17 march 2010

Towards the empathic civilisation

By Jeremy Rifkin, Financial Times March 16 2010

The global economy has shattered. The fossil fuels that propelled an industrial revolution are running out and the infrastructure built with these energies is barely clinging to life. Worse, more than two centuries of rising carbon emissions now threaten us with catastrophic climate change.

If that were not enough, we face a massive loss of social trust in economic and political institutions. Everywhere people are venting their frustration and increasingly taking their anger to the streets.
What is happening to our world? The human race is in a twilight zone between a dying civilisation on life support and an emerging one trying to find its legs. Old identities are fracturing while new identities are too fragile to grasp. To understand our situation, we need to step back and ask: what constitutes a fundamental change in the nature of civilisation?

The great turning points occur when new, more complex energy regimes converge with communications revolutions, fundamentally altering human consciousness in the process. This happened in the late 18th century, when coal and steam power ushered in the industrial age. Print technology was vastly improved and became the medium to organise myriad new activities. It also changed the wiring of the human brain, leading to a great shift from theological to ideological consciousness. Enlightenment philosophers – with some exceptions – peered into the psyche and saw a rational creature obsessed with autonomy and driven by the desire to acquire property and wealth.

Today, we are on the verge of another seismic shift. Distributed information and communication technologies are converging with distributed renewable energies, creating the infrastructure for a third industrial revolution. Over the next 40 years, millions of buildings will be overhauled to collect the surrounding renewable energies. These energies will be stored in the form of hydrogen and any surplus electricity will be shared over continental inter-grids managed by internet technologies. People will generate their own energy, just as they now create their own information and, as with information, share it with millions of others.

This communications revolution will, like its predecessor, change the way we think. We are in the early stages of a transformation from ideological consciousness to biosphere consciousness. Scientists and the public are realising that all life is deeply interdependent. The very way we live leaves a carbon footprint, affecting every other human, our fellow creatures and the earth we cohabit.

The new understanding goes hand-in-hand with discoveries in evolutionary biology, neuro-cognitive science and child development that reveal that human beings are biologically predisposed to be empathic. Our core nature is shown not to be rational, detached, acquisitive, aggressive and narcissistic, as Enlightenment philosophers claimed, but affectionate, highly social, co-operative and interdependent. Homo sapiens is giving way to homo empathicus.

Fresh ideas about human nature throw into doubt many of the core assumptions of classical economic theory. Adam Smith argued that human nature inclined individuals to pursue self-interest in the market. Echoing Smith’s contention, Garrett Hardin wrote a celebrated essay more than 40 years ago entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons”. He suggested that co-operation in shared ventures inevitably failed because of the selfish human drives that invariably surfaced.

If this is universally true, how do we explain hundreds of millions of young people sharing creativity and knowledge in collaborative spaces such as Wikipedia and Linux? The millennial generation is celebrating the global commons every day, apparently unmindful of Hardin’s warning. For millennials, the notion of collaborating to advance the collective interest in networks often trumps “going it alone” in markets.

This generation increasingly views happiness in terms of “quality of life”, forcing a fundamental reappraisal of property rights. We think of property as the right to exclude others from something. But property has also meant the right of access to goods held in common – the right to navigate waterways, enjoy public parks and beaches, and so on. This second definition is particularly important now because quality of life can only be realised collectively – for example, by living in unpolluted environments and safe communities. In the new era, the right to be included in “a full life” – the right to access – becomes the most important “property value.”

The shift from self-interest in national markets to shared interest on the biosphere commons, and the corresponding shift in property from the right to exclude others to the right to be included in global networks, is facilitating a vast extension in empathic consciousness.

In the earlier industrial revolution characterised by ideological consciousness and nation-state governance, Americans empathised with Americans, British with British, Chinese with Chinese and so on. What is required now, at the cusp of the third industrial revolution, is an empathic leap beyond national boundaries to biosphere boundaries. We need to empathise as a global family living in a shared biosphere if our species is to survive and flourish.

The writer’s latest book is ‘The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis’. This article has been adapted from an address prepared for the Royal Society for the Arts in London

>>> Back to list