History has thus far recorded principally the experience of tribes, cultures, classes, and nations. With the physical unification of the planet in this century and acknowledgement of the interdependence of all who live on it, the history of humanity as one people is now beginning. The long, slow civilizing of human character has been a sporadic development, uneven and admittedly inequitable in the material advantages it has conferred. Nevertheless, endowed with the wealth of all the genetic and cultural diversity that has evolved through past ages, the earth’s inhabitants are now challenged to draw on their collective inheritance to take up, consciously and systematically, the responsibility for the design of their future.
(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)
Throughout This Changes Everything, Klein describes the climate crisis as a confrontation between capitalism and the planet. It would be more accurate to describe the crisis as a clash between the expanding demands of humankind and a finite world, but however the conflict is framed there can be no doubt who the winner will be. The Earth is vastly older and stronger than the human animal. . . . . . The change that is under way is no more than the Earth returning to equilibrium – a process that will go on for centuries or millennia whatever anyone does. Rather than denying this irreversible shift, we’d be better off trying to find ways of living with it.
(From John Gray’s review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate)
I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’
After something like four years I finally overcame the reservations and irritations recorded in a republished post and finished reading The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. Such a time span is not unusual for me as I read books on rather the same principle as they make Russian dolls. Each book I start triggers me to start reading another until I have several books in progress nested one within the other. Often the one I started last is finished first before I trace my steps back to its predecessor (or not, as the case may be).
I very much want to record my response to this massive survey of the current state of our civilisation and its origins. However, it runs to more than 600 pages and tackles a number of major themes in the process. In the end, I have come to feel that my approach needs to be divided into at least four parts, some of them split into two, and even then I will be doing aspects of his thesis scant justice.
I need to start with an overview, otherwise my approach will be too confusing to be useful.
Then it seems best to tackle his ideas about how the widening circle of our empathy is expanding the reach of our civilisation and at the same time creating a potentially world-destroying level of entropy. This may not become completely clear until the second post.
It’s only then that it will make sense for me to explore his ideas about levels of civilisation. We’ve been here before with Ken Wilber and Jenny Wade. While his approach has echoes of theirs, it is very different. My caveats about his perspective on religion, through relevant at this point, will probably be dealt with in more detail at the very end of the whole sequence of posts.
After the levels, though perhaps most importantly, I plan to look at his ideas on child rearing and education before attempting to express my own take on the issue, which is, of course, deeply influenced by the Bahá’í perspective.
Perhaps perversely, my introduction will start with the last paragraph of his book. Don’t worry: I won’t be working backwards from there. He writes (page 616):
The Empathic Civilisation is emerging. We are fast extending our empathic embrace to the whole of humanity and the vast project of life that envelops the planet. But our rush to universal empathic connectivity is running up against a rapidly accelerating entropic juggernaut in the form of climate change and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?
One of the most succinct though not necessarily the clearest passages in the book to unpack some of the implications of this comes on page 254. What follows is the main gist without clearly unpacking his six interconnected points.
He starts from what has come to seem an old chestnut: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. He sees it as an example of a recurring pattern throughout history ‘where the synergies created by a new energy and communications regime facilitate more complex social arrangements, which, in turn, provide the context for a qualitative change in human consciousness.’ Decoded more simply, this means that cooperative connections multiply in an organic fashion over fairly long periods of time and result in our seeing the world and other human beings differently. As he goes on to explain this is very much a double-edged sword (page 254-55):
The change in human consciousness is played out in a dialectic between a rising empathic surge and a growing entropy deficit. . . . . When [entropy] eventually exceed[s] the value of the energy flowing through the society’s infrastructure, the civilisation withers and even occasionally dies. . . . While the unfolding interplay between an empathic surge and an entropic deficit often – but not always – leads to collapse, what remains is a residue of the new consciousness that carries forward, if however tenuously, and becomes a memory lifeline to draw upon when new energy/communications regimes emerge.
What point does he feel we have now reached? First of all, there is the question of sheer size (page 424)
The world has shrunk and the human race finds itself nearly face-to-face in the world of cyberspace. Distances are becoming less relevant in the era of globalisation.
Secondly there is the complexity this brings in its wake (page 425):
A vast array of economic, social, and political institutions oversee the most complex civilisation ever conceived by human beings. The entire system is managed and maintained by billions of people, differentiated into thousands of professional talents and vocational skills, all working in specialised tasks in an interdependent global labyrinth.
Empathy has inevitably extended, in spite of the friction entailed (ibid.):
Brought together in an ever closer embrace, we are increasingly exposed to each other in ways that are without precedent. While the backlash of globalisation – xenophobia, political populism, and terrorist activity – is widely reported, far less attention has been paid to the growing empathic extension, as hundreds of millions of people come in contact with diverse others.
Now to one of his key points. This empathic growth comes at a price (page 452):
… the leap in empathic consciousness is made possible by the expropriation of vast amounts of the planet’s energy and other resources to attain the level of economic security necessary to allow people to shift from survival values to materialist values and finally to quality-of-life values. . . . Unfortunately, the leap in empathic consciousness rides atop the growing entropic stream that’s turning much of the planet into a wasteland and further impoverishing a large proportion of the human race. . . .
The question, then, is whether the minority of the human race that is undergoing an empathic surge, but at the expense of impoverishing the planet and a large portion of the human race, can translate their post-materialist values into a workable cultural, economic, and political game plan that can steer themselves and their communities to a more sustainable and equitable future in time to avoid the abyss.
This paves the way for his explanation of a critical set of challenges (page 510):
Half of the human race is using up more of the Earth’s fossil-fuel energy and natural resources than is necessary for a comfortable life and is becoming increasingly unhappy with each increment of additional wealth. The other half of the human race is digging its way out of poverty and becoming happier as it approaches the minimum level of comfort. But there isn’t enough oil and other fossil fuels – or uranium for nuclear power – to keep the wealthy in a luxurious lifestyle or elevate three billion poor people to a comfortable lifestyle.
He recognises that affluence tends to increase our attachment to acquiring additional material wealth and decrease our sensitivity to the plight of others – so empathy tends to go by the board. Our greatest challenge is (pages 510-11):
How, then, do we reorganise our relationships with each other and the Earth so the “haves” can tread more lightly and the “have-nots” establish a more firm footing with the environment, allowing each other to come together at the threshold of human comfort? It’s at the threshold that we optimise empathetic consciousness and create the conditions for a sustainable global society.
If we fail the price could be our survival (page 612):
We now have colonised virtually every square inch of the planet and established the scaffolding for a truly global civilisation that is connecting the human race in a single embrace, but at the expense of an entropic bill that is threatening our extinction.
His analysis of the problem is powerful and compelling.
As I have indicated at the start, the next post will dig more deeply into his exploration of the relationship between empathy and entropy. After that we will move on to considering that old chestnut – Levels of Consciousness – but in his rather different terms. At some point we will need to consider his concept of the biosphere as a motivator for collective action and a sense of transcendence, but first we need to examine his model of child rearing.
A thread that I will not be able to resist weaving into this scheme, probably in the final section, is his rationale for excluding religion from his model. We need to consider whether that makes or breaks his plan for a possible way forward.