February 25, 2012
. . .
Be it known… This entry was written as a complement to one that was posted earlier last week, entitled “Beyond Environment: Falling Back In Love With Mother Earth.”
Someone once said, “The trouble with weather forecasting is that it’s right too often for us to ignore it and wrong too often for us to rely on it.” But ever since I read this, I’ve been looking at my local weather forecasts everyday now for nearly two years straight… And I’ve got to say, looking one day ahead, the MET Office seem to get it near on 95% right every time… Seriously, you don’t have to take my word on this. Just check it out for yourselves. Saying, I noticed that when the MET Office begin to make general forecasts that are five days in to the future, their accuracy falls quite substantially. On the whole – while I haven’t been taking as much notice of these 5 day forecasts – I’d say they tend to get them near on 60% right. Now that, in my books, is definitely good predicting. How do they do it? Well, they’ve been using some of the world’s biggest and best super computers to crunch all the raw numerical data that is gathered from a vast array of sources (both manual and remote sensing data posts), of which they literately have thousands: on military air fields, to all the way out at sea. The gathering of this diverse spread of data gives them a really unique (and very accurate) perspective on weather patterns here in the UK, demonstrating how temperature, wind, sun, rain, cloud and other meteorological phenomena all feedback into each other to create the daily weather patterns that we observe in our daily lives.
But is it really a clear cut and easy to understand science when trying to understand how these individual phenomena affect each other? As some of you may already know, Edward Lorenz pretty much made a big discovery back in 1961 when looking at weather systems while studying computer simulations. He basically noticed the unexpected unfolding of a weather simulation as the result of a shortcut that he took by entering data to only three decimal places rather than six. As a result, this sensitivity to initial conditions was something that has been well studied over the last 50 years, being called Chaos Theory. The MET know a lot about how non-linear dynamics operate within weather systems here on Earth… In fact they’re presently doing a lot research into the sensitivity of the Earth’s weather system and how human activities affect it. If you ask me whether mankind is seriously affecting the environment in which he lives through his activities… I’d tell you a very big, “YES!” Just as Lorenz saw huge unexpected variances in his computer simulations, one’s that occurred from simply varying miniscule amounts in the data that was being entered at the beginning, so too will mankind see even bigger changes in the weather systems that we expect to see here on Earth. It’s not joke… Mankind isn’t varying the environment by minuscule amounts anymore, as we might have done 2000 years ago… We’re slashing the environment to pieces by whacking great asphalt cities down all over the Earth, by burning 400 years worth of energy stored by plants from the sun, by building dams to regulate the earth’s natural water flow, by turning ancient forests into agricultural land, etc…
On the whole I try to be as optimistic as possible through my general outlook on everything we as human being do. Saying that, I was never the type of person who would adorn an overly positive outlook about something just because being positive would make the situation better. To me, that’s a bit like thinking that you can fly and then throwing yourself off the top of a building, expecting to be able navigate the air currents safely back down to earth. Not my style. If you want to be that positive, then try taking off from the ground first. At least then you’ll know whether or not your positivity and belief in your ability is justified. So, that’s it. I suppose I’d rather get my facts straight and look at whatever situation I was in from as open minded a view as possible, regardless of what it was going to elucidate. I mean, I can play a bit of guitar and some very basic piano, but can’t read music off a staved sheet very well at all. So perhaps I wouldn’t remain positive about the fact that I could proficiently play Debussy’s Arabesque #1 after only one week of solitary practice with nothing more than a musical score to guide me… But I could perhaps muster a half decent attempt after one week of tuition with a good teacher and with access to a audible version of the music too.
And that’s my point here… There are different variables within certain parameters of any given situation that, when viewed by an observer, define whether or not one could feel positive about obtaining a particular outcome for that given situation. If some of the most obvious parameters for success are not present, masked over by a general optimistic view that things will work out, so whey bother trying too hard… After which one still feels exceedingly positive about obtaining a result… Well, my common sense would either tell me to lower my positive outlook about the outcome of events, or pull my finger out and get on with working out a way to succeed.
