[Our] unprecedented economic crisis, together with the social breakdown it has helped to engender, reflects a profound error of conception about human nature itself. For the levels of response elicited from human beings by the incentives of the prevailing order are not only inadequate, but seem almost irrelevant in the face of world events. We are being shown that, unless the development of society finds a purpose beyond the mere amelioration of material conditions, it will fail of attaining even these goals.
(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)
I will be exploring his ideas about levels of consciousness in the next pair of posts. For the moment it is enough to spell out that Rifkin believes that in the West at least we have arrived at a level of consciousness that he terms ‘psychological’ (page 414). What does he mean by that exactly? This is perhaps best defined for present purposes by the examples he gives of its prevalence (ibid.):
The shift to psychological consciousness resulted in the greatest single empathic surge in history – a phenomenon that swept the world in the 1960s and 1970s at the demographic peak of the post-World War II baby boom.
He lists all the movements that flowered as a result: the anticolonial, Civil Rights, anti-war, antinuclear, peace, feminist, feminist, gay, disability, ecology, and animal rights movements. He feels (ibid) they ‘are all testimonials (at least in part) to the new psychological emphasis on intimate relationships, introspection, multicultural perspectives, and unconditional acceptance of others.’
This is where the pitfall mentioned earlier might be seen to be kicking in at least in places (page 417):
The countercultural movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was not without its own shortcomings. More than a few observers looked into the eyes of the young free spirits and saw not a new level of empathic sensibility but only a rampant, carefree narcissism.
He quotes an American sociologist, Philip Rieff (page 418):
Comparing theological consciousness with the new psychological consciousness, Rieff snorted that while ‘religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.’ . . . . [T]he evocation of feelings becomes the ultimate “turn on” and being a person of good character, accountable to immutable truths is replaced by an actor playing out various identities while engaged in pleasurable mind games.
Following these two threads of description to this point in the book has brought us to a consideration of what Rifkin (page 421) terms ‘the age of empathy.’
He begins to deal in more detail with what is, if we set entropy aside, our Achilles heel. I suppose, as we have two feet, we could extend the myth and say we have two weaknesses, one in each foot: entropy and (page 431) ‘the relationship between empathic and commercial bonds.’ He explains:
While commercial exchange would be impossible without empathic extension first establishing bonds of social trust, its utilitarian, instrumental, and exploitive nature can and often does deplete the social capital that makes its very operations possible.
Commercial exchange operates globally. This has a knock-on effect (page 432):
A globalising world is creating a new cosmopolitan, one whose multiple identities and affiliations span the planet. Cosmopolitans are the advance party, if you will, of a fledgling biosphere consciousness. [more of that in the next post]… I’m quite sure that a survey of cosmopolitan attitudes would find that the most cosmopolitan in attitudes leave behind them the largest entropic footprint.
So, he claims, not only is commercial exchange behind a possible erosion of the trust it depends upon, but also, because it operates to expand on a global basis, it is the godfather of an escalation in entropy. We’re really hobbling now.
He also stresses, as do Bahá’ís, the importance of having a universal language in which to communicate (page 446) though he is seeing this in primarily pragmatic terms, to facilitate this globalising process. Unfortunately, as he also points out, the cosmopolitan current is not carrying everyone with it to prosperity (page 452):
The surveys show that 83% of the high income countries have transitioned into a postmaterialist culture, but 74% of the poorest countries have sunk back into a survival-values culture. So while a minority of the world’s countries and populations are becoming increasingly cosmopolitan in their values, the majority is going the other way.
Chapter 12 examines the ‘entropic abyss’ yawning almost beneath our feet. A problem for me, in the light of Ehrenfeld’s concept of ‘flourishing,’ lies in the terms in which Rifkin poses his opening question (page 476):
The economic question every country and industry needs to ask is how to grow a sustainable global economy in the sunset decades of an energy regime whose rising externalities and deficiencies are beginning to outweigh what were once its vast potential benefits.
Growth may not be sustainable.
He is scathingly sceptical of the capacity of the nuclear industry to plug the gap (page 488):
To have even a ‘marginal impact on climate change, it would be necessary for nuclear power to generate at least 20% of the world’s energy. This would require replacing all 443 ageing power plants currently in use and constructing an additional 1,500 plants for a total of nearly 2,000 nuclear power plants – at a cost of approximately $5 trillion. To accomplish this Herculean task, we’d have to put under construction three nuclear power plants every 30 days for the next 60 years – a feat that even the power and utility companies believe is a pipe dream.
He spells out the problem in the starkest possible fashion (page 493):
First the good news. There is no doubt that at least a sizeable portion of the human race is beginning to take on a global cosmopolitan consciousness, with the extension of empathy to more diverse human and animal domains. Now the bad news. The new global sensibility has been made possible by the creation of more complex, dense, and interdependent social structures, which, in turn, rely on more intensive use of fossil fuels and other resources to maintain their scaffolding, supply chains, logistics, and services.
In other words, our lift in consciousness currently comes at far too high a price and may effectively see the end of us. There is an additional twist in this sorry tale. As the wealthy get richer they become less empathic, a concern that has already surfaced on this blog. He writes (page 498):
. . . .studies show that as personal wealth accumulates beyond the minimum level necessary to maintain one’s basic needs, the increasing preoccupation with the pursuit of wealth makes one less likely to be empathetic to others.
If we look simply at the energy deficit, Rifkin is looking towards the possibility of ‘distributed . . . . energies that are found in the backyard’ (page 518). He sees this as part of a Third Industrial Revolution (page 519):
Renewable forms of energy – solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, ocean waves, and biomass – make up the first of the four pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution.
To make this work we need, as a second element, buildings that create some, if not all their own energy (page 519). On top of that (page 520) ‘it will be necessary to develop storage methods that facilitate the conversion of intermittent supplies of these energy sources into dependable assets.’ He sees hydrogen as a possible means of storing power (page 521). The last element of his four is the ‘reconfiguration of the power grid along the lines of the Internet, allowing businesses and homeowners to produce their own energy and share it with each other’ (ibid). He concludes (page 526-27s) ‘the ushering in of the Third Industrial Revolution will go a long way toward defusing the growing tensions over access to more limited supplies of fossil fuels and uranium and help facilitate biosphere politics based on a collective sense of responsibility for safeguarding the Earth’s ecosystems.’
For reasons that will become clearer in a later post when I examine the motivating factor he evokes, I find myself less than completely convinced we will be capable of using this escape route in time unless something even more radical changes in our approach. This scepticism holds even in the face of his expectation that open source practices will increasingly ‘speed up new life-saving medical discoveries, spur advances in agriculture, lead to breakthroughs in alternative clean energy, and pave the way to a new generation of sustainable construction materials’ (page 533) and, quoting Tapscott and Williams, of the claim that ‘the ability to pool the knowledge of millions (if not billions) of users in a self-organising fashion demonstrates how mass collaboration is turning the new Web into something not completely unlike a global brain’ (page 543).
He has caveats of his own to share towards the end of his book when he returns to the issue of narcissism (page 575):
The evidence suggests that the new dramaturgical consciousness emerging in the very early stages of the shift into a Third Industrial Revolution and a new distributed capitalism is leading both to a greater sense of relatedness and empathic extension as well as a more fractured sense of self, and increased narcissism.
Efforts are being made in child education to offset this self-centredness. I will be dealing with that in more detail in the post on raising our children. Next week we will explore his ideas about levels of consciousness.