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Empathy or Entropy - the choice is ours
on 1 February 2011
This is a very important book and it will be a shame, perhaps even a tragedy, if it does not command a very wide readership.
Here is a detailed history of our civilization, from ancient to post modern times, but with a twist, as it is written from the perspective of energy flows and empathy surges. It is also an urgent call for the spread of empathy to save the world. Because Rifkin is in no doubt that the world is in serious danger. Climate change is a reality, putting the future of much of nature, including humankind, in serious jeopardy. And we also have the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Calling upon the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics Rifkin shows us why our rate of energy usage is unsustainable, that ever more complex energy consuming economies and social arrangements are using the planet's finite energy resources at an unsustainable rate, a process called entropy. But here also we find hope, because he shows us that, contrary to popular belief, we are wired for empathy, through our mirror neurons. The globalization of empathic consciousness could yet save us from self- destruction, he writes.
The book is in three parts. Part 1 gives evidence for an emerging empathic human nature. The way we bring up our children is crucial to the development of their empathic nature, with far reaching implications. And we also have a genetic predisposition to seek empathic bonds with animals including wild life. Rifkin also demonstrates that widespread and wanton violence has not been the norm in human history. Again this will surprise many. But the ebbs and flows of human empathic development can be linked throughout the history of civilization with the evolution of energy flows. The problem is that philosophical and political thinking is very slow in catching up with these important developments in the understanding of human nature. Part 2 goes into some considerable detail to trace these historical links between energy consumption, humanity's empathic surges and changes in consciousness, to provide, he says, a deeper understanding of where we have come from and to supply a map to help us steer towards a more secure future. He then reports in part 3 on the current race between empathy and entropy. The Empathic Civilization is coming, he tells us. Our empathy is spreading across the globe to embrace all humanity. Indeed I call for more empathy and compassion within all aspects of our lives in my own book Healing This Wounded Earth. But at the same time Rifkin warns that there is a "rapidly accelerating entropic juggernaut in the form of climate change and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction." Will empathy or entropy win? Can the developed West find a workable cultural, economic and political game plan for a sustainable and equitable future at the same time as the poor countries improve their economic conditions, and all this before we fall into an entropic abyss? "Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?"
We have the answer to that in our own hands and we have very little time to spare in averting disaster, perhaps no more than a few decades, or a generation.
Here is an incredibly well written and deeply researched thesis that I recommend to any one who cares for the future of our planet. Rifkin's argument is novel and convincing. He combines frightening facts with fascinating links and persuasive arguments, all related through the history of civilization. What is more he suggests the way forward, which we ignore at our peril.
But I fear that there is almost too much information and too many words in too many chapters; I did wonder whether Part II particularly could have been shorter without losing the message. I became impatient to move on to the most important Part III. My fear is that this could daunt many and lessen the impact of what is an extremely important and urgent message for us all.
Nevertheless, a very good book.