It smelled a little off from the beginning, I’ll admit. But, as I say, I’m not immune to flattery. So when Jeremy Rifkin invited me to contribute a piece to the Huffington Post sometime ago (OK, the email actually came from his secretary), as one of “30 of the world’s leading intellectuals, scholars, and scientists from a range of academic fields and professional disciplines” (no, I’m not making this up), I deliberated for some minutes and then promptly took the bait. Yes, yes, it was a transparent advertisement for his new book. But I enjoy a book every now and then — mostly then with my current schedule. And it was free. So I skimmed it. And it was indeed thought-provoking. Alas, my close personal friend Arianna evidently elected not to publish it (she doesn’t call! She doesn’t write — Nothing!).
Anyway, since I put an hour or three into writing the thing, I offer it here, belatedly, for your edification:
Empathy, Enmity, and the Future of Civilization
J. Emmett Duffy
Three millennia ago, at the dawn of civilization, an already jaded King Solomon proclaimed that there is nothing new under the Sun. We now know that in an important sense he was wrong—in little more than the last century, surging human population and rapidly evolving technology have profoundly transformed this unique planet, changing even the climate itself, probably irreversibly. After triumphantly capturing fire in the stone age, we’ve lost control of it. Humanity has become not only a force of nature but the force of nature.
This unprecedented boom, which raised human living standards immeasurably, was powered by a one-time inheritance of fossil fuel, the end of which is now looming into view. Yet our numbers, and especially our appetites, continue to grow as the developing world understandably strives to become, in Thomas Friedman’s words, carbon copies of Americans. Reaching that dubious goal, an online calculator tells me, would require the natural resources of 5.8 earths. And we only have one. Civilization as we know it is in for a rude awakening.
Can we yet make a soft landing? Many have argued compellingly that only a revolutionary change in our way of life— something new under the sun—offers any hope. But is humanity capable of such a leap? Jeremy Rifkin thinks so. He sees the answer in a new “Empathic Civilization” that will meld the dizzying power of modern global communications with renewable energy and, more uniquely, the innate power of human empathy.
It is a seductive idea. And a noble one. He is surely right that empathy—for one another and for Nature—must be central if we hope to bequeath a habitable and civilized world to our grandchildren. But properly vetting this grand idea requires focusing clearly on the human nature at its center. Who is this Homo empathicus? And can she really save the world from the profound challenges we face? It’s true that humans are nearly unique among animals in our capacity for altruism beyond our own kin. Rifkin rightly sees this is a bright ray of hope in an often dark prospect. Going farther, he argues that empathy can save the world. I would very much like to believe he’s right.
But any cursory look at the news makes the vision of global empathy seem surreally optimistic. Humanity today, as in every age, is equally prone to monstrous cruelty. The same global nervous system that could link us in a planetary empathic network, for example, has been twisted into a spiderweb for terrorists perpetrating horrific violence on random civilians.
Why is this? Evolutionary research has produced a wealth of evidence, from slime molds through apes, that all societies balance on a narrow ridge between cooperation and conflict. Even the huge colonies of ants and honeybees, those archetypes of cooperation and industry, conceal seething intrigues worthy of any medieval court. And despite our mirror neurons, our inherent sociability, and our highly sophisticated capacity for altruism, humans, alas, are no exception. Just look at the state of American politics.
Empathy and selfishness are the twin poles—the inseparable yin and yang—forming the axis of our social nature. They are clearly manifested in the simplest tribal cultures and remain, despite the veneer of our sophisticated material culture, at the core of our most fundamental institutions, from families to national governments to world religions.
It was ever thus. While Solomon would recognize little of the modern world, he would surely understand that neither empathy nor selfishness are new under the sun. Our common path forward must reckon with the reality that, despite humanity’s impressive societal advances, the tension between selfish conflict and altruism is, literally, a part of our DNA. We ignore that fundamental duality at our peril.
But that need not mean we are prisoners of our history or genes. Humanity has transcended seemingly insurmountable barriers many times, and we are now arguably at the top of our game. The practical challenge in realizing an Empathic Civilization is a re-vision of our concept of community, one that effectively neutralizes our inborn xenophobia and expands our natural empathy to the global tribe gathering as technology relentlessly batters down borders. It won’t be easy, but it is clearly underway as we’ve seen in the outpouring of support for the people of Haiti. Equally importantly, moving forward will also require turning back, to rebuild the community we once shared with the living world, before it was debased into just another consumable commodity. Only now, as they disappear, are we beginning to fully understand how desperately we need our fellow passengers on the ark—materially, psychologically, even spiritually. When we come, as individuals and as a society, to understand this mutual interdependence and put it into practice, the Empathic Civilization will be born. It can’t come too soon.