A few weeks ago I saw economist and author Jeremy Rifkin speak on his new book The Empathic Civilization at the RSA. It was a sweeping, provocative but affecting discourse on the nature of empathy.

Rifkin framed his argument within the context of two spectacular failures: the shut-off of the global economic engine that followed the price of oil rising to an unprecedented $147 a barrel in July 2008 precipitated by growing demand for diminishing fossil fuels from both the developed world and emerging economies ("That was the earthquake that tore asunder the industrial age built on and propelled by fossil fuels. The failure of the financial markets two months later was merely the aftershock"), and the failure of world leaders to reach accord in addressing the accumulated legacy of the fossil fuel age in Copenhagen, December 2009.

The real crisis, he argues, lies in the enlightenment thinking spawned over 200 years ago at the dawn of the modern market economy. Thinking that champions unlimited material progress, and assumes human beings' essential nature to be utilitarian, rational, detached, autonomous, acquisitive:

"If human nature is as the Enlightenment philosophers claimed, then we are likely doomed. It is impossible to imagine how we might create a sustainable global economy and restore the biosphere to health if each and every one of us is, at the core of our biology, an autonomous agent and a self-centered and materialistic being."

Yet recent scientific research into child development and brain science (including the discovery of Mirror-neurons) suggests that rather than being softwired for self-interest, utilitarianism, and aggression our natural tendency is toward sociability, attachment and companionship and that the first drive is the drive to belong. Rifkin talked about the expansion of empathy from blood ties, to religious ties, to ones based on national identity and then asks whether it is such a stretch to imagine that new connective technologies could enable us to make the leap to a connected, global empathic consciousness such as that which is now required if we are to resurrect the global economy and revitalize the biosphere. The pivotal turning points in human consciousness occur, he says, when new energy regimes converge with new communications revolutions. The distributed, networked internet combined with distributed, renewable energies make possible a sustainable, post-carbon economy that is both globally connected and locally managed.

"The information communication technologies (ICT) revolution is quickly extending the central nervous system of billions of human beings and connecting the human race across time and space, allowing empathy to flourish on a global scale, for the first time in history."

Rifkin believes that we have to rethink the human narrative. That connective technologies give us the opportunity to do just that. And that a younger generation is fast extending its empathic embrace beyond our legacy, artificial boundaries to include the whole of humanity and the "vast project of life that envelops the Earth". I hope so. I certainly believe that we have yet to appreciate a fraction of the meaning or potential behind a world with a wholly unprecedented level of connection between people (and things). Some highlights of Rifkin's talk are captured in the short film below, in the style of the RSA's excellent animate series. It's ten minutes well-spent.

Original Post: http://neilperkin.typepad.com/only_dead_fish/2010/05/the-empathic-civilization.html

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