August 8, 2012 by Teresa Rodriguez
The fact that nearly two million people have watched “grand-thinker” Jeremy Rifkin’s animated video on Youtube; or that he is the author of 19 best-selling books translated into over 35 languages; or that his monthly column on global issues appears in many of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines, makes me think that what I am about to say will not be news to a lot of people. But it really ties in with my series on “If this system doesn’t work what would?” and with my own thoughts on Empathy in dialogue.
In the first two installments I proposed some of the changes I think are necessary to leave a system that is proving to be self-destructive (education revolution and change of meta-narratives) to create a tabula rasa that allows for new ways to relate to each other and participate in each others’ lives and in the planet’s future.
Jeremy Rifkins’s Empathic civilisation is an interesting proposal, not without flaws, many would say, but certainly one that can shed some positive light into the design of our new model/s. In order to understand the thought behind Empathic civilisation you could watch the following video. However, if you, like most people, tend to get lost in the speedy divulgement of facts, you may want to skip it and go straight to the summary I’ve made for you below.
Human’s innate empathic drive
Rifkin explains that humans have been proven to be soft wired with “Mirror neurons” that allow us to experience the same feeling as those we observe. Thanks to these mirror neurons, we have an innate tendency towards sociability, attachment, affection, companionship (to belong), rather than towards being greedy, ambitious, utilitarian, narcissistic, self-centered or violent. As John Bowlby might have said (and as I explained in What do you and I have in common?), human’s first and foremost drive is towards affection, companionship and belonging – it’s an empathic drive.
Around two and a half years of age, when children start to recognise themselves in a mirror, they begin to develop empathy and at eight they learns about birth and death, that there is only one life, and that their life is fragile and vulnerable and will end up in an inevitable death. That’s the beginning of an existential trip. So, one could say that the development of selfhood goes together with empathic development. Increasing selfhood increases empathic development because empathy is grounded in the acknowledgement of death and the celebration of life, on our frailties and our imperfections.
Rifkin’s empathic civilisation relates to the ability of human beings to show solidarity not only with each other but with fellow creatures who have a one and only life on this little planet.
As such, the question to ask is, are we really homo-empathicus? Can our hidden empathic drives save ourselves and our planet? The following video might have an answer (it’s in Spanish, but pretty self-explanatory – the instructor tells two children at at time they have to wait for the photographer who will be there in five minutes but she gives them permission to have a snack while they wait for him. They children don’t know each other. She asks them not to check what’s under the lid until she’s gone. See what happens.)
Although it may be somewhat lacking in scientific method, I like to believe this is who we are. Homo empathicus. And that until now, we have wasted our efforts in devoting our empathy, as Rifkin continues to explain, solely to relationships determined by blood ties, or theological consciousness or fictional entities like markets or nation states.
Changing narratives – Sharing responsibility for energy production
Can we not use the technological advancements developed during what Rifkin calls the Third Industrial Revolution to extend our innate empathy to all humans as a family? Can we not break away from earlier legacies that made us believe that human nature is fallen and depraved or that human beings’ essential nature is rational, detached, autonomous, acquisitive and utilitarian and is only interested in the pursuit of material gains?.
If the answer to that question is, yes, we can, it follows another question, how? What is required to mature the innate empathic sensitivity and consciousness of all humans?
Rifkin proposes that today’s convergence of energy and communication could facilitate the reach of the empathic sensibility to the biosphere itself and all of life on Earth. His premise is based on the believe that in our very near future, the great majority of the inhabitants of this planet will harvest renewable energies and store those energies in the form of hydrogen and share electricity across local, regional, national and continental inter-grids, giving rise to collaborative energy spaces on which the responsibility of the health of the biosphere lies on.
Thanks to our becoming responsible for the energy we produce and emit, we become intimately interconnected with our immediate and distant neighbours.
Changing narratives – Finding a common purpose to communicate about
Beyond sharing our responsibility for the planet’s biosphere, Rifkin questions, are we aware why we humans should be communicating globally? Does this interglobal communication have a purpose or an end beyond sharing information, be entertained, trade and speed the globalisation of the economy?. In his own words (which I second)
“The idea of even billion individual connections, absent any overall unifying purpose, seems a colossal waste of human energy. More important, making global connections without any real transcendent purpose risks a narrowing rather than an expanding of human consciousness.”
His proposal follows the risk, just like any other model, to end up being yet another fictional narrative that replaces earlier narratives that are proving not to work for us. But I think it still needs to be considered, just like many others to which I’ll be dedicating some thought in the near future. Because to me, embracing technology to develop an overarching purpose to communicate and to harness our empathic sensibility in order to establish a new global ethic that harmonises humans, other species and the planet, it’s worthwhile considering.
If you want to read more on biosphere politics and human empathy, visit Jeremy Rifkin’s site and if you want to see the man in action, here is another video for you: