil hit $147/barrel. Food riots broke out in 30 countries, the price of basic items shot up and purchasing power plummeted. That was the earthquake; the market crash 60 days later was the aftershock. It signaled the beginning of the endgame of a great industrial era based on fossil fuels. The second event, in December 2009, was the breakdown in Copenhagen, when world leaders tried to deal with our entropy problem and failed.

That’s the context of the book. Why couldn’t our world leaders anticipate or respond to the global meltdown of the industrial revolution? And why can’t they deal with climate change when scientists have been telling us that it may be the greatest threat our species has ever faced?

What do you think the problem is?

My sense is that the failure runs very deep. The problem is that those leaders are using 18th century Enlightenment ideas to address 20th century challenges. I advise a number of heads of state in Europe and over and over again I see how these old ideas about human nature and the meaning of life continue to cloak public policy. The Enlightenment view is that human beings are rational, detached agents that pursue our own self-interests and our nation states reflect that view. How are we going to address the needs of 7 billion people and heal the biosphere if we really are dispassionate, disinterested agents pursuing our own self-interest?

A lot of interesting new discoveries in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, child development, anthropology and more suggest that human nature might not be what Enlightenment philosophers suggested. For instance, the discovery of mirror neurons suggests that we are not wired for autonomy or utility but for empathic distress; we are a social species.

If we begin to change our ideas about human nature and, as you say in the book, view history through an empathic lens, what new things do we discover?

We can see how consciousness, which is wired for empathy and social engagement, changes over history. Obviously consciousness has changed over history–a Paleolithic hunter is wired differently than a medieval serf or a modern human. My belief is that when energy and communications revolutions converge it creates new economic eras and changes consciousness dramatically by shifting our temporal and spatial boundaries, causing empathy to expand.

For instance, wherever there were hydraulic agricultural societies based on large-scale irrigation systems, humans independently created writing. That’s fascinating to me. 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 evolves. The range of oral communication is limited–you can’t extend empathy beyond kin and blood ties. With script you could empathize further with associational ties, you broaden your frame of reference.

In the 19th century the printing press communications revolution converged with new energies: coal and steam. This led to the introduction of public schools and mass literacy across Europe and America. Theological consciousness became ideological consciousness. The same shift occurred in the 20th century with the Second Industrial Revolution, the electronics revolution, which gave rise to psychological consciousness.

Each convergence of energy and communications technology changed our consciousness, 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 these more complex civilizations that use greater energy flow-through allow us to bring more people together, but they create more entropy in the process. If we are going to ward off the extreme 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? How do you break the paradox?

In the book you argue that we can break the paradox by shifting from geopolitical consciousness to biosphere consciousness.

We need to implement reglobalization from the bottom-up in order to achieve a more sustainable global economy. Geopolitics is an extension of the Enlightenment view of human nature, the idea that we pursue our utilitarian pleasures and individual self-interests. In geopolitics, the nation-state becomes a macro view of that. Nations deal with nations by being rational, detached and calculating, pursuing self-interests, excercising power and acquiring more capital and wealth. That’s why Copenhagen failed. The world leaders weren’t thinking biosphere, they were thinking geopolitics. Everyone was looking out for their nation’s self-interest.

What we need to do is attempt biosphere politics. Governing units are going to change–I think there’s going to be a shift toward continentalization. The EU is a first attempt at organizing a new frame of reference across continents, but it’s a transitional governing form. The Asian Union, African Union and South American Union are in their early stages.

Why “re-globalization”?

The global economy didn’t work in its first stage. And that’s because the economics and the technology raced ahead of our changing consciousness. A global economy requires social trust; you need biosphere consciousness, not geopolitics. You’re never going to get globalization until empathy extends to the whole species.

As I said in the book, I think we need to rethink economic policies and make thermodynamics the basis of economic theory. The price of energy is embedded in every product we make. At the same time, the effects of climate change are already eroding economies in many parts of the world as extreme weather events destroy ecosystems and agricultural infrastructure. The Third Industrial Revolution will be driven in part by the need to mitigate the entropic impact of the first two industrial revolutions.

