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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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If human nature is as the Enlightenment philosophers claimed, then we are likely doomed. It is impossible to imagine how we might create a sustainable global economy and restore the biosphere to health if each and every one of us is, at the core of our biology, an autonomous agent and a self-centered and materialistic being.

Recent discoveries in brain science and child development, however, are forcing us to rethink these long-held shibboleths about human nature. Biologists and cognitive neuroscientists are discovering mirror-neurons--the so-called empathy neurons -- that allow human beings and other species to feel and experience another's situation as if it were one's own. We are, it appears, the most social of animals and seek intimate participation and companionship with our fellows.

Social scientists, in turn, are beginning to reexamine human history from an empathic lens and, in the process, discovering previously hidden strands of the human narrative which suggests that human evolution is measured not only by the expansion of power over nature, but also by the intensification and extension of empathy to more diverse others across broader temporal and spatial domains. The growing scientific evidence that we are a fundamentally empathic species has profound and far-reaching consequences for society, and may well determine our fate as a species.

What is required now is nothing less than a leap to global empathic consciousness and in less than a generation if we are to resurrect the global economy and revitalize the biosphere. The question becomes this: what is the mechanism that allows empathic sensitivity to mature and consciousness to expand through history?

The pivotal turning points in human consciousness occur when new energy regimes converge with new communications revolutions, creating new economic eras. The new communications revolutions become the command and control mechanisms for structuring, organizing and managing more complex civilizations that the new energy regimes make possible. For example, in the early modern age, print communication became the means to organize and manage the technologies, organizations, and infrastructure of the coal, steam, and rail revolution. It would have been impossible to administer the first industrial revolution using script and codex.

Communication revolutions not only manage new, more complex energy regimes, but also change human consciousness in the process. Forager/hunter societies relied on oral communications and their consciousness was mythologically constructed. The great hydraulic agricultural civilizations were, for the most part, organized around script communication and steeped in theological consciousness. The first industrial revolution of the 19th century was managed by print communication and ushered in ideological consciousness. Electronic communication became the command and control mechanism for arranging the second industrial revolution in the 20th century and spawned psychological consciousness.

Each more sophisticated communication revolution brings together more diverse people in increasingly more expansive and varied social networks. Oral communication has only limited temporal and spatial reach while script, print and electronic communications each extend the range and depth of human social interaction.

By extending the central nervous system of each individual and the society as a whole, communication revolutions provide an evermore inclusive playing field for empathy to mature and consciousness to expand. For example, during the period of the great hydraulic agricultural civilizations characterized by script and theological consciousness, empathic sensitivity broadened from tribal blood ties to associational ties based on common religious affiliation. Jews came to empathize with Jews, Christians with Christians, Muslims with Muslims, etc. In the first industrial revolution characterized by print and ideological consciousness, empathic sensibility extended to national borders, with Americans empathizing with Americans, Germans with Germans, Japanese with Japanese and so on. In the second industrial revolution, characterized by electronic communication and psychological consciousness, individuals began to identify with like-minded others.