Jeremy Rifkin:


"The Empathic Civilization" (2009)

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I found this ambitious and colossal book to be mostly tedious and rarely informative. The publisher pretends that there are multiple strands to the book, from macro-economics to neuroscience, but in fact there is mostly psychology, old-fashioned (pre-neuroscience) psychology, with reference mostly to studies published several decades ago.

"Empathy" is a word originally coined in 1872 by Robert Visher and transposed into psychology by Wilhelm Dilthey.

Rifkin's thesis is that the human race evolved an empathic quality that is largely responsible for the history of civilization. Rifkin points at discoveries in neuroscience that the human brain is innately empathic: we are genetically programmed to sympathyze with others. Therefore he believes that we are an "empathic species". He borrows from many disciplines to weave a history of how humans increasingly valued cooperation, not competition, up to the high-tech present times, in which social media simply foster even more cooperation and understanding across different groups. Violence has been the exception, not the norm, in human history. The main trend has, instead, been one of forming ever more complex energy-consuming civilizations. Rifkin believes that these increasingly complex civilizations have been due to "constant empathic feedback". The dilemma is that this growing empathy has taken a toll on the planet in the form of resource consumption, which he equates to entropy. These increasingly complex energy-consuming civilizations cause increasingly greater damage to the environment.

In a nutshell here is Rifkin's view of history. The cultivation of cereals led to large-scale irrigation, which led to pottery and tools and eventually to industry, art and culture, i.e. to what we call civilization. The availability of energy shapes a civilization. In a sense, a civilization is a flow of energy. Energy revolutions, such as the one caused by factories, are important because they gave us things such as the printing press, the phone and the radio, that, in turn, triggered communication revolutions. Communication revolutions are the way that civilization organizes the flow of energy. Communication reconfigures society. Communication revolutions extend the nervous system of each individual. They literally change the way the brain thinks. Oral cultures yield mythological consciousness; script cultures yield theological consciousness; print cultures yield ideological consciousness; electronic cultures yield "full-blown psychological consciousness". Because they keep expanding the nervous system, Rifkin thinks that communication revolutions yield more and more empathic behavior.

Rifkin objects that modern philosophers tend to have a very materialistic view of human nature. He starts out with Psychiatry (which is not exactly a science) and he starts out by attacking Freud, which is fairly easily done these days. Except that he uses arguments dating from the 1930s, advanced by a group of psychiatrists who, unlike Freud, thought that sociability is more important than libido: British psychologist Ronald Fairbairn ("Psychoanalytical Studies of the Personality", 1952), British psychologist Donald Winnicott ("The Child and the Outside World", 1957), Austrian psychologist Heinz Kohut ("Restoration of the Self", 1977), etc. They emphasized that we are born with an instinct to form bonds, starting with the bond between infant and mother.

Others argued that play is the most important social activity, for example the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky ("The role of play in development", 1930), the British psychologist Ian Suttie ("The Origins of Love and Hate", 1935) and the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga ("Homo Ludens", 1938); and, in more recent times, the US neurologist Paul MacLean and the Estonian psychologist Jaak Panksepp.

Rifkin summarizes decades of psychological research showing the importance of the motherly bond, which really starts with Konrad Lorenz's theory of imprinting in animals ("The Companion in the Bird's World", 1935). Rifkin retells stories, largely forgotten, from the stone-age of psychology: Harold Skeels' study of orphans (1936), Rene Spitz's film "Grief" (1947), John Bowlby's article "The Nature of the Child's Tie to His Mother" (1958), Mary Ainsworth's "Strange Situation" procedure (1965), demonstrating little or no knowledge of modern neuroscience. All these psychologists who rebelled against Freud's materialist view of human nature point at a primary psychological force that is not Freudian libido but the striving for affection and socializing. Rifkin concludes that (quote) "the development of selfhood is completely intertwined with the development of empathic consciousness". More convincingly, Rifkin quotes the British psychologist Robin Dunbar and the Dutch ethologist Frans DeWaal, who think that empathy (e.g. in the form of grooming) is the original form of language that only later became sounds, words and sentences.

Then he finally enters scientific territory with the chapter on mirror neurons, discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti in 1996. The brain uses "mirror" neurons to represent what others are doing, i.e. the brain builds a simulation of other people's minds (George Herbert Mead called it a "theory of mind" in his seminal 1934 book "Mind, Self and Society"). Rifkin concludes: "we are wired for empathy". Of course, it could also be that mirror neurons helps us understand others in a merciless competitive race for resources, but Rifkin sees only the half full glass: mirror neurons help us empathyze with others because they make us "feel" their feelings. Patricia Churchland, a philosopher and neuroscientist, has a more convincing (and scientific) argument in the chapter "The Brains Behind Morality" of her book "Touching a Nerve" (2013).

Rifkin continues with Psychology, hardly my favorite "science", and mostly very old psychological theories/studies. He surveys Stanley Greenspan's theory of the seven stages of child development towards self-consciousness and Martin Hoffman's theory of the five stages of child development towards empathy (with an emphasis on mimicry). Rifkin attacks Descartes, Bacon and Kant for their emphasis on disembodied mind and reasoning; and, instead, hails "advocates of embodied experience", leaving the impression that it is a tidal wave shaking the world of science, but Rifkin fails to tell us who these advocates are (he never mentions the word "externalism", nor any of its proponents, so i assume he is not aware of that school of thought). He claims that there is a general movement to transition away from Descartes' "I think therefore i am" to an empathic "I participate therefore i am", but only quotes the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski (both unknown to me). Since he never mentions who they are, i cannot comment pro or against the "embodied experience" philosophers; but i can caution Rifkin that without Descartes and Bacon we would still be living in the medieval world, people would still be dying in their 30s of ordinary diseases that today are easily healed, people would be starving in a pre-industrial society, none of the comforts that we are used to would be available (e.g. heating and A/C), none of the communication media that Rifkin hails would have been invented, and only a few bold people would travel from one country to another one, at great personal risk and taking months to reach their destination. Luckily we had a scientific revolution that introduced the disembodied mind. Had Rifkin been there to influence the outcome, we may still be living with sorcers and alchemists instead of software engineers and physicians.

He then argues that the scientific revolution came with a new powerful fear of death (correct) but his experience-based spirituality, with its call for empathic consciousness, sounds like yet another variation on the new-age spirituality that has created a lot of neurotic people.

It is all downhill from here because he begins to dissect the history of civilization using antiquated sources such as French anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl's discredited "How Natives Think" (1910) or the US literary and art critic Lewis Mumford's "Technics and Civilization" (1934, which the bibliography erroneously lists as being published in 1962 - a frequent kind of mistake in that bibliography), or, worse, opinionated but not scholarly sources such as Christian writer Karen Armstrong's "The Great Transformation" (2006), which is actually just a reworking of her bestseller "A History of God" (1993). Rifkin drops their names like he did with the psychologists, hoping that the reader will be impressed by his broad knowledge, when in fact these names and books shows how much he does not know of modern scholarship about the issues he discusses (books by Stephen Mitten, Merlin Donald and Steven Pinker, also concerned with the stages of mental Homo Sapiens evolution, contain much better bibliography). Rifkin casually drops judgments and conclusions after very superficial analyses that ignore virtually all the scholarship that would be relevant for those conclusions. His discussions of the stages of human civilization never mention Vico or Comte.

