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Monday, September 13, 2010

"The Empathic Civilization"


A review of Jeremy Rifkin: The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. N.Y.: Jeremy P Tarcher / Penguin, 2009, 674 pages including 57 pages of Notes and Index.


At 674 pages, 57 of which are notes and index, Jeremy Rifkin's The Empathic Civilization is not a book you'll sit down and read in an afternoon or evening. But if you're a person who is concerned about  global or local issues, it is a book you will want to read. It is packed with invaluable information and insight about steering a (relatively) safe course through the sometimes rough seas of our rapidly changing, interconnected world. Though it took me a while to read, I find every minute spent with it informative and valuable. The information alone makes The Empathic Civilization worth reading because of the insights the information brings.

To many people, perhaps, the idea of an empathic civilization is oxymoronic. “An empathic civilization? You have got to be kidding! Any reading of history will tell you that!” “Not so fast,” Rifkin says as he leads you back to December 24, 1914 on the fields of Flanders as World War I ground into its fifth month. “Take a look at what's happening.” Contrary to all expectations about human nature, beginning with the Germans lighting candles on Christmas trees sent to the front, young men on both sides of the battle line began singing Christmas carols where a few hours earlier they had been killing each other. It ran contrary to what everyone believed about human nature. “[W]hat transpired in the battlefields of Flanders on Christmas Eve 1914 between tens of thousands of young men had nothing to do with original sin or productive labor. And the pleasure those men sought in each other's company bore little resemblance to the superficial rendering of pleasure offered up by nineteenth- century utilitarians and even less to Freud's pathological account of a human race preoccupied by the erotic impulse.

“The men at Flanders expressed a far deeper human sensibility – one that emanates from the very marrow of human existence. … They chose to be human. And the central human quality they expressed was empathy for one another” (page 8).

Still not convinced? Think about it – if the central human quality is aggression, would we have survived this long as a species? If an empathic impulse is embedded in our biology, why doesn't it show up in our history? It doesn't because “tales of misdeeds and woe surprise us. They are unexpected and, therefore, trigger alarm and heighten our interest” (emphasis mine) (page 10). What captures our attention and interest is expressions of empathy. It just might be, Rifkin suggests, that aggression, violence, selfish behavior and acquisitiveness – long considered basic human drives, “are in fact secondary drives that flow from repression or denial of our most basic instinct”, which is empathy (page 18). Reading my facebook page on an average day, it is empathy that is most often expressed, even when the emotion expressed is frustration and anger. What we seek is connection … and this is the key to creating a global consciousness – the sense of belonging to a world, and not just to our own little part of it and our own little “tribe”.

As a species, we are embedded in the life of the entire planet. What you and I do in our small part of it, affects every other part. Like it or not, we are all interconnected as a part of a living global ecosystem. Tamper with one part, we affect every other part. (A great companion book to this one is E. O. Wilson's The Creation, which is reviewed in a separate post. A biologist, Wilson explains the biology of our global ecosystem in a way that this non-scientist easily understood it.)

Because of the Internet we are already interconnected. What we need to do with that comprises the bulk of Rifkin's book, which is divided into three major sections: I Homo Empathicus; II Empathy and Civilization; and III The Age of Empathy.

“By rediscovering our cognitive past,” Rifkin writes, “we find important clues to how we might redirect our conscious future. With our very survival at stake, we can no longer afford to remain unmindful about how empathic consciousness has evolved across history and at what expense to the Earth we inhabit” (page 178). E. O. Wilson would heartily agree with that. So do I.

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