A lot of business people would say that you can’t be empathic in the market. But the market is a secondary institution–it’s an extension of culture. The real invisible hand of the market is trust, which is the result of empathic engagement. The only way you can have a market is if you have a shared narrative. The market is not a utilitarian frame of reference, it only exists by the social trust that allows people to engage in anonymous settings and believe that their engagements will be honored. When that trust fails, markets collapse and that’s what is happening now.

What will the Third Industrial Revolution look like? When will it happen?

I think we’re on the verge. I had the privilege to help design the European Union’s Third Industrial Revolution economic stability game plan, which was endorsed by the European Parliament in 2007. What we noticed is that in the last 10 or 15 years we’ve had a very powerful communication revolution with the internet, and the key word is that it’s distributed. What’s beginning to happen now is that the distributed ICT [information and communication technologies] revolution is beginning to converge with a new energy regime: distributed renewable energy. When they do converge, it’s likely to change consciousness once again.

Distributed ICT will organize distributed energies. Renewables like wind, solar, geothermal and biomass are found in some proportion everywhere, in people’s backyards. As people begin to harvest these renewable energies they can share electricity peer-to-peer across an internet-like smart energy grid that extends across nations and even continents. We see buildings as the new power plants. Buildings are the number one source of C02 emmissions, but they might also be the solution if they can harness renewables to produce their own energy on site. People will also need new energy storage technologies like hydrogen. The EU has committed 8 billion Euros to hydrogen storage technologies. Those technologies will give us dependable distributed energy.

I founded the Third Industrial Revolution Global CEO Business Roundtable, which is comprised of 100 leading companies from renewable energy to utilities to architectural firms. We’re starting to lay out plans.

How will the Third Industrial Revolution change our consciousness?

It extends it in a distributed fashion, with everyone taking responsibility for their swath of the biosphere and then sharing their energy across continents. We have to take responsibility where we are but we have to share across the world for it to work. That would allow us to think biosphere politics not geopolitics and extend empathy in that regard. That gives us a possibility of breaking the empathy/entropy paradox. Will we actually do it? If I were a betting person…well, I wouldn’t even want to make a bet. But it’s our best shot.

It’s a tough challenge. What I’m saying is so difficult. But what encourages me is the empathy we are already seeing resulting from technology.

After the Iranian elections a young college student was gunned down in the street by an Iranian militiaman for protesting, and someone took a cell phone video. The world instantly empathized. Then there was the earthquake in Haiti. There was an immediate response. That’s new–we’re thinking as a human race. We still have our xenophobia and our prejudices but I think we’re catching a glimpse of something new, and we’re going to have to if the possibility of our own extinction depends on it.

I think the question hasn’t been asked yet, what is the point of this exercise in connecting the human race in this way? Up to now, most people’s reasons for supporting it is more information, quicker information, better entertainment, improved commerce and trade, etc. What I’m suggesting is that that is not enough. When Henry David Thoreau saw the telegraph, he said, “Well, now Maine can talk to Texas, but does Maine really have anything to say to Texas?” If we can’t have a global discussion of the transcendent purpose of this connectivity, I don’t think entertainment and information are going to be enough to justify the Third Industrial revolution. We have to think deeper, to think as a human family, to take responsibility for the biosphere and our fellow creatures.

If human nature is Homo empathicus, as scientists are suggesting, if that’s our true nature, then we can begin to create new institutions–parenting styles, education, business models–that reflect our core nature. Then I can see how this Third Industrial Revolution will happen.

Perhaps we are too cynical for these ideas. Do some people see an empathic global society as an idealistic dream?

If you know my past work you know I’m not utopian. But empathy isn’t about utopia. It’s about knowing how damn tough it is to be alive. We empathize with others because we smell the whiff of death in their vulnerabilities and so we celebrate their life. There’s no such thing as empathy in heaven because there’s no mortality, no suffering. Empathy is about encouraging another person’s struggle to be. It’s a tough feeling to have. In utopia there’s no struggle, there’s nothing to empathize with. Empathy is more than just, “I feel your pain”. We root for each other’s struggle to live out this mystery of life.

