Amanda Gefter, Books & Arts editor – New Scientist.com, 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…
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.
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