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Expired · 14th June 2010
Ray Grigg
The basic premise in Jeremy Rifkin's new book, The Empathic Civilization, is that humans are essentially bound together by a "shared and mutual awareness" that makes us primarily social, co-operative and caring. This empathic quality is both inherited (one crying baby in a hospital nursery will set all the others crying) and learned (the most powerful reminiscences of old age are about interpersonal relationships).

After we have discovered the separateness of self at about age two, Rifkin contends, the next most influential discovery at about age eight is the realization that we all share a common mortality. This empathic-inducing realization becomes the basis for morality, ethics, civility, generosity, compassion, and a host of other attributes that characterize our civilization.

Accordingly, order is far more prevalent than disorder. Competition functions within a general framework of co-operation. Our usual behaviour is to obey laws, work together, build institutions, pay taxes, respect social norms, support each other and generally serve the collective good. Indeed, the inclination of our media to present "bad" news occurs precisely because these events are atypical or they identify the pathological side of our individual selves – such news may actually increase empathy by lauding helpful altruism and censuring asocial conduct. Meanwhile, the world-wide electronic web of communication with its instantaneous linkages creates a "global village" of empathy by dramatically increasing our shared and mutual awareness.

Our civilization, like all others, survives by maintaining its equilibrium. Stability supports order while change induces imbalance. So, according to Rifkin, danger occurs when new energy regimes come together with new communication regimes. These meetings force societies to restructure at a higher level of complexity. This has been the thrust of history as we moved from family structures to tribal ones, then to clans, city-states, kingdoms and eventually to modern nations. Each restructuring demands difficult adjustments, requires a more complex ordering, and extends empathy as the old "glue" that binds us together must be replaced with new adhesive insights.

The latest disruptive restructuring – the one we are presently in, according to Rifkin – is caused by the coming together of oil and electronics. Oil has brought us such incredible products as plastics, fertilizers and a vast array of synthetics, along with international transportation and very complex geopolitical interconnections. Electricity has brought us telegraph, radio, TV and now the proliferating forms of digitalization. As a result of these two regimes, all the disparate and apparently isolated parts of our planet are being forced together as never before in human history. The connectivity allows us to recognize complex patterns and systems previously undiscernible. So we are acquiring a global awareness where humanity as a whole and the biosphere in general are emerging as the new empathic value.

The growing awareness that we are just one humanity living on just one Earth with only one functioning biosphere elicits empathic forces that are in conflict with the old regional values that have been the basis of our earlier empathic loyalties. National issues become international ones and small environmental concerns link to the well being of all the planet's ecosystems. Local connects to global. The parts and the whole become inseparable in the emerging empathy. Compartmentalization and isolation are anachronisms in a place where scanning satellites zoom silently overhead, where digital data hums around the world in megabytes per second, where neighbours are as close as the other side of Earth. As space and time disappear, so does separation.

This loss of separation connects us to the other species with whom we share a shrinking and vulnerable planet. A mutual mortality bonds us to polar bears, pandas, tigers, chimps, gorillas, penguins, sea otters and porpoises. When electronic media bring us intimately close to nature, it's impossible to assume a position of detached indifference. So we are emotionally roused when we watch a magnificent whale die slowly from harpoons, a great grizzly shot by self-indulgent trophy hunters, or a silvery wild salmon smolt sucked to death by fish-farm sea lice. We can rationalize some deaths as necessities in nature's grand design. But others simply seem bloody, unfair and untimely, a crude and violent transgression of the impartial natural justice to which we must all eventually succumb. Empathy makes environmentalism an ethical issue.

In this newly emerging awareness, data no longer exists in isolation. In a world of information density and pattern recognition, superficial questions quickly gravitate to deeper and more fundamental ones. When coal mining's dirty history follows it into the present, everyone must ask if the benefits of a new mine are worth its ecological costs. Should irreplaceable watersheds and coastal ecologies be placed at risk to extract the most polluting of all fossil fuels?

The same searching environmental inquiry repeats itself with virtually every other endeavour we consider. Does undisturbed nature have a utilitarian value unmeasurable in dollars? Is this run-of-river project necessary? When other countries have had problems with open net-pen salmon farming, why are we repeating the same mistakes here? If we must wean ourselves off oil, why are we accommodating the addiction by considering a pipeline that will entice supertankers into a West Coast marine ecology that is one of the richest, most pristine and rare on Earth?

Empathy makes everything personal. This explains why environmental interest continues to rise in profile. And an electronically interconnected world provides no hiding places. If Jeremy Rifkin is correct in The Empathic Civilization – and most likely he is – we are entering a tumultuous time of make-or-break decisions. Our old and narrow awareness is being replaced by an expansive and exacting regard for our planet's biosphere, that thin and delicate film of life which is, for each one of us, the difference between everything and nothing.