As the twentieth century draws to a close, it is no longer possible to maintain the belief that the approach to social and economic development to which the materialistic conception of life has given rise is capable of meeting humanity’s needs. Optimistic forecasts about the changes it would generate have vanished into the ever-widening abyss that separates the living standards of a small and relatively diminishing minority of the world’s inhabitants from the poverty experienced by the vast majority of the globe’s population.
(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)
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.’
In the last post I shared a somewhat simplified summary of the moral and practical challenges that confront us at this point in humanity’s material ascent from isolated cave to interconnected commerce.
I am now seeking to convey more fully Rifkin’s position in his book The Empathic Civilization on the long-standing interaction he perceives between empathy and entropy in this scenario.
Right at the start he raises the question about whether we have, as the Bahá’í Faith would argue as well, a dual potential (page 18):
Is it possible that human beings are not inherently evil or intrinsically self-interested and materialistic, but are of a very different nature – an empathic one – and that all the other drives that we have considered to be primary – aggression, violence, selfish behaviour, inquisitiveness – are in fact secondary drives that flow from repression or denial of our most basic instinct?
If the answer is ‘Yes,’ as he believes then other things follow (page 24):
A heightened empathic sentiment… allows an increasingly individualised population to affiliate with one another in more interdependent, extended, and integrated social organisms. This is the process that characterises what we call civilisation. . . . . When we say to civilise, we mean to empathise.
He argues (page 91) that Darwin himself came to recognise the inherent importance of ‘cooperation, symbiosis, and reciprocity’ in the survival of the fittest which, in terms of groups and societies, depends upon our forming ‘cooperative bonds’ with others. He adduces experimental evidence (pages 131-134) to support the idea that empathy is not self-serving in terms of looking good in the eyes of others, gaining brownie points to elicit future favours or even reducing discomfort at the sight of another’s suffering: ‘the primary motivation is pure altruism – that is, caring for the other rather than alleviating their own empathic distress.’
He extrapolates further to discern a possible connection between empathy and democracy (page 161). He acknowledges that effective empathy (page 173) needs to be balanced with a degree of detachment so that we do not end up in the quicksand unable to help either others or ourselves. Interestingly from a Bahá’í point of view, he places great emphasis (page 184) on dialogue, a process which may look essentially the same as consultation within the Bahá’í community, though lacking a spiritual foundation.
At the same time as he is developing this theme he begins to introduce evidence to illustrate the role of entropy. We hit this forcefully almost from the start (page 25):
If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .
He then spells out what that means (page 26):
Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.
Much later he introduces a concrete example from ancient history of this problematic interaction (page 222-23):
The same hydraulic technology that unleashed a vast increase in water energy flow, allowing the Sumerian people to build the world’s first great urban civilisation, extend the empathic bond, and advance human consciousness, led to an equally significant entropic impact on the surrounding environment that, in the end, cancelled out much of the gains, leaving both the civilisation and the environment impoverished.
He brings the Roman Empire into the frame later in support of his theory (pages 249-50) though as a psychologist I have always quite liked the lead-piping explanation for their eventually demise: I’m sure you know the gist – lead poisoning, cognitive deficits, military defeats – it’s quite neat really. He is unequivocal though about the way what actually happened confirms his view:
The popular conception is that Rome collapsed because of the decadence of its ruling class, the corruption of its leaders, exploitation of its servants and slaves, and the superior military tactics of invading barbarian hordes. While there is merit in this argument, the deeper cause of Rome’s collapse lies in the declining fertility of its soil and the decrease in agricultural yields. Its agricultural production could not provide sufficient energy to maintain Rome’s infrastructure and the welfare of its citizens. The exhaustion of Rome’s only available energy regime is a cautionary tale for our own civilisation as we begin to exhaust the cheap available fossil fuels that have kept our industrial society afloat.
Shame about the lead hypothesis, but I have to agree that his version makes a lot more sense.
He continues to explore the nature of empathy, seeing it as rooted in ‘embodied experience’ (page 273) and fostered by the increasingly empathy inducing artistic creations of myth, epic and, more recently, the novel, which have become accessible to greater and greater numbers of people as time’s gone on (pages 310-12). He brings into the mix the idea, popular with the Romantics and which I have already explored in terms of the work of John Keats, of ‘imaginative identification’ (page 341). He quotes John Ruskin who observed that ‘people would instantly care for others as well for themselves if only they could imagine others as well as themselves.’
He links the development of this capacity to the existence of ‘complex urban environments’ (page 343). He describes the Romantics as extending this fellow feeling beyond human beings alone to include the world of nature and all living beings (page 344).
It is to the mid-nineteenth century that Rifkin dates the use of electricity as a metaphor for describing ‘nature, human nature and the workings of civilisation’ (page 368), something which develops the idea of empathy even further. Electricity was perceived as ‘neither material nor immaterial’ (page 369) and therefore, he extrapolates (page 370):
A new sense of a porous nature helped create a new sense of social fluidity. Bodies were no longer constrained by their corporeality. If the world is both material and immaterial at same time, then the idea of clear-cut boundaries between people is more a social contrivance than a scientific reality.
The developments of first the telegraph, and then the telephone enabled ‘direct, instantaneous communication between millions of people’ (page 375). Interestingly, he adds (page 376): ‘The word “phony” emerged at the time to describe the experience of not believing the voice at the other end of the phone.’
It is in the 1890s that Rifkin perceives another pitfall than entropy emerging that could derail the empathic train (page 390):
In the 1890s, at the dawn of psychological consciousness, the long-standing notion of becoming a person of ‘good character’ began to give way to the revolutionary new idea of developing one’s ‘personality.’
He unpacks what that might mean (page 391):
Individuals became less concerned about their moral stature and more interested in whether they were liked by others. A premium was placed on influencing peers. To be personable was to exude charisma, to stand out in a crowd and be the centre of attention.
The detailed idea of levels of consciousness that underpin these points is something I shall be returning to in more detail in the later posts on that subject. On Friday I will be digging a bit deeper into the entropy issue and its links with commerce.