To start with, he is certain that human consciousness has changed over history and that "noone would deny it". His theory is that changes in energy flows cause changes in forms of communication which in turn reshape the human brain. He doesn't bother to explain the biological laws that can change the brain of the Homo Sapiens species. He gets away with vague statements such as "expands the domain of the central nervous system". Rifkin thins that writing was invented by the great "hydraulic agricultural societies" for the purpose of managing their economic activities, but the only place where this is true is Mesopotamia. The oldest writing in China is on oracle bones. We have no clue about the origins of the Indus Valley script. He thinks he knows how prehistoric humans thought "The reality he experienced had only a limited past sense and virtually no future sense". Wild speculation (but, more importantly, are we sure that today this is any different for the vast majority of people, from Indian slums to Silicon Valley nerds, from the Russian steppes to Wall Street yuppies?) Rifkin follows Bruhl in thinking that primitive people don't have a sense of "I". Bruhl was writing 100 years ago. It would be nice to hear what contemporary anthropologists think now that they have 100 more years of studies behind them. Rifkin then speculates (it is all pure speculation, with a few scattered references to the abovesaid obsolete literature) that a primordial sense of selfhood emerged with the "gardening energy regime", when the first urban settlements began to emerge, He thinks that the first people to get a sense of the self where the first people to get rich and therefore differentiate themselves from the masses. His source for this statement is Marxist writer Karl Wittfogel's "Oriental Despotism" (1957, which, again, the bibliography lists as published in 1981 - one can't help suspecting that later editions are listed to fool the reader into thinking this is recent scholarship). Rifkin mentions the Sumerian epic "Gilgamesh" as evidence of the beginning of selfhood. Countless books have been written on that epic but Rifkin doesn't seem to have read any of them. He then casually tells us that "Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and Persia were all theocracies". If by "theocracy", he means what we mean today, that the state is ruled by priests (as in today's Iran), then the statement is obviously false. The priests of Ashur did not rule Assyria and the priests of Marduk did not rule Babylonia, and the great Persian emperors hardly ever paid attention to Zoroaster (there is no evidence that Darius was a believer at all). If by "theocracy" he means that the state is influenced by a religious belief, then the USA is a theocracy.

The chapter on "theological consciousness", which he associates with "highly advanced agricultural civilizations", ends up being mostly about the Jews, which, ironically, were the least advanced agricultural civilization of that period that i can name. Rifkin takes the Tanakh (the "old testament" for Christians) seriously: "The Hebrews were the first to communicate their culture through the written word". This means that Rifkin thinks the Tanakh is very old (most scholars wouldn't bet on older than 500 BC) and that, for example, the Upanishads (probably older) don't qualify as "communicating a culture through the written word", not does Homer (whose Iliad is as fictional a historical account as the Tanakh - at least Homer does not pretend that people lived to the age of 900+). Some of us think that, as far as history goes, the Tanakh is simply a continuation of the Sumerian King List (dated to 2,000 BC). Rifkin grants the Tanakh (and to its legendary characters such as Moses and Abraham) a legitimacy that he does not grant any other semi-legendary semi-historical ancient book, for example the Chinese "Shujing" that covers the Xia (2,000 BC), Shang and Zhou dynasties. Based on a couple of pages of sport-bar psychology, Rifkin decides that monotheism led to the full blossoming of the self because the Jewish god speaks directly to the individual and, somehow, this created an empathic consciousness. At this point Rifkin recognizes that something similar was going on in other parts of the world and recycles the "axial age", a concept introduced by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers in his book "The Origin and Goal of History" (1949). The privileged status of the Jews in his narrative would be annoying if we didn't know that Rifkin's mother was Jewish and that Rifkin was born in the USA, a country obsessed with everything Jewish. Rifkin concludes his chapter on theological consciousness by asserting with absolute certainty that the great hydraulic civilizations collapsed because of "changes in soil salinity and sedimentation" caused by their own exploitation of nature. Throughout this discussion of the great civilizations of the past it is not clear how the Phoenicians, Persia and (lo and behold) Greece fit into his narrative: neither were a major "hydraulic agricultural civilization" but the Phoenicians invented the alphabet, Persia went on to conquer both Mesopotamia and Egypt (not to mention the land of the Jews), and Greece, the birthplace of Western philosophy and science, is conveniently skipped by Rifkin as he jumps from Judaism straight to imperial Rome.

