BOOKS | The Emphatic Civilization: The race to global consciousness in a world in crisis,
by Jeremy Rifkin (Tarcher/Penguin: 2010)
Best-selling social critic Jeremy Rifkin has figured it out brilliantly: the disconnect between our vision for the world and our ability to realize that vision lies in the current state of human consciousness. The very way in which our brains are structured disposes us to a way of feeling, thinking and acting in the world that is no longer entirely relevant to the new environments we have created for ourselves. This very idea is the foundation on which we intend to build THNK: the complex challenges on a broad range of topics that we are faced with in today's world require an entirely different kind of leadership that builds on the notion of empathy.
At a time when we find our world in crisis—economically, financially, climate- and otherwise—the real crisis, Rifkin argues, lies in the set of assumptions about human nature that governs the behavior of world leaders. We assume that human beings, and nation states alike, are rational, detached, autonomous, acquisitive, utilitarian, self-centered and materialistic. If this holds true, then we are likely doomed since it is hard to imagine that we would be capable of creating a sustainable global economy and revitalizing the biosphere. Nevertheless, there is hope. There is growing scientific evidence that we are the most social of animals and a fundamentally empathic species, which profound and far-reaching consequences may well turn out to be the saving grace for world society.
What is required now is nothing less than a leap to global emphatic consciousness, and in less than a generation. The fundamental question here is the following: What is the mechanism that allows empathic sensitivity to mature and consciousness to expand through history? According to Rifkin, the pivotal turning points in human consciousness occur when new energy regimes converge with new communications revolutions, creating new economic eras. The new communications revolutions become the command and control mechanisms for structuring, organizing and managing more complex civilizations that the new energy regimes make possible. Communication revolutions do not only manage new, more complex energy regimes, but also change human consciousness in the process. By extending the central nervous system of each individual and the society as a whole, communication revolutions provide an evermore inclusive playing field for empathy to mature and consciousness to expand.
We are now on the verge of another historic convergence of energy and communication—a third industrial revolution—which presents us with perhaps the greatest human experiment to date: refashioning human consciousness so that human beings can mutually live and flourish in the new globalizing society that will have to showcase a sustainable, post-carbon economy in order to safeguard our existence on earth. In essence, this shift in consciousness is based upon reaching out to others. Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?
Watch a beautifully animated summary of Rifkin's argument (by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce).