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."
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.
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.