The Empathic Civilization

By Michael Edmonds 08/01/2011

One of the things I look forward to over the Christmas/New Years break is to find a good book to read during my academic “downtime”. This time around I selected the Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin and what a good choice that was. Exceedingly well written and informative, this book is not a light read. Its insights and occasionally provocative ideas had me regularly pausing to think more deeply about both the author’s ideas and my own beliefs.

An RSA animated summary of some of the key concepts in The Empathic Civilization is also available, see below.

There is a lot more detail in the actual books 600+ pages than the video can cover. I will attempt to cover some of this below, however, my own description will barely scratch the surface of Rifkin’s work. I hope it will whet a few people’s appetites, as I would love to discuss the book in much more detail.

The Empathic Civilization is divided into three sections.

I. Homo Empathicus

In this section, Rifkin looks many of the theories describing what primarily drives human beings. From Thomas Hobbe’s contention that humans are naturally aggressive and self interested, John Locke’s belief that we are driven to optimize pleasure and mitigate pain, to Sigmund Freud’s focus on sexual gratification, Rifkin discusses and then pokes holes in these theories. Then, using a multitude of scientific studies including the discovery of mirror neurons, Rifkin concludes that we are an empathic social species whose primary drive is to form relationships.

II. Empathy and Civilization

In these chapters, rich with historical details, Rifkin discusses the development of empathy across time and space and observes how advances in technology have resulted in ‘empathic surges’ as the way we interact with each other has changed. Technological improvements in communication, transport and energy use, in particular, have had significant impacts. For example, a shift from oral to written language ‘encourage(s) the individualization of language … (and) foster(s) the creation of a growing selfhood.’ The recognition that one is a separate entity from the community is necessary to be self-analytical, and therefore empathic. Rifkin uses a multitude of examples to illustrate his points.

III. The Age of Empathy

In this section, Rifkin discusses the modern world, commenting that ‘while the backlash of globalization — the 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 human beings have become part of a global floating diaspora, and the world itself is becoming transformed into a universal public square.’ Rifkin not believes that, as a species, we are at our most empathic, but that it may be our only salvation. As we enter a ‘planetary entropic abyss’ where our reliance on fossil fuels and pollution of our environment make our planet less inhabitable for an increasing population, an appeal to our empathic nature may be the only way to change our growth driven economies and societies to those which are truly sustainable. Rifkin describes a four pillar approach to drive a Third Industrial Revolution to create a sustainable global environment. I will detail this approach elsewhere, as I do not want to oversimplify it.

Jeremy Rifkin’s book, ‘The Empathic Civilization’ is a fascinating, substantial and sometimes confronting read (its subtitle is ‘the race to global consciousness in a world in crisis’ after all!).  It is a wonderful story of human history, as well as a warning of where the excesses of humanity will lead us, unless we pursue more visionary and sustainable approaches to our combined future.

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