Nina Fedoroff was recently quoted saying, “We are sliding back into a dark era, and there seems little we can do about it.” During a conference last week, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) confessed that she was “scared to death” by the anti-science movement that was spreading, uncontrolled, across the US and the rest of the western world. While I feel that this statement might be a little too strong for my own stance on this general “head in the sand” tactic, I do empathise with Fedoroff because her natural survival instinct – the one that watches a friend get eaten by a tiger, so that when she’s sees another tiger she runs, rather than stroking the rather large and cuddly cat – is obviously telling her that a lot of folk out there do not share her concern for where we, as a civilization on a planet, are heading. Many have no real desire to understand too much about what sustainability actually is, let alone steer their lives into modes of minimizing capitalist consumption by growing their own food, managing their own woodlands for fire wood, insulating their homes, giving up their cars, etc…
For me, this is a bit like the case of thinking one can fly and going straight to the top floor of the Empire State building and launching themselves off the top parapet. Yes, they might think that they’re flying as they SWOOSH past floor after floor, hurtling towards the solid asphalt below at breakneck speed. But is it really flying? I mean, can they sustain the period of time that they’re in the air for without the sudden SPLAT at the end? I mean… Can we sustain even half the number of human beings at our present rates of consumption? Can we sustain this huge spurt of uncontrolled growth that mankind is witnessing in the 21st century? In fact… Just how many people do you think the earth can support?
You see… When one of the world’s most distinguished agricultural scientists tells me that she’s “scared to death” by what she sees going on around her… Doing so at one of the most well known annual scientific meetings. Well… My commonsense tells me to at least oblige this lady and have a listen to what she has to say. “We are sliding back into a dark era,” Fedoroff said. “And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.”
Would you believe… Just like the MET Office studies weather patterns in order to forecast the coming day’s weather, so to are there people looking at today’s and yesterday’s global patterns of human growth and resource consumption, who are making predictions about what the future might hold for us. And I’ve got to say, while these studies might not be as detailed or as developed as some of the weather studies that the MET Office are conducting… The ones that have come to light certainly show us something that we should be heeding.
Like I said… I’m quite an optimistic person. But I still read and/or listen to the weather forecasts every morning… And if there’s a chance that it’ll be a rainy, cold, wet and windy day, I won’t remain optimistic that the weather might suddenly change to something better and wear nothing by my shorts and a T-shirt. I mean, I already know from observation how accurate the MET Office’s weather forecasting can be… For them to be able to make these predictions, the observations come from which their science was built from, along with their forecasts, must be quite accurate and sound. I mean 95% accuracy for one day ahead is near on great. Thus I base my actions for the coming day on this forecast, like whether I should take umbrella with me, or wear shorts and sunglasses, etc… The way the professionals do their stuff down at the MET Office instils in me an air of confidence about what they do and how they do it… So I listen to them when the advise us on the weather.
Likewise, having studied a scientific discipline myself at university, one that looked at methods for detecting illnesses within the human body, I know that there is great accuracy in these methods. They are used time and again to catch people with cancer, bacterial infections, etc… And they do so with near on 85% accuracy. So, on the whole, I have great respect for the discipline of scientific study… And I have a great respect for many of those involved in the areas of science. Don’t get me wrong… We’re not perfect. Just like the MET Office only get 95% of the coming days’ forecasts right, other areas of science don’t get it right all the time either. But should those scientist be branded with that lousy 5% margin of error? In my humble opinion, I’d rather reap the benefits of that 95% accuracy than let the 5% error bother me. So when some other professionals/scientists say something that I see to be important for all our future well fair here on Earth, I usually give it at least a once over before I decide whether to ignore it or not… At least a once over!
So I’ll finish here by saying… If most of you want us all to jump off the building because you think you can fly, there is no way on Earth (or in the air) that I’m gonna keep quiet and pretend that I can sustain this ‘flight’ while I’m hurtling past the windows of the building that we’ve all just jumped off from, just to keep the majority of you lot happy. Like I said… It’s not my style. My survival instinct is telling me that I want to survive, regardless of whether you do or not. And if I’m falling down – rather than flying down – with the rest of you, I’m gonna engage in some chit-chat on the way down about how to survive this fall.
