Living Cities for An Empathic Civilization: an Urban Take of Jeremy Rifkin

I just finished listening to a podcast of Jeremy Rifkin discussing his new book  "The Empathic Civilization" on CBC Radio's excellent "Ideas" program [download].  It's a sweeping intellectual quest of a book that sets out an escape route from the corner we are busy painting ourselves into.

Rifkin's project is to put the evolution of an increasingly global and empathetic consciousness in the ring with the rapdily worsening problem of climate change.  His cliff hanger ending to the first in a series of  Huffington Post blog post sums it up this way: "Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?"

I like the question. But what I like even better is his way of asking it.   The building blocks of the book are journeys through biology, history, and the impact of energy and communication technology on human consciousness and society. He argues that we are in the early stages of a radical transition.  What he leaves out is cities – the places where that transition will be felt and shaped most directly.

Wet-Wired For Empathy
Human's are wet-wired for empathy.  That is to say that understanding the feelings of other people and species is built into the tissue of our brains.  Inspired by that relatively recent discovery, Rifkin sets out a fundamental revision of human history.  Our focus on violence, war and conquest comes from a fascination with the novel, not the norm.  More important than wars and conquests are the ways that new energy technologies and communications revolutions intersect.

He argues that every great shift – from agricultural civilization right up to the industrial age – have been based on pairing of energy sources and the methods of communication needed to manage them.  Print technology, for example, emerged as part of the apparatus needed to manage the industrial era.  But at the same time, print – especially in the form of national newspapers – formed the basis for nationalism by making it possible for people to know things about and imagine their place in a national community much larger than their day to day experiences. (A very good book on that come out in 1983.)

A Change in Energy + Technology  =  A Change in Consciousness + Social Organizations

And that brings us to today, where somewhere a grade school student in Germany is playing around with Google Earth on a computer powered by solar panels on her roof. That's my example, but Rifkin argues that that pairing of interconnected decentralized energy and communication systems will transform both human consciousness and social institutions.

Rather than the Enlightenment idea that we are all rational, utilitarian individuals, the radically connected societies created by new technologies make possible a dramatic drawing together by extending our capacity for empathy further than ever before.  Empathy not just for other people, but for the natural world that  makes possible life on earth.

At the same time, the redrawn energy grid will make old national identities and institutions increasingly irrelevant. Instead, collaborative regional and continental webs of governance, similar to those evolving in the EU, will take their place. "In this new era of distributed energy, governing institutions will more resemble the workings of the ecosystems they manage."

Another Utopia?
I love it. Yes, the Euro is in trouble. Yes, he makes generalizations about hunter-gatherer societies that I am sure some anthropologist and historian would say are just plain silly. And yes, this all sounds a bit utopic. The Enlightenment also had its share of utopic thinkers, let's not forget. What we got in the end was the liberal economic theory, Francis Fukuyama, Stephen Harper, and the Tea Party. Hardly reason for hope.

But I love it because positive visions of the future are in short supply these days, and unlike the utopias of Thomas Moore or Thoreau, this one seems to go with the technological spirit of the times, not against it. Unlike Friedman or Fukuyama, he isn't arguing that liberal democracy and globalization will somehow make us all the same and equal. If anything, Rifkin's argument is about how we might better understand other peoples' – and other species' – uniqueness and difference.

Empathic Cities
What is Google Earth doing to your brain and your sense of place in the world?  How does slapping some solar on your roof change the nature of the social contract that holds the modern state together?

Or should I say: "How *could* they influence those things?" Because if there is one thing that irks me about Rifkin's argument, it is that he makes it all seems so inevitable. Let's be real, the transition to biospheric politics and ecological empathy isn't going to happen just because everyone is using the internet and uses green electricity. Virtual communities are fine, but they need to lead to real action.  Changes in consciousness need to get expressed in real changes in the way we use space and energy. And that is where cities come in.

More than any other scale, cities are where people are creating and experience those shifts. Look at the spread of ideas from transport-oriented-development, to BIXI, or from urban agriculture to decentralized energy grids. Look at the way those ideas have spread through online networks, to then be adopted and developed by local communities. Communities, often very small initally, who pushed to have them integrated into their local landscapes. Look at the amazing human and ecological diversity that make up our urban populations. Put all  those together and you get a pretty good example of the kind of empathetic ecosystem Rifkin discusses, as well as the daily struggles that make them possible.

By focusing on governing institutions that mirror the natural systems they are embedded in, Rifkin is tapping into a rapidly developing conversation about what cities are and what they could be (see Brugmann and Sassen for example, or the Living Cities Challenge).

Urban spaces have the ability to make us deeply aware of our connections to the natural world.  But they have historically been designed to do justs the opposite. For Rifkin we are living through a shift from Homo Sapien to Homo Empathicus. That may be, but we have already become Homo Urbanus.  The way citizens, communities, and governments shape the nature of our cities (all puns intended) is going to have a big influence on if, when, and how that transition takes place.


