Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Review: Jeremy Rifkin's "The Empathic Civilization"

The Empathic Civilization

The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis

By Jeremy Rifkin

Penguin, 674 pages, $35

American historian Will Durant once wrote that "our instincts ... fit us to be violent hunters and voracious polygamists rather than peaceable citizens; they must be checked a hundred times a day ... to make society and civilization possible."

In this ambitious, at times fascinating but ultimately underwhelming book, U.S. author Jeremy Rifkin takes exception to such propositions.

The veteran futurist and activist argues that this dismal and widely held view of humanity has, for too long, guided our political and economic decisions. In its stead, he presents the case for our innate benevolence.

We are, he claims, "hard wired" to care about, aid and co-operate with others. Indeed, he shows we are now regularly doing so on a global scale. Unfortunately, the very economic and technological systems that allow us this vast reach are also destroying the biosphere.

With our hyper-complex society facing multiple failures as a result of energy depletion and potentially devastating climatic changes, he believes that only a "third industrial revolution" can steer us into a sustainable future.

The industrial and social revolution he envisions (and promotes through his Foundation on Economic Trends) is premised on distributed renewable energy systems managed through global collaborative social networks.

As the author of 17 books (quite a few of which explicitly inform this one), Rifkin presents findings from across a wide range of disciplines that demonstrate our tendency towards empathy.

He follows this with a survey of Western history based on this view before outlining what he sees as contemporary trends (such as rapid urbanization and unprecedented global migration) leading to the empathetic culture he says can help us avert disaster.

Rifkin builds this case on his classification for the evolution of human consciousness that links energy and communication regimes. Accordingly, human-powered oral cultures nurtured a mythic consciousness and wood-burning script cultures a theological consciousness, while the coal-era print culture was an age of ideology.

Our rapidly aging petroleum-based electronic culture evolved what he dubs a psychological consciousness, in which Freud, Jung and others pioneered new ways to conceive of our own identities and interrelationships.

Now, he suggests that we are heading into a renewably powered digital and "dramaturgical" consciousness in which, to paraphrase Shakespeare, all the world will be our stage.

While it is certainly refreshing to find so much evidence for human goodness in one place, the problem is that Rifkin covers so many topics that few of them are given the depth they deserve.

Furthermore, he has a frustrating penchant for seeking his own path through territories previously (and famously) mapped by others, which leaves the reader bereft of insights that might have otherwise lent further illumination to his arguments.

He speculates, for example, about the pre-history of human consciousness without referring to the work of Julian Jaynes, and analyzes modes of communication media with only the most superficial of references to Marshall McLuhan.

Despite the book's considerable length, it is also surprisingly limited in scope. Beyond demonstrating our inherent goodness Rifkin can offer little in the way of constructive, normative principles for actually building and achieving an "empathic civilization."

This fundamental inadequacy is largely owed to the book's greatest failing: that the global and universal empathic civilization Rifkin envisions appears to be almost wholly derived from Euro-American culture and thought.

Aside from some early brief references to Eastern religions, ancient Middle Eastern history and Japan's education system, the studies, histories and philosophies described here are all Western.

There is almost no effort on Rifkin's part to learn from or describe the empathic traditions or histories of African, Asian, Oceanic or South American cultures.

As a result, the reader is essentially left to equate the Euro-American experience with "civilization."

Worse, rather than trying to learn from diverse traditional and indigenous societies still retaining closer adherence to familial, social and ecological values, Rifkin draws his (and our) only guidance from the very intellectual traditions most culpable for the present ecological crisis.

The oversight is a grievous one. The book's primary message may be welcome and inspiring, and its many important ideas deserving of a wide audience, but these cannot compensate for the ironic failure of their author to sufficiently extend his own empathic gaze.

By Michael Dudley

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 16, 2010 H10


  1. While one must be cautious in commenting on a book he has not read, it does seem that the problem you note is very common in studies aiming at the future. Our current situation is, of course, unique in some ways, but we can profit in understanding by drawing on many other sources besides those of the west. This is a problem in much writing about the phenomenon called globalization.

    Perhaps civilizationists are at their best calling attention to similarities of present situations wioth those of the past, without attempting much in the way of prescription.
    we can help others widen their perspectives, but probably are no better than others in trying to indicated what ought to be done or even what is doable.

    Matt Melko
    11 May 2010

  2. I am one of the autonomous whites that is not transitioning. Autonomy was no obsession - but a necessity for liberty - of individualism. Once again my understanding of white spupremacy is affirmed--it is autonomy that is our distinction, at least some of those deemed as white.