. . .
. . .
Forty years ago, a highly controversial study warned that we had to curb growth or risk global meltdown. Was it right?
AT THE beginning of the 1970s, a group of young scientists set out to explore our future. Their findings shook a generation and may be even more relevant than ever today.
The question the group set out to answer was: what would happen if the world’s population and industry continued to grow rapidly? Could growth continue indefinitely or would we start to hit limits at some point? In those days, few believed that there were any limits to growth – some economists still don’t. Even those who accepted that on a finite planet there must be some limits usually assumed that growth would merely level off as we approached them.
These notions, however, were based on little more than speculation and ideology. The young scientists tried to take a more rigorous approach: using a computer model to explore possible futures. What was shocking was that their simulations, far from showing growth continuing forever, or even levelling out, suggested that it was most likely that boom would be followed by bust: a sharp decline in industrial output, food production and population. In other words, the collapse of global civilisation.
These explosive conclusions were published in 1972 in a slim paperback called The Limits to Growth. It became a bestseller – and provoked a furious backlash that has obscured what it actually said. For instance, it is widely believed that Limits predicted collapse by 2000, yet in fact it made no such claim. So what did it say? And 40 years on, how do its projections compare with reality so far?
The first thing you might ask is, why look back at a model devised in the days when computers were bigger than your fridge but less powerful than your phone? Surely we now have far more advanced models? In fact, in many ways we have yet to improve on World3, the relatively simple model on which Limits was based. “When you think of the change in both scientific and computational capabilities since 1972, it is astounding there has been so little effort to improve upon their work,” says Yaneer Bar-Yam, head of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
It hasn’t happened in part because of the storm of controversy the book provoked. “Researchers lost their appetite for global modelling,” says Robert Hoffman of company WhatIf Technologies in Ottawa, Canada, which models resources for companies and governments. “Now, with peak oil, climate change and the failure of conventional economics, there is a renewed interest.”
The other problem is that as models get bigger, it becomes harder to see why they produce certain outcomes and whether they are too sensitive to particular inputs, especially with complex systems. Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who studies global systems and has used World3, thinks it may have been the best possible compromise between over-simplification and unmanageable complexity. But Hoffman and Bar-Yam’s groups are now trying to do better.
World3 was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The team took what was known about the global population, industry and resources from 1900 to 1972 and used it to develop a set of equations describing how these parameters affected each other. Based on various adjustable assumptions, such as the amount of non-renewable resources, the model projected what would happen over the next century.
The team compares their work to exploring what happens to a ball thrown upwards. World3 was meant to reveal the general behaviour that results – in the case of a ball, going up and then falling down – not to make precise predictions, such as exactly how high the ball would go, or where and when it would fall. “None of these computer outputs is a prediction,” the book warned repeatedly.
Assuming that business continued as usual, World3 projected that population and industry would grow exponentially at first. Eventually, however, growth would begin to slow and would soon stop altogether as resources grew scarce, pollution soared and food became limited. “The Limits to Growth said that the human ecological footprint cannot continue to grow indefinitely, because planet Earth is physically limited,” says Jørgen Randers of the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo, one of the book’s original authors.
What’s more, instead of stabilising at the peak levels, or oscillating around them, in almost all model runs population and industry go into a sharp decline once they peak. “If present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years. The most probable result will be a sudden and rather uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity,” the book warned.
This was unexpected and shocking. Why should the world’s economy collapse rather than stabilise? In World3, it happened because of the complex feedbacks between different global subsystems such as industry, health and agriculture. More industrial output meant more money to spend on agriculture and healthcare, but also more pollution, which could damage health and food production.
And most importantly, says Randers, in the real world there are delays before limits are understood, institutions act or remedies take effect. These delayed responses were programmed into World3. The model crashed because its hypothetical people did not respond to the mounting problems before underlying support systems, such as farmland and ecosystems, had been damaged.
