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Are We Selfish Individuals or an Empathic Society? The Answer Could Determine Whether We Have a Future

The industrial age built on and propelled by fossil fuels is coming to an end. What replaces it is at the center of our fight for survival.
 
 
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The following is an adapted excerpt from Jeremy Rifkin's new book, ' The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis' (Tarcher/Penguin; January 2010).

Two spectacular failures, separated by only 18 months, marked the end of the modern era. In July 2008, the price of oil on world markets peaked at $147/ barrel, inflation soared, the price of everything from food to gasoline skyrocketed, and the global economic engine shut off. Growing demand in the developed nations, as well as in China, India, and other emerging economies, for diminishing fossil fuels precipitated the crisis. Purchasing power plummeted and the global economy collapsed. That was the earthquake that tore asunder the industrial age built on and propelled by fossil fuels. The failure of the financial markets two months later was merely the aftershock. The fossil fuel energies that make up the industrial way of life are sunsetting and the industrial infrastructure is now on life support.

In December 2009, world leaders from 192 countries assembled in Copenhagen to address the question of how to handle the accumulated entropy bill of the fossil fuel based industrial revolution-the spent C0₂ that is heating up the planet and careening the earth into a catastrophic shift in climate. After years of preparation, the negotiations broke down and world leaders were unable to reach a formal accord.

Neither the world's political or business leaders anticipated the economic debacle of July 2008, nor were they able to cobble together a sufficient plan for economic recovery in the months since. They were equally inept at addressing the issue of climate change, despite the fact that the scientific community warns that is poses the greatest threat to our species in its history, that we are running out of time, and that we may even be facing the prospect of our own extinction.

The problem runs deeper than the issue of finding new ways to regulate the market or imposing legally binding global green house gas emission reduction targets. The real crisis lies in the set of assumptions about human nature that governs the behavior of world leaders -- assumptions that were spawned during the Enlightenment more than 200 years ago at the dawn of the modern market economy and the emergence of the nation state era.

The Enlightenment thinkers -- John Locke, Adam Smith, Marquis de Condorcet et. al. -- took umbrage with the Medieval Christian world view that saw human nature as fallen and depraved and that looked to salvation in the next world through God's grace. They preferred to cast their lot with the idea that human beings' essential nature is rational, detached, autonomous, acquisitive and utilitarian and argued that individual salvation lies in unlimited material progress here on Earth.

The Enlightenment notions about human nature were reflected in the newly minted nation-state whose raison d'être was to protect private property relations and stimulate market forces as well as act as a surrogate of the collective self-interest of the citizenry in the international arena. Like individuals, nation-states were considered to be autonomous agents embroiled in a relentless battle with other sovereign nations in the pursuit of material gains.

It was these very assumptions that provided the philosophical underpinnings for a geopolitical frame of reference that accompanied the first and second industrial revolutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. These beliefs about human nature came to the fore in the aftermath of the global economic meltdown and in the boisterous and acrimonious confrontations in the meeting rooms in Copenhagen, with potentially disastrous consequences for the future of humanity and the planet.