Rifkin, Jeremy. The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis.

Author:Quest, Linda
Position:Book review
 
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Rifkin, Jeremy. The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2009. xii + 674 pages. Cloth, $27.95.

The Empathic Civilization spans the social sciences--history, government, economics, psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Jeremy Rifkin's work encompasses the planet and ranges from pre-9000 BCE to the present and another five to twenty-five years into the future. Specifically, Rifkin highlights the dilemma of rising empathy in humankind and deepening entropy, with planet Earth teetering between sustainability and collapse.

Those involved in policy planning and risk analysis know, or soon learn, that the past holds keys to possible futures. Any of Rifkin's scenarios for the future are possible. Human agency is involved in all of them. In the worst case, entropy runs amok and plunges the planet into a catastrophe for humankind and the biosphere. This is plausible. Or entropy and empathy continue in an indefinitely protracted struggle; ecological conditions worsen and humankind manages to survive while adapting to niches in deteriorating habitats. This is not improbable. Or empathic extension to the planet sufficiently alters patterns of energy use, habits of consumption, and wastefulness to halt further environmental degradation. That is mildly optimistic and moderately probable. Or humankind--through empathic extension as a species to include planet Earth as a whole applies effort, wit, and intelligence to salvaging acceptable futures and providing many choices. This is optimistic, even preferable, as an option. However, it carries personal responsibility--embracing strangers and enemies, not just one's kin and peers. Is it prophetic? Its popular appeal might fall short.

The Empathic Civilization holds out hope for the future. Rifkin uses the term Homo empathicus to describe the converging view of human nature coming from the natural and social sciences and humanities. By whatever designation, the concept can be shared, as the picture of earthrise seen from the moon has been shared. Rifkin traces the communications trajectory from gestures, facial and body expression to oral, through script to print, to electronic digital. Currently, we have information distributed globally with access expanding worldwide. Rifkin tracks primeval suspicion and dread evoked by mysterious demons, monsters, and "others" from "misty" times to the present. Role differentiation, according...

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