Instead, they carried on consuming and polluting past the point the model world could sustain. The result was what economists call a bubble and Limits called overshoot. The impact of these response delays was “the fundamental scientific message” of the study, says Randers. Critics, and even fans of the study, he says, didn’t get this point.
The other message missed was that Limits was about how catastrophe could be averted. It did not say that humanity was doomed. In model runs where growth of population and industry were constrained, growth did level out rather than collapse – the stabilised scenario (see graph).
Yet few saw it this way. Instead, the book came under fire from all sides. Scientists didn’t like Limits because the authors, anxious to publicise their findings, put it out before it was peer reviewed. The political right rejected its warning about the dangers of growth. The left rejected it for betraying the aspirations of workers. The Catholic church rejected its plea for birth control.
The most strident criticisms came from economists, who claimed Limits underestimated the power of the technological fixes humans would surely invent. As resources ran low, for instance, we would discover more or develop alternatives.
Yet the Limits team had tested this. In some runs, they gave World3 unlimited, non-polluting nuclear energy – which allowed extensive substitution and recycling of limited materials – and a doubling in the reserves of nonrenewables that could be economically exploited. All the same, the population crashed when industrial pollution soared. Then fourfold pollution reductions were added as well: this time, the crash came when there was no more farmland.
Adding in higher farm yields and better birth control helped in this case. But then soil erosion and pollution struck, driven by the continuing rise of industry. Whatever the researchers did to eke out resources or stave off pollution, exponential growth was simply prolonged, until it eventually swamped the remedies. Only when the growth of population and industry were constrained, and all the technological fixes applied, did it stabilise in relative prosperity.
The crucial point is that overshoot and collapse usually happened sooner or later in World3 even if very optimistic assumptions were made about, say, oil reserves. “The general behaviour of overshoot and collapse persists, even when large changes to numerous parameters are made,” says Graham Turner of the CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences lab in Crace, Australia.
This did not convince those who thought technology could fix every problem. And with so much criticism, the idea took hold that Limits had been disproved. That mantra has been repeated so often that it became the received wisdom, says Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence in Italy, author of a recent book about Limits. “The common perception is that the work was discredited scientifically. I heard it again at a meeting last April,” says Homer-Dixon. “It wasn’t.”
It wasn’t just confusion. “Misunderstanding was enhanced by a media campaign very similar to the one that has been recently directed against climate science,” says Bardi.
One of the most common myths is that Limits predicted collapse by 2000. Yet as a brief glance at the “standard run” shows, it didn’t (see graph). The book does mention a 1970 estimate by the US Bureau of Mines that the world had 31 years of oil left. The bureau calculated this by dividing known reserves by the current rate of consumption. Rates of consumption, however, were increasing exponentially, so Limits pointed out that in fact oil had only 20 years left if nothing changed. But this calculation was made to illustrate the effects of exponential growth, not to predict that there were only 20 years of oil left.
When Matthew Simmons, a leading oil-industry banker, finally read Limits in the 1990s, he was surprised to find none of the false predictions he had heard about. On the contrary, he concluded, population and energy growth largely matched the basic simulation. He felt Limits got so much attention, then lost it, partly because the oil shock of 1973 focused minds on resource shortages that were then largely resolved.
There have been other recent re-appraisals of the book. In 2008, for instance, Turner did a detailed statistical analysis of how real growth compares to the scenarios in Limits. He concluded that reality so far closely matches the standard run of World3.
Does that mean we face industrial collapse and widespread death? Not necessarily. A glance at Turner’s curves shows we haven’t yet reached the stage of the standard run, later this century, when such events are predicted.
In the model, overshoot and collapse are preceded by exponential growth. Exponential growth starts out looking just like linear growth, says Bar-Yam: only later does the exponential curve start heading skywards. After only 40 years, we can’t yet say whether growth is linear or exponential.
We already know the future will be different from the standard run in one respect, says Bar-Yam. Although the actual world population up to 2000 has been similar, in the scenario the rate of population growth increases with time – one of the exponential drivers of collapse. Although Limits took account of the fact that birth rates fall as prosperity rises, in reality they have fallen much faster than was expected when the book was written. “It is reasonable to be concerned about resource limitations in fifty years,” Bar-Yam says, “but the population is not even close to growing [the way Limits projected in 1972].”