5 Responses to "Living Cities for An Empathic Civilization: an Urban Take of Jeremy Rifkin"

Ted said... 28 April 2010 at 22:40

Nice riff on Rifkin Alex.

I think Rifkin makes an unimpeachable point in that we need to become more empathetic, not just with other human beings but with the biosphere. And I think your point -- that we need to find this new connectedness through actual political-ecological engagements -- is a necessary addition. "National identities" might wane, but will nation-states? We need new modes of collective decision making; every real social transformation has involved this; and I think you're right that cities are the best scale to reconstruct working political structures, at present.

I would add a couple of things. On "consciousness," I would add that the present mode of individuality isn't just the product of Western, Enlightenment philosophy. It's a way of being nourished by a whole array of institutions (Foucault, 1977 -- obviously!). To transform ourselves is a social struggle (which I think is one of your points, really). Moreover, there is a real risk that the new empathic consciousness (that we need) is conceived on the basis of the individuality that we're trying to overcome (and so we reinforce it). Can empathy be conceived outside of liberalism and liberal social science? Do we need another term for this needed overcoming of individuality?

Second, in terms of urban politics, I would suggest that it's important not just to create local democratic structures, but to create a kind of counter-polity (or counter-polities). Municipal governments, in our time, are pretty open to certain kinds of public participation and decentralized decision making; my research suggests that this openness emerged in the late 1960s, when there was a perceived need to transform economic structures (i.e., transition to what's now called post-Fordism) and to quell radical activism (particularly among minority groups). How do we create opportunities for people to be politically involved without neutralizing the radical elements that (I think) are necessary to any significant social transformation? I can't answer this question. But I do think we need to scrap the idea that people's political interests add up to something, that we can make collectivities on the basis of common interests/ground and only on that basis. Black Power movements in the 60s/70s had some thoughts on this.

Finally, I'd say Mike Davis's essay on climate change and cities is relevant to these issues. Here is it:

There's a lot to chew on in your post. Let's keep talking about this.


Alex Aylett said... 1 May 2010 at 15:02

Ted, thanks for the reply. Yes I'd say that you've honed in on two key traps: the individuality trap and the consensus trap.

If you ask me the focus on individual actions so far (i.e. recycling or turning the heat down) has been a failure. Not that those things aren't important, but unless they link up to community based political action I just can't see how we are going to make the larger changes that we need.

It's communities, not lone individuals, that can effectively lobby for increased transit services, mixed use communities and other larger changes. In comparison things like recycling are just tweaking around the fringes.

On another level, focusing on individuality, as opposed to say community, citizenship or just neighbourliness does strange things to people. Does everyone really need their own lawnmower? Their own car? Their own electric turkey carving knife? I call it "autarchic consumerism."

And to your second point - this is going to be an era where the most successful cities are the ones that can productively deal with conflict. The level of changes that we are going to be looking at just won't lend themselves to consensus building processes - at least not all the time.

The radical movements, in many cases, are the ones who make sure that the boundaries of debate and continually widened. That can be uncomfortable, but if you approach it productively it can be a catalyst for truly imaginative and ambitious shifts.

(I feel like I should say that I don't take radical to mean extremist of violent. But rather as groups who intentionally position themselves outside of the mainstream of political debate and push for fundamental changes.)

Patrick (Melbourne) said... 15 June 2010 at 08:18

Interesting post and follow-up discussion.

I'd just like to add the point regarding technology and biosphere emphathy: tech _can_ help us be more empathetic, but then again, especially in the hands of corporate advertisers, it can cushion us in a faux-reality away from degradations occuring to actual nature _out there_ - i know this is the blade runner or myriad other dystopia positions, but if you look at the way people are encouraged to pump their wealth into big-screen tvs and comfortable cars you can see it happening.

So I think a few modern-day Thoreau's to warn us about the way technology can be the 'opiate of the people' as well as those who say it's the solution doesn't hurt - a la Wendell Berry.

Alex Aylett said... 22 June 2010 at 01:03

Hi Patrick,
I've been away from the blog recently - sorry to have taken so long to reply.

Your warning is well taken. The skepticism you have about technology is where I always begin "techy" articles. We are a species fascinated by shiny new bobbles, and I try to steer clear of writing entries on "green" gadgets that are really just novelties shop items.

But I don't think rejecting technology is all that helpful either. If we love out bobbles then the best response - it seems to me - is to seek out their most positive aspects and to use them inventively, creatively and critically to reach that potential.

I'm not sure that Rifkin's vision of the future will come true. But I like what he proposes, and I like that it makes me look at the technology I use every day in a new way.

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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