I was struck by the vast number of fields you explore in your book. Do you think there’s a need for more cross-disciplinary scholarship?

Absolutely. Education is a total mess. Our educational model is based on Enlightenment ideas and progressive ideas of the 20th century–if human nature is autonomous, calculating and self-interested and if the market is the way we fulfill those interests, our education reflects that. We are taught that knowledge is a personal asset to achieve one’s aims in the world–knowledge is power. If you share your knowledge, that’s cheating.

It limits us to a more vocational idea of what life is about. We all become little drones. And as we go through education it grows narrower and narrower. But what’s happening with the internet is that young folks are growing up believing that information is something you share, not hoard. That thinking is a collaborative exercise, not an autonomous one, and that spaces ought to be commons. That’s completely alien to the Enlightenment ideas I grew up on.

I’m a big fan of interdisciplinary and collaborative teaching. If you’re studying evolutionary biology, let a philosopher come in and talk about the way our concept of nature has changed over history. Allow young people to have so many frames of reference so they can be more open and more synthetic in their thinking. If we are a social animal and we live by our stories, then our stories are only made richer with more points of view.

Sharing knowledge is considered cheating, yet collaboration has been shown to improve critical thinking if it’s done in a disciplined way. There was a doctor at UCL medical college in the 1950s who realized that if he brought all of his interns to a patient’s bedside at the same time, the collaborative response got to a diagnosis quicker than if only one intern was there.

Education has to be completely reformed to reflect the new era of distributed knowledge. I’m currently in deep private discussions with some major educational associations in the US who want to put together a team of people to begin rethinking this.

We still don’t know how to grade people in a collaborative model. But if we’re moving from Homo sapien to Homo empathicus, we have to rethink all of this.

You’ve also said we need to rethink the scientific method.

The scientific method reflects Enlightenment thinking. You have to be detached, rational and value-free; you can’t be connected or use empathic imagination. But we’re seeing that you need both. If the scientific method is the way kids learn, how do they grow up to form an empathic connection to the world?

There are scientists who are practicing a different kind of science, a not-too-close, not-too-far empathic engagement. Jane Goodall is a great example. I told Jane, what you did was so amazing because it’s a new approach to science, and she said she had never thought about it that way. She began to empathize with the chimpanzees she was studying, imagining their experience as if it were her own. What she learned about chimpanzee behaviour was massively more than what people had previously learned by studying them in a completely detached way.

Goethe understood this a couple hundred years ago–he disagreed with Francis Bacon’s approach. He argued that we understand nature by participating, not by standing back and observing with dispassionate neutrality. Especially in the ecological sciences and climate science, you need to be engaged, interactive and interdisciplinary, because you’re dealing with systems thinking.

Empathic science is a good balance between the traditional scientific method on the one hand and something that wouldn’t be science at all on the other. Empathy requires that you not be too close or too far away. You have to be close enough to feel the experiences biologically as if they are your own but far enough to use your cognitive abilities to rationally respond.

I hope scholars will take these ideas much further. I’m hoping a younger generation can do that.

I found it interesting that you correlate the expansion of empathy throughout human history with a growing sense of self. I would naively think that they would have an inverse relationship.

Empathy goes hand-in-hand with selfhood; if you know you’re a self you can see yourself in relation to the other. People hear “empathy” and they think socialism or something–that’s completely missing the point. Increasing individuation and selfhood is critical to increasing empathy.

We are wired for empathic distress. If you put a bunch of babies in a nursery and one starts crying, the others start crying but they don’t know why. Real empathy – empathic expression–doesn’t occur until children develop a sense of self and recognize themselves as being separate from others; when they can recognize themselves in a mirror, for instance. When kids learn about birth and death they think, uh oh, now I know I have a history, I’m finite. Realizing their own vulnerability allows them to feel another’s vulnerability. The more advanced your selfhood, the more you can feel another’s fragility and empathize. Empathy is the invisible social glue that allows a complex individuated society to remain integrated.

You said that people hear “empathy” and think “socialism”. How does capitalism survive an empathic society?