The book itself may be partly responsible. Bar-Yam thinks some of the efforts in the 1970s to cut population growth were at least partly due to Limits. “If it helped do that, it bought us more time, and it’s a very important work in the history of humanity,” he says.
Yet World3 still suggests we’ll hit the buffers eventually. The original Limits team put out an updated study using World3 in 2005, which included faster-falling birth rates. Except in the stabilising scenario, World3 still collapsed.
Otherwise, the team didn’t analyse the correspondence between the real world and their 1972 scenarios in detail – noting only that they generally match. “Does this correspondence with history prove our model was true? No, of course not,” they wrote. “But it does indicate that [our] assumptions and conclusions still warrant consideration today.”
This remains the case. Forty years on from its publication, it is still not clear whether Limits was right, but it hasn’t been proved wrong either. And while the model was too pessimistic about birth and death rates, it was too optimistic about the future impact of pollution. We now know that overshoot – the delayed response to problems that makes the effects so much worse – will eventually be especially catastrophic for climate change, because the full effects of greenhouse gases will not be apparent for centuries.
There will be no more sequels based on World3, though. The model can no longer serve its purpose, which was to show us how to avoid collapse. Starting from the current conditions, no plausible assumptions produce any result but overshoot. “There is no sense in only describing a series of collapse scenarios,” says Dennis Meadows, another of the original authors of Limits.
Randers, meanwhile, is editing a book called The Next Forty Years, about what we can do when limits start to bite. “I don’t like the resulting future, but it should be described, particularly because it would have been so easy to make a much better future,” he says.
The only hope is that we can invent our way out of trouble. Our ingenuity has allowed us to overcome many limits, says Homer-Dixon, and we can’t predict what revolutionary technological innovations humanity might come up with. Yet he is pessimistic: “The question is, can we deliver ingenuity at an increasing rate indefinitely.” Because that is what we’ll need to do if growth continues.
Instead of declaring we are doomed, or proclaiming that technology will save us, we should explore the future more rigorously, says Bar-Yam. We need better models. “If you think the scientific basis of those conclusions can be challenged, then the answer is more science,” he says. “We need a much better understanding of global dynamics.”
We need to apply that knowledge, too. The most important message of Limits was that the longer we ignore the problems caused by growth, the harder they are to overcome. As we pump out more CO2, it is clear this is a lesson we have yet to learn.
by Debora MacKenzie (who is a consultant for New Scientist based in Brussels, Belgium)
. . .
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
While, to follow the author on Twitter, please click here to view her Twitter page.
OR to find out more about “The Limits To Growth”, please click here.
AND to buy an updated revision of “The Limits To Growth”, please click here.
February 19, 2010
I read this New Scientist article the other day… And it kind of summed up everything I’ve been thinking about over the last two years i.e. mankind, Life and the Universe. I had never heard of Jeremy Rifkin till now but, having read this article, I have just bought his book, entitled “The Empathic Civilization,” off Amazon.
No doubt, as many of you may have already noticed, the purpose of this blog is to develop a modification about the way we understand ourselves in the context of Life, the Universe and patterns… With the ultimate purpose being to free us from the old memetic drives of needless religious indoctrination, blind base animal instincts, and psychological control that feeds-back through the media into modes of normalisation, so that we might ultimately find the notion of what we have sought throughout history to ascribe as “God,” and thus replace it with a more healthy Spinozist view of “God, or Nature…” Once there, we can truly accept responsibility for our actions, become more compassionate so that we may open our minds and hearts to one another with honesty and truth, and thereby see the patterns of natural discourse that ripple through the cosmic chaos in ordered and structured flows of symmetrical design. From this we will be able to posit a new light in our minds about “why” we are here… A light that will change the structure of our grey matter for the better allowing us greater chances of survival.
If we make it that far, it will be like a shedding of old, dry and tight skin – just as snake sheds their old skin in order to grow – allowing us more flexible movement into new ways of being, so that we can tread more carefully into ecological habits that will develop into deeply connected modes of humanity, Life and Earth, leading us to the truth behind the Buddhist theory of “Interdependent Origination.”
