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Rifkin (2009). The Empathic Civilization.

Rifkin, Jeremy (2009). The Empathic Civilization. New York: Tarcher/Penguin.

“Empathic extension is the only human expression that creates true equality between people.” p. 160.

Will empathic extension grow fast enough for humanity to save the planet – and thereby our species?

Why do wars always make it to the headlines? Why has history mainly been written as a series of confrontations? Why was Darwins’ evolution theory – against his own ideas – simplified into the survival of the fittest? “.. historians … wrote little of the psychological changes that transformed human consciousness. … the development of self-consciousness and the extension of empathic expression … has been carefully chronicled and preserved in the literary narratives.” p. 301

The Empathic Civilization is a large scale reframing of all of human history. Not wars, but energy and empathy are defining features. Rifkin analyses how the discovery of new energy sources has literally fueled the development of mankind, in both material and psychological ways. Each time new energy sources were invented (like agriculture, coal and steam, or oil), human consciousness also lept into new territory. Our consciousness developed from mythological, to theological, ideological and psychological into what could be seen as an emerging dramaturgical consciousness.

So Rifkin sets out to analyse the development of human consciousness as energy revolutions allowed for more complex societies in different stages of human development.

Stages in history Consciousness Communication Energy
forager/hunter mythological oral muscle
hydraulic agriculture theological writing stored food supply
first industrial revolution ideological consciousness printing press coal, steam
second industrial revolution psychological consciousness telephone/telegraph oil
third industrial revolution dramaturgical internet renewable

Each energy revolution has been accompanied and enabled by a communications revolution that enabled increasing complexity. Hydraulic civilizations needed script to organize crop growth and distribution; the printing press enabled mass literacy needed to operate railroad infrastructures and the like; the telephone enabled the long distance communication needed for the fast paced and interconnected oil fueled economies; the internet enables smart distribution of sustainable produced energy.

What is the third industrial revolution? It is probably the most bold hypothesis of the book, and he extended it into his 2011 book The Industrial Revolution, which was used for our section on solutions out of the current energy crisis.

Dramaturgical consciousness is developing as we are increasingly able and expected to play different roles. Where the world always has been a Shakespearian stage, omnipresent communication opportunities building upon a psychological consciousness foster the development of a theatrical selve. Rifkin speculates that the ability to play more different roles in turn fosters an even stronger empathic capacity.

Will this empathic capacity grow fast enough among humanity to be able to deal with the consequences of climate change and resource scarcity? How many recent wars have been effectually fought over oil and other critical resources? Will a distributed renewable energy scheme distribute and democratize energy and power so that more global resource wars can be avoided? Will a biosphere consciousness eventually emerge?

Empathy is dependent on our mortality; as we start to realize our lives are volatile we can start recognizing this in other people and creatures. Our primal drive is to belong; an empathic drive. We are ultimately social beings.

I consider this a great book. Rifkin uses a lot of scientific evidence, and dares to both redefine human history but also draw realistic and useful conclusions for the future. He is quite unique in that respect.

One Comment

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