Market capitalism will be transformed into “distributed capitalism”. Just as the internet led to the democratization of information, the Third Industrial Revolution will lead to the democratization of energy. The required changes to infrastructure are going to create massive amounts of jobs and a whole new economy. But when you have peer-to-peer sharing of energy across an intelligent grid system, you no longer have the top-down, centralized economic system. Distributed energy requires distributed capitalism, and that relies on the opposite view of human nature than that of market capitalism. But the politics isn’t right or left–its centralized, top-down versus collaborative commons. You don’t hear people say, I’m going onto a social networking space because I’m a socialist–it’s just a different frame of reference.

At over 600 pages, The Empathic Civilization is a long book! How long did it take you to write it?

I didn’t mean for it to be a long book, but my wife says the older I get, the longer my books get. It took over five years. I got so deep into the research; I read about 400 books and maybe 3,000 articles. The actual writing took about a year and a half. My wife has made me promise no more books!

Jeremy Rifkin is an advisor to the European Union and heads of state around the world. He is a senior lecturer at the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania where he instructs CEOs and corporate management on new trends in science, technology, the economy and society. He is the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C. His book The Empathic Civilization was published by Penguin in December

Profits of World’s 100 Wealthiest Could End Poverty Four Times Over: Report

- Jon Queally, staff writer, Published on Monday, January 21, 2013 by Common Dreams

Oxfam report shows how extreme global inequality ‘hurts us all’

The profits of the world’s one hundred most wealthy individuals last year would be enough to wipe out world poverty, says a new report. And not just once over, or twice over, but the vast amount of money that has flowed to the top of the world’s financial food chain would be enough to eradicate the worst kind of poverty a full four times over.

Such an explosion in extreme wealth and income inequality represented by these numbers is exacerbating and hindering the world’s ability to tackle poverty, warns international aid group Oxfam International in a new analysis published ahead of the World Economic Forum starting in Davos this week.

According to the report, ‘The cost of inequality: how wealth and income extremes hurt us all,’ the $240 billion net income in 2012 of the richest 100 billionaires would be enough to eliminate extreme poverty four times over. In releasing the report, Oxfam is calling on world leaders to curb today’s income extremes and commit to bringing back inequality levels to at least those experienced in the early 1990′s.

“Concentration of resources in the hands of the top one per cent depresses economic activity and makes life harder for everyone else – particularly those at the bottom of the economic ladder,” said Jeremy Hobbs, Oxfam’s executive director.

“We can no longer pretend that the creation of wealth for a few will inevitably benefit the many – too often the reverse is true,” he said. “In a world where even basic resources such as land and water are increasingly scarce, we cannot afford to concentrate assets in the hands of a few and leave the many to struggle over what’s left.”

“From tax havens to weak employment laws, the richest benefit from a global economic system which is rigged in their favour. It is time our leaders reformed the system so that it works in the interests of the whole of humanity rather than a global elite.”

In addition, Barbara Stocking, Oxfam’s chief executive, says the world’s extremity of wealth inequality is “economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive and environmentally destructive”.

Oxfam is calling for a ‘new global deal’ which would stabilize the world’s economic systems and bring equality back in way that would benefit all humanity.

“From tax havens to weak employment laws, the richest benefit from a global economic system which is rigged in their favour. It is time our leaders reformed the system so that it works in the interests of the whole of humanity rather than a global elite.”

The group estimates that closing tax havens – which hold as much as $32 trillion or a third of all global wealth – could yield an additional $189bn in additional tax revenues. In addition to a tax haven crackdown, elements of the “global new deal” Oxfam envisions would include:

  • a reversal of the trend towards more regressive forms of taxation;
  • a global minimum corporation tax rate;
  • measures to boost wages compared with returns available to capital;
  • increased investment in free public services and safety nets.

According to Al-Jazeera:

The group says that the world’s richest one percent have seen their income increase by 60 percent in the last 20 years, with the latest world financial crisis only serving to hasten, rather than hinder, the process.

“We sometimes talk about the ‘have-nots’ and the ‘haves’ – well, we’re talking about the ‘have-lots’. [...] We’re anti-poverty agency. We focus on poverty, we work with the poorest people around the world. You don’t normally hear us talking about wealth. But it’s gotten so out of control between rich and poor that one of the obstacles to solving extreme poverty is now extreme wealth,” Ben Phillips, a campaign director at Oxfam, told Al Jazeera.

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The Privilege of Being Human: Ecological Crisis and the Need to Challenge the Twenty Percent

by Joseph Nevins, October 15, 2012 on Common Dreams

Although you would not know it from what passes for debate during the ongoing presidential campaign here in the United States, the biosphere is under siege. A historically high rate of ice melt in the Artic, devastating floods from the Philippines to Nigeria, a record-setting decline inAustralia’s Great Barrier Reef, and extreme levels of drought in much of theUnited States are just some of the recent manifestations.

These worrisome signs highlight, among other things, the tragic failure of the international community to slash consumption of the Earth’s resources via binding international mechanisms. While the reasons for this are numerous, a key one is the obstruction by some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful countries, and their refusal to renounce the gospel of endless economic growth.

But also central is a combination of refusal by and seeming inability of members of the planet’s ecologically privileged class—let’s call them the twenty percent—to see their very ways of life, and their associated gargantuan levels of consumption as problems in need of radical redress.

To appreciate this one need look no further than at a much-talked-about article, one with foreboding news for those interested in sustaining human life on the planet as we know it. It appeared in the journal Nature shortly before the ballyhooed, but ultimately fruitless U.N. Earth Summit opened in June inRio de Janeiro. Due to human-induced changes to the biosphere, the article asserts, the world is quite possibly approaching a “critical transition.” It is one “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.”

A significant decline in biodiversity, a fossil-fuel-use-induced growth in atmospheric greenhouse gases, deforestation, the melting of glaciers, and large “dead zones” in coastal marine areas are just some of the myriad indicators of the extent to which human have altered the biosphere and the “drivers” of the planetary-scale critical transition, say the authors.

As a review of already published material, the article’s findings are, in some ways, old news. Its significance lies in the endorsement by the team of authors of previous findings and the synthesis it offers. Yet the paper’s importance also lies in the myopia exhibited by the 22 scientists fromCanada,Chile,Finland,Spain, and theUnited Stateswho authored the paper in trying to explain what has produced dangerous levels of ecological degradation.

Instead of highlighting the ravenous consumption of a global minority in bringing about the crisis they decry, the authors—no doubt members of the twenty percent—assert that “population growth and per-capita consumption rate underlie all of the other present drivers of global change.” In other words, by raising consumption in a manner that doesn’t distinguish between differential levels of resource use (and putting population growth aside for a moment), they suggest that all of the Earth’s denizens are equally at fault.


The ludicrous nature of this position immediately struck me as I read it given that I had just come across a report revealing that New York City’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg had recently bought a 33-acre estate, for $4.55 million. This is his third home in Westchester County, just north of New York City. He also has three in Manhattan, one in nearby Long Island, one in Colorado, one in Florida, one in London, and one in Bermuda to where he regularly flies in his private jet.

I had also just received an email from Barack Obama (at least it purported to be). In it he promised, if I made a financial contribution to his re-election campaign, to automatically enter me into a drawing. The handful of winners, he wrote, would be flown from their home areas to have dinner with him.

To own 12 homes or to be able to fly supporters across long distances to join you for dinner are obscene displays of wealth and power given the environmental degradation resulting from the resource consumption they embody. They are obscenities that an emphasis on average rates in the form of “per-capita consumption” only serves to obscure. Yet, while highly extreme, such levels of consumption are the pinnacle of grossly unequal levels of resource use, ones that largely correspond to divisions related to the overlapping categories of race, class, and nation.

As international development scholar David Satterthwaite has pointed out in relation to climate change, about 20 percent of the world’s wealthiest individuals and households—given their consumption and lifestyles, along with the production processes, infrastructure, and institutions that make them possible—are likely responsible for more than 80 percent of all contemporary greenhouse gas emissions, and an even greater percentage of historical emissions. In other words, the problem is not primarily one of population growth, but of increasing consumption, consumption by the global twenty percent.

Members of this elite group—people like me—tend to have cell phones, personal computers, and housing with central heating and air conditioning. We typically use electric or gas-driven clothing dryers. More often than not, we own cars, and we travel occasionally, sometimes frequently, by flying—the single most ecologically destructive individual act of consumption one can undertake. (A single roundtrip flight betweenNew York andLondon produces, in terms of its impact on the climate system, the equivalent of two metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per economy class passenger—more than the emissions produced by an average resident ofBrazil for an entire year.)

We also throw away a lot and consume huge amounts of plastic (more than 300 pounds per person annually in theUnited   States). And most of us eat a great deal of meat, the production of which constitutes one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses. In other words, we consume way beyond what is globally sustainable by any reasonable measure—and increasingly so.

Invocations of population growth divert one’s attention from such levels of consumption and the massive inequities underlying them. They lead to a focus on peoples and places with the highest rates of fertility, ones which are typically largely non-white and among the world’s poorest—those who consume least, in other words. Effectively erased from view are the socio-economic classes and places with which the likes of Michael Bloomberg and Barack Obama are associated as they tend to have very low, sometimes even negative, rates of demographic increase.

This is not to say that population expansion does not matter at all. High rates of demographic growth among the global poor and related increases in consumption can and do have significant impacts on local resource bases. But to state what should be painfully obvious, these populations have a negligible impact on the global environment given how little they consume.

According to Satterthwaite, for example, 18.5 percent of the world’s population growth during the 35-year period of 1980-2005 took place in sub-Saharan African, but its share of the growth in global carbon emissions was only 2.5 percent. During that same period,Canadaand theUnited Stateshad 4 percent of population growth, but were responsible for 13.9 percent of the increase in C02 emissions.


Similar to responsibility for carbon emissions, resource consumption broadly is highly unequal. The United States, home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population, for instance, is responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel use. If everyone in the world were to consume environmental resources at the present U.S. level, or that of Denmark or the United Arab Emirates, between four and five planet Earths would be required to sustain themaccording to the Global Footprint Network. (In comparison, if everyone consumed at the level ofIndia, half the planet Earth, given today’s global population, would be sufficient.)

Admittedly, invocation of the global twenty percent rather than, say, the one percent no doubt obscures, just as it illuminates. Few have the power to consume and destroy like Michael Bloomberg or Barack Obama, for example. Clearly, as within any grouping, there are significant differences within. But this should not hide the fact that it is not only the super-rich who consume in a manner way out of proportion to what would be their fair share of the world’s resources were they to be allocated equitably with an eye toward ensuring the wellbeing of posterity.

Moreover, it is true that an increasing share of the twenty percent is from relatively prosperous countries of the Global South—largely urban elites from the likes ofChina,Brazil,India, andSouth Africa. Yet, most of the world’s top consumers, as they long have, come from those countries that are in the top tier of per capita incomes, countries such asAustralia, those of the European Union,Japan, and theUnited States.

The socio-geographic concentration of the twenty percent helps illustrate why critical scrutiny of individual consumption need not and should not lead to an ignoring of the systemic components of our ecological plight—perhaps the most notable of which is how industrial-consumer capitalism, which dominates the planet, fuels and necessitates voracious consumption for its very survival, and significantly shapes and limits our options. It is a system that mines the planet’s environmental resources, damages the biosphere, and exacerbates socio-economic inequities and vulnerabilities in the process.

This system draws upon and helps reproduce multiple axes of difference—race, class, gender, and nation among them. They are differences with profound implications for how people live and die across the planet. (A recent report by the humanitarian aid and research organization DARA, for instance, found that 400,000 deaths each year today are attributable to climate change, with air pollution causing another 1.4 million fatalities annually.) As such, these differences are inextricably tied to unjust structures that embody privilege and wellbeing for some, and disadvantage and harm for others.

The focus on individual consumption also should not obviate critical attention on large institutional actors—say, the U.S.military, the world’s single largest institutional producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Nor should it obfuscate how the very organization of the places we live and work, and the larger social networks in which we are implicated, shape what we do and pressure us to engage in behavior we wouldn’t pursue were other choices available. (Think about how unsafe streets and inadequate public transport compels many to drive.)

Yet, despite the importance of such factors, we should not make the mistake of pretending that we have no options, and that our individual choices don’t have implications for the viability of the systems in which we are implicated, and the many institutions with which we interact—willingly or not. As such, the call to challenge the twenty percent’s rapacious resource use is not an effort to reduce individuals to consumers. It is necessarily tied to our responsibilities as citizens, as members of political-economic communities given that any project of social transformation requires engaging both the individual and the collective. Just as it would be intellectually, ethically and politically illogical to contend that individual racist behavior is inconsequential and that its scrutiny is a diversion from the struggle against structural racism, it is unacceptable to suggest that individual consumption—especially that of a grossly unsustainable sort—is meaningless and unrelated to systemic injustice and its reproduction.

For this reason and more, dangerous levels of soil depletion, diminishing supplies of potable water across the planet, the rapidly decreasing viability of the world’s fisheries, high extinction rates of plant and animal species, and rising global temperatures (among other signs) are not simply environmental matters. They are urgent issues of human rights and social justice.


For those moved to resist the status quo, and champion radical change in response, many posing as sympathetic allies advise them to take a careful, gradual approach. These purveyors of caution are among those who today place their hopes in technological salvation, some sort of breakthrough discovery or invention that will somehow eliminate or at least greatly reduce the ecological damage associated with a particular practice or specific form of consumption, and thus allow us to continue largely our ways.

Fearful of what they and those with whom they most identify might lose, what these highly ambivalent allies actually seek to facilitate is a reworked status quo. It is a new version of the old, one which maintains established privileges and hierarchy, with simply a prettier veneer, its most brutal expressions muted.

This championing of restraint in a context demanding fundamental change is a longstanding problem, one the great writer James Baldwin, among many others, have encountered at different times and places. In an essay in Partisan Review (Fall, 1956), Baldwin forcefully addressed such “advice” when he criticized fellow writer William Faulkner’s call to “go slow” in the effort to overthrow the institutionalized system of racial segregation known as Jim Crow in the U.S. South. (“They don’t mean go slow, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall reportedly said in response. “They mean, don’t go.”)

“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it,”Baldwincountered, “the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring, one clings to what knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he had long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”

Transforming any social system—given its very nature—is necessarily a highly disruptive process in that, for better or for worse depending on where one is situated on the spectrum of privilege and disadvantage, it is part of the very fabric of life. As such, fundamental change requires a willingness on the part of those of the privileged classes who profess to support a different world, one that is just and truly sustainable, to move to a position of discomfort, to challenge the very sources of their ecological privilege, nor merely the symptoms. Only in this way can a system that is unjust—and thus limited in terms of the distribution of its benefits—be eradicated so as to bring aboutBaldwin’s “higher dreams” of privileges enjoyed by all.

For those of us who gain from—and help reproduce—the institutionalized injustice, it is incumbent upon us to figure out how our comfort and prosperity are tied to the socio-economic and ecological insecurity experienced by so many. This means that we, the twenty percent, have to give up things—our ability to have lots of “stuff”; to consume the planet’s resources without thought and to dump the detriments on socially distant, unseen peoples and communities; to travel wherever and whenever we’d like in manners that exact high social and ecological costs; to have our wants satisfied before the needs of others are met.

It also requires that we abandon the illusion that a world order that facilitates our unjust privileges can and should be preserved, and that our rapacious levels of consumption are maintainable, that, somehow, contrary to everything the natural sciences tell us, we will not have to reap what we sow. For privileged people of good will, this necessitates accepting the responsibility to be human in all that it entails. We thus must struggle not only on myriad fronts ranging from Wall Street writ-large to the Pentagon, but also with ourselves and those closest to us.

The ecological challenges we face as a planet are enormous, and ominous in terms of what they suggest for the well-being of peoples and places across the planet and the biosphere as a whole. In this regard, the ending of Baldwin’s retort to Faulkner could not be timelier: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at VassarCollege. His latest book is Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books).

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