Thus, I would advise anyone who might take this goal of understanding ourselves better in relation to the cosmos seriously, to buy this book and heed its astute and perceptive stance on humanity… Because this is bigger than climate change… This is a battle to redefine humanity!
In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin argues that before we can save ourselves from climate change we have to break a vicious circle and embrace a new model of society based on scientists’ new understanding of human nature. I asked him how we can do it.
What is the premise of The Empathic Civilization?
My sense is that we’re nearing an endgame for the modern age. I think we had two singular events in the last 18 months that signal the end. First, in July 2008 the price of oil hit $147/barrel. Food riots broke out in 30 countries, the price of basic items shot up and purchasing power plummeted. That was the earthquake; the market crash 60 days later was the aftershock. It signaled the beginning of the endgame of a great industrial era based on fossil fuels. The second event, in December 2009, was the breakdown in Copenhagen, when world leaders tried to deal with our entropy problem and failed.
That’s the context of the book. Why couldn’t our world leaders anticipate or respond to the global meltdown of the industrial revolution? And why can’t they deal with climate change when scientists have been telling us that it may be the greatest threat our species has ever faced?
What do you think the problem is?
My sense is that the failure runs very deep. The problem is that those leaders are using 18th century Enlightenment ideas to address 20th century challenges. I advise a number of heads of state in Europe and over and over again I see how these old ideas about human nature and the meaning of life continue to cloak public policy. The Enlightenment view is that human beings are rational, detached agents that pursue our own self-interests and our nation states reflect that view. How are we going to address the needs of 7 billion people and heal the biosphere if we really are dispassionate, disinterested agents pursuing our own self-interest?
A lot of interesting new discoveries in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, child development, anthropology and more suggest that human nature might not be what Enlightenment philosophers suggested. For instance, the discovery of mirror neurons suggests that we are not wired for autonomy or utility but for empathic distress; we are a social species.
If we begin to change our ideas about human nature and, as you say in the book, view history through an empathic lens, what new things do we discover?
We can see how consciousness, which is wired for empathy and social engagement, changes over history. Obviously consciousness has changed over history–a Paleolithic hunter is wired differently than a medieval serf or a modern human. My belief is that when energy and communications revolutions converge it creates new economic eras and changes consciousness dramatically by shifting our temporal and spatial boundaries, causing empathy to expand.
For instance, wherever there were hydraulic agricultural societies based on large-scale irrigation systems, humans independently created writing. That’s fascinating to me. Writing made it possible to manage a complex energy regime. It also changed consciousness–transforming the mythological consciousness of oral cultures into a theological one. In the process, empathy evolves. The range of oral communication is limited–you can’t extend empathy beyond kin and blood ties. With script you could empathize further with associational ties, you broaden your frame of reference.
In the 19th century the printing press communications revolution converged with new energies: coal and steam. This led to the introduction of public schools and mass literacy across Europe and America. Theological consciousness became ideological consciousness. The same shift occurred in the 20th century with the Second Industrial Revolution, the electronics revolution, which gave rise to psychological consciousness.
Each convergence of energy and communications technology changed our consciousness, extended our social networks and in turn expanded our empathy.
But all of that happens at the expense of the environment?
It’s the conundrum of history that these more complex civilizations that use greater energy flow-through allow us to bring more people together, but they create more entropy in the process. If we are going to ward off the extreme dangers posed by climate change we need to find a way to increase empathy while decreasing entropy. The question is, how do you do that? How do you break the paradox?
In the book you argue that we can break the paradox by shifting from geopolitical consciousness to biosphere consciousness.
We need to implement reglobalization from the bottom-up in order to achieve a more sustainable global economy. Geopolitics is an extension of the Enlightenment view of human nature, the idea that we pursue our utilitarian pleasures and individual self-interests. In geopolitics, the nation-state becomes a macro view of that. Nations deal with nations by being rational, detached and calculating, pursuing self-interests, excercising power and acquiring more capital and wealth. That’s why Copenhagen failed. The world leaders weren’t thinking biosphere, they were thinking geopolitics. Everyone was looking out for their nation’s self-interest.
What we need to do is attempt biosphere politics. Governing units are going to change–I think there’s going to be a shift toward continentalization. The EU is a first attempt at organizing a new frame of reference across continents, but it’s a transitional governing form. The Asian Union, African Union and South American Union are in their early stages.
The global economy didn’t work in its first stage. And that’s because the economics and the technology raced ahead of our changing consciousness. A global economy requires social trust; you need biosphere consciousness, not geopolitics. You’re never going to get globalization until empathy extends to the whole species.
As I said in the book, I think we need to rethink economic policies and make thermodynamics the basis of economic theory. The price of energy is embedded in every product we make. At the same time, the effects of climate change are already eroding economies in many parts of the world as extreme weather events destroy ecosystems and agricultural infrastructure. The Third Industrial Revolution will be driven in part by the need to mitigate the entropic impact of the first two industrial revolutions.
A lot of business people would say that you can’t be empathic in the market. But the market is a secondary institution–it’s an extension of culture. The real invisible hand of the market is trust, which is the result of empathic engagement. The only way you can have a market is if you have a shared narrative. The market is not a utilitarian frame of reference, it only exists by the social trust that allows people to engage in anonymous settings and believe that their engagements will be honored. When that trust fails, markets collapse and that’s what is happening now.
What will the Third Industrial Revolution look like? When will it happen?
I think we’re on the verge. I had the privilege to help design the European Union’s Third Industrial Revolution economic stability game plan, which was endorsed by the European Parliament in 2007. What we noticed is that in the last 10 or 15 years we’ve had a very powerful communication revolution with the internet, and the key word is that it’s distributed. What’s beginning to happen now is that the distributed ICT [information and communication technologies] revolution is beginning to converge with a new energy regime: distributed renewable energy. When they do converge, it’s likely to change consciousness once again.
Distributed ICT will organize distributed energies. Renewables like wind, solar, geothermal and biomass are found in some proportion everywhere, in people’s backyards. As people begin to harvest these renewable energies they can share electricity peer-to-peer across an internet-like smart energy grid that extends across nations and even continents. We see buildings as the new power plants. Buildings are the number one source of C02 emmissions, but they might also be the solution if they can harness renewables to produce their own energy on site. People will also need new energy storage technologies like hydrogen. The EU has committed 8 billion Euros to hydrogen storage technologies. Those technologies will give us dependable distributed energy.
I founded the Third Industrial Revolution Global CEO Business Roundtable, which is comprised of 100 leading companies from renewable energy to utilities to architectural firms. We’re starting to lay out plans.
How will the Third Industrial Revolution change our consciousness?
It extends it in a distributed fashion, with everyone taking responsibility for their swath of the biosphere and then sharing their energy across continents. We have to take responsibility where we are but we have to share across the world for it to work. That would allow us to think biosphere politics not geopolitics and extend empathy in that regard. That gives us a possibility of breaking the empathy/entropy paradox. Will we actually do it? If I were a betting person…well, I wouldn’t even want to make a bet. But it’s our best shot.
It’s a tough challenge. What I’m saying is so difficult. But what
encourages me is the empathy we are already seeing resulting from technology.
After the Iranian elections a young college student was gunned down in the street by an Iranian militiaman for protesting, and someone took a cell phone video. The world instantly empathized. Then there was the earthquake in Haiti. There was an immediate response. That’s new–we’re thinking as a human race. We still have our xenophobia and our prejudices but I think we’re catching a glimpse of something new, and we’re going to have to if the possibility of our own extinction depends on it.
I think the question hasn’t been asked yet, what is the point of this exercise in connecting the human race in this way? Up to now, most people’s reasons for supporting it is more information, quicker information, better entertainment, improved commerce and trade, etc. What I’m suggesting is that that is not enough. When Henry David Thoreau saw the telegraph, he said, “Well, now Maine can talk to Texas, but does Maine really have anything to say to Texas?” If we can’t have a global discussion of the transcendent purpose of this connectivity, I don’t think entertainment and information are going to be enough to justify the Third Industrial revolution. We have to think deeper, to think as a human family, to take responsibility for the biosphere and our fellow creatures.