To him Rome is not dictatorship, massacres, and zero tolerance, but instead the home of Christianity, which to him represents a peak in empathy. There are multiple problems with this reading of Roman history. Hundreds of books have been written about it. Rifkin chooses to quote, besides his favorite Mumford, the German zionist Eric Kahler's "Man the Measure" (1943, and not 1967 as the bibliography says) and the physicist Robert Logan' "The Alphabet Effect" (1986), neither of whom is a professional historian. Some of the strongest statements, however, don't even have a source and come after just a few lines of discussion ("The archeological evidence suggests that the early Christians were... etc", "The preponderance of evidence, then, shows that the early Christians... etc", "Clearly, the Gnostics viewed Jesus as..."). No evidence is presented for these theses, other than Logan's book, which is not a book of archeological research. Logan, and the whole "alphabet effect" school (to which Logan was a late comer), had interesting ideas on the effect that the invention of the alphabet (again, Phoenician, predating the Jewish books), had on abstract thinking and eventually on modern science and mathematics (Logan even implied that the alphabet caused monotheism) and maybe Rifkin sees this as confirming his idea of an empathic trend. If that is the case, Rifkin should read all the people who responded to the "alphabet effect" theory showing that it doesn't work too well outside the Western world (in particular, the logographic account of Chinese writing is certainly inaccurate). Rifkin ends the chapter in a condescending manner, patting on the back the thousands of historians who have studied the collapse of the Roman Empire but offering them the real explanation: the declining fertility of its soil (no, this is not a tv skit).

The rest of the book keeps making strong statements that are weakly supported by the scholarship: "The first European windmill was installed in Yorkshire in 1185" (but Lynn White's "Medieval Technology and Social Change" of 1962, a book mentioned in the bibliography, is far from certain of that claim), "In pre-Napoleonic Europe more than three-quarters of the population lived under these kinds of horrible conditions" (but the source quoted in the notes is a book about England only), etc. The discussion on the word "self" is ambiguous at best. Rifkin tells us when the word started being used, but it is an English word, and a word that is not trivial to translate into other languages

Then we get a very superficial and vague history of Enlightenment, Romanticism and Realism (with hand-picked favorite phenomena out of the thousands of important things that happened during those decades), leading up to Freud and the birth of what he calls the "psychological consciousness". Having finally arrived to the glorious age of Psychology, we are treated to a quick survey of what he considers psychological achievements: Jacob Moreno's group therapy, Watson's and Skinner's behaviorism, Max Wertheimer's gestalt psychology, Kurt Lewin's sensitivity training and humanist psychologists like Rollo May, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Well, these are the kind of psychologists who give Psychology a bad name. Rifkin doesn't mention the ones who got it right: Thorndike, Bartlett, Selz, etc. He only mentions the psychologists who tried to shape people's mind, causing incalculable damage to their patients, not the psychologists who actually studied people's mind. In passing he mentions some terrifying statistics: 7% of US citizens join a self-help group every year, 20% of US adults have undergone some kind of therapy, and the country has 33,000 psychiatrists. No wonder that the USA has the highest percentage of psycho killers in the whole world. Anyway, at the end of this quick survey of the shamanic current of Psychology he concludes that the world is ready for universal empathic consciousness.

And so we get to our age and Rifkin spends a chapter making sure we realize that migration is booming, tourism is booming, people marry people from other nations and faiths (although he forgets to mention that Muslim men marry non-Muslim women, but precious few Muslim women dare marry non-Muslim men), an increasing number of people can communicate in the same language (he thinks English is #1 but actually Mandarin is still #1, spoken not only in China, Taiwan and Singapore but also by Chinese minorities in every continent of the world and in dozens of countries in every continent), gender discrimination is decreasing, religion is declining (not sure how that counts as increasing empathy), binational and inter-racial marriages are booming, environmental and animal-rights groups are multiplying (although over 56 billion farmed animals are killed every year by humans, the all-time record), etc.

(Incidentally, Rifkin writes that Lady Diana's funeral was "the most watched event in all of history". Perhaps in the former British colonies, certainly not in the rest of the world where the football/soccer world cup easily wins, a month-long event watched live by 700 million people and replayed countless times over the following years. Even the cricket world cup gets half a billion viewers).

(Generally speaking, Rifkin's statistics must be taken carefully. At one point he states that 41 million people emigrated to North America in 2000 and that 33 million people emigrated to Europe in 2000. He obviously misquoted the statistics. 41 million would mean a 15% yearly increase in the population of North America, i.e. by now there would be more people in North America than in the entire world. Between 2010 and 2013 the number of yearly immigrants to the European Union was slightly over 1.4 million. The statistics he wanted to quote was probably that 41 million immigrants "lived" in the USA in 2000, not that they arrived in that year).

Rifkin sees a direct relationship between this growing empathy and climate change. Empathic societies dominate nature to the point of causing ecologic collapses.

The other problem with this book is that it is really hard to connect the dots. One chapter talks about the dangers of nuclear and bio technologies, the about how much better Europeans are at social welfare than their US counterparts (Rifkin annoyingly keeps using the term "America" to refer to the USA: America is a continent stretching from Chile to Canada, they are all Americans), closing the chapter with a note that the "empathic surge" is now sweeping the millennial generation AND with a note that evil marketing is inculcating a materialistic ethos into the minds of the millennial generation (yes, the good old biblical fight between good and evil). He opens the best chapter of this book, titled "The Emerging Era of Distributed Capitalism" with his economic theory: the freeways of the 1950s triggered the economic expansion of the 1960s in the USA (the economic expansion actually started before the 1956 act that funded those freeways, but that's a detail). This is a followed by an awkward analysis of the three recessions: the 1989-91 recession, that he blames on a decline of suburban construction; the 2000 recession, that be blames on the "credit card culture"; and the 2008 recession, that he blames on a housing bubble caused by easy credit. Writing at the beginning of that 2008-12 recession, Rifkin concluded that "the United States is now a failed economy". I am writing in 2015 and the USA is one of the few economies in the world that is doing ok while the Europeans are stuck in an endless economic crisis, China's economy is slowing down dramatically, Russia is mired into a recession, and capitals from all over the world are flocking to the USA because it's performing better than all of the others. It is always dangerous to make such blunt statements: the future, even the very near future, can make you blush. He was writing when the price of oil was $147 per barrel, but today (2015) that price has fallen below $50. I am sure he now has a perfectly good story of why and how that happened, but it is too bad that his book didn't see it coming. Plenty of people can explain the future after it has happened. The real skills are in predicting it before it happens.

Anyway, the second part of that chapter is the visionary section of the book, and it is Rifkin at his best. He believes we are at the beginning of a third industrial revolution, that will be triggered by four factors: 1 the adoption of renewable forms of energy; 2 the construction of buildings that produce the energy that they consume; 3 the storage of energy in hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe; and 4 the "smart grid", the power grid connected via Internet and optimized by ubiquitous computing. This is a good summary of what the future could look like, although it might not be coming any time soon. Pillar 1 has the problem that oil has become so cheap, new reserves have been discovered all over the world, and peace in the Middle East could lead to a massive amount of cheap oil being available to the rest of the world (Iran's oil has been technically under an embargo and Iraq's oil has been the victim of the civil war). Pillar 2 has the problem that renewables are still far from being a solution: Rifkin correctly mentions the world's largest solar rooftop installed by General Motors for their Zaragoza factory, 85,000 solar panels covering an area of 200,000 square meters and generating 12 megawatts of power, but misleads the reader when he writes that it "is able to produce enough electricity for the factory" because it can only produce one third of the energy that the factory needs. Pillar 3 is still pure research as of now. At this point Rifkin shoots himself in the foot because he hails the European Union for having "erected the first three pillars of the third industrial revolution", not foreseeing the deep endless economic depression that has engulfed Europe since then. Pillar 4 is what all countries are trying to do, but there is always a gap between saying and doing, as Ted Koppel "Lights Out" (2015) explains: the chances of a massive cyberattack that would leave millions of families without electricity, communications and even water for weeks increase dramatically as you move towards the smart grid.

However, Rifkin has a grand vision of a society revolutionized by the democratization of energy (the "peer-to-peer sharing of energy"), following the "network ways of thinking, open-source sharing and the democratization of communications" brought about by the "distributed communications revolution". He is a relentless optimist, convinced that, given a chance, humans want to collaborate (and he points to the phenomenon of Wikipedia) and that humans will come to realize that they share the same planet. Others might be less optimistic. Earlier in the book, Rifkin writes "Try to conjure up a society of narcissists, sociopaths, or autistically challenged individuals". That's actually a good summary of what many fear it is happening to the individuals of the digital society. Rifkin himself quotes Jean Twenge's "Generation Me" (2006), who argued that the new generation is the most narcissistic generation in history. I doubt that an increasingly narcissistic race cares more for others (and for the planet as a whole) than their ancestors.

Rifkin points out that private property is losing its grip on social organization. Property used to be the right to exclude others from access; but this is increasingly being replaced by the right to be included, the right to access. Collaboration trumps competition in the distributed capitalist economy that he envisions. This is all good and inspiring, except that he can't help to make blunt historical statements such as "the colossal failure and near collapse of the global capitalist economy". That global capitalist economy has actually never been so powerful as it is 6 years after he published this book; and, more importantly, it is probably the reason that we are seeing so few wars around the world. All the wars you can name in 2015 involve Islam, and have more to do with the Islamic rejection of Western capitalism than with Western capitalism, from oil-poor Somalia to oil-poor Afghanistan via oil-poor Syria.

Rifkin points out that cinema, radio and television created the "parasocial relationship", in which the audience lives the illusion of interacting with the performer, whereas the Internet is creating a truly bidirectional relationship, the peer-to-peer relationship. Borrowing from Erving Goffman, Rifkin calls this "the drammaturgical age" Rifkin also points out that privacy is valued a lot less by the new generations: they are more interested in inclusivity than exclusivity. These are all valid observations, even though one has to survive bold and irrelevant statements such as "Meryl Streep, arguably the world's greatest living actress" (i'll take a wild guess that Rifkin cannot name any foreign actress and probably not even US actresses outside of Hollywood - personally i never thought of including Streep in my list of greatest actors of all times).

There is a bigger problem with this book, besides the annoying way it was constructed: i think he misses the point that empathy is decreasing, not increasing. His statement "Knowledge-based societies, with high levels of individualism and self-expression, exhibit the highest levels of empathis extension". I disagree. In my travels around the world i routinely observe how much more "empathic" the people of a small village with no electricity are compared with the citizens of our big frantic cities. The developed world increasingly lives in the age in which one's natural reaction to a car accident is NOT to stop and see how we can help but to take pictures and make videos to post on the Internet. As i have written in The Demise of Friendship, we don't need to care for other people's lives anymore. Another factor that greatly reduced empathy was the increasingly busy lives that the consumer society has created. People have always been busy, but usually they were busy working. As work hours were reduced, the consumer society filled spare time with all sorts of activities, from salsa classes to the gym. That meant less and less time available for thinking about the people who really matter in your life. Now there is also the information overload. Think of deaths and funerals. A celebrity's death would be big news all over the world, broadcast by tv and radio networks at the same time as one of the few news of the day. Rifkin lives in an Anglosaxon world and belongs to a generation that still paid attention to royal families, so he thinks that the last big funeral took place in 1997 (a British aristocrat known as "Lady Diana") and the Christian world probably thinks of 2005, when John Paul II died. And someone's death used to be big news in her neighborhood. Everybody would hear of the death, everybody would be informed of the date of the funeral and many would attend. In underdeveloped countries and in dictatorships where world news and access to the Internet are still very limited this is still the case. In developed countries, where people are constantly bombarded by "news" (we can discuss the quality of those news) someone's death becomes a footnote inside a very busy "news feed". We care for a few minutes but then we are immediately distracted by an avalanche of chats, emails, tweets, text messages and, last but not least, all the searches that we decide to do on our own. We care for the death of a scientist only for a few minutes. Who died this year? You probably saw the news that a few very important people died this year, but you don't remember. In the old days you would have spent weeks and perhaps months talking about those deaths. We mourn our grandmother's death for a few days, then we are back to our busy routine. We care for our Facebook friends a lot less than we did for our physical friends way back when we lived in small isolated villages. The potentially unlimited world of pushing and pulling information has created a vast ocean of mediocre empathy.

Another easy criticism is that Rifkin's history of civilization is mainly a history of Western civilization. When he talks of the ideological age of the 19th century, followed by the psychological age of the 20th century and by the "global empathy" of the 21st century, he is really talking about the age of Liberalism and Marxism in Europe, the age of Freud, and now the age of Facebook, not about the eras of African or Asian history.

My feeling is that Rifkin took two popular themes, climate change and empathy, and correctly figured that a lot of people like me would be intrigued. But it is never clear what the connectiong between the two is, even if you believe his wildly speculative narrative.