If human nature is Homo empathicus, as scientists are suggesting, if that’s our true nature, then we can begin to create new institutions–parenting styles, education, business models–that reflect our core nature. Then I can see how this Third Industrial Revolution will happen.
Perhaps we are too cynical for these ideas. Do some people see an empathic global society as an idealistic dream?
If you know my past work you know I’m not utopian. But empathy isn’t about utopia. It’s about knowing how damn tough it is to be alive. We empathize with others because we smell the whiff of death in their vulnerabilities and so we celebrate their life. There’s no such thing as empathy in heaven because there’s no mortality, no suffering. Empathy is about encouraging another person’s struggle to be. It’s a tough feeling to have. In utopia there’s no struggle, there’s nothing to empathize with. Empathy is more than just, “I feel your pain”. We root for each other’s struggle to live out this mystery of life.
I was struck by the vast number of fields you explore in your book. Do you think there’s a need for more cross-disciplinary scholarship?
Absolutely. Education is a total mess. Our educational model is based on Enlightenment ideas and progressive ideas of the 20th century–if human nature is autonomous, calculating and self-interested and if the market is the way we fulfill those interests, our education reflects that. We are taught that knowledge is a personal asset to achieve one’s aims in the world–knowledge is power. If you share your knowledge, that’s cheating.
It limits us to a more vocational idea of what life is about. We all become little drones. And as we go through education it grows narrower and narrower. But what’s happening with the internet is that young folks are growing up believing that information is something you share, not hoard. That thinking is a collaborative exercise, not an autonomous one, and that spaces ought to be commons. That’s completely alien to the Enlightenment ideas I grew up on.
I’m a big fan of interdisciplinary and collaborative teaching. If you’re studying evolutionary biology, let a philosopher come in and talk about the way our concept of nature has changed over history. Allow young people to have so many frames of reference so they can be more open and more synthetic in their thinking. If we are a social animal and we live by our stories, then our stories are only made richer with more points of view.
Sharing knowledge is considered cheating, yet collaboration has been shown to improve critical thinking if it’s done in a disciplined way. There was a doctor at UCL medical college in the 1950s who realized that if he brought all of his interns to a patient’s bedside at the same time, the collaborative response got to a diagnosis quicker than if only one intern was there.
Education has to be completely reformed to reflect the new era of distributed knowledge. I’m currently in deep private discussions with some major educational associations in the US who want to put together a team of people to begin rethinking this.
We still don’t know how to grade people in a collaborative model. But if we’re moving from Homo sapien to Homo empathicus, we have to rethink all of this.
You’ve also said we need to rethink the scientific method.
The scientific method reflects Enlightenment thinking. You have to be detached, rational and value-free; you can’t be connected or use empathic imagination. But we’re seeing that you need both. If the scientific method is the way kids learn, how do they grow up to form an empathic connection to the world?
There are scientists who are practicing a different kind of science, a not-too-close, not-too-far empathic engagement. Jane Goodall is a great example. I told Jane, what you did was so amazing because it’s a new approach to science, and she said she had never thought about it that way. She began to empathize with the chimpanzees she was studying, imagining their experience as if it were her own. What she learned about chimpanzee behaviour was massively more than what people had previously learned by studying them in a completely detached way.
Goethe understood this a couple hundred years ago–he disagreed with Francis Bacon’s approach. He argued that we understand nature by participating, not by standing back and observing with dispassionate neutrality. Especially in the ecological sciences and climate science, you need to be engaged, interactive and interdisciplinary, because you’re dealing with systems thinking.
Empathic science is a good balance between the traditional scientific method on the one hand and something that wouldn’t be science at all on the other. Empathy requires that you not be too close or too far away. You have to be close enough to feel the experiences biologically as if they are your own but far enough to use your cognitive abilities to rationally respond.
I hope scholars will take these ideas much further. I’m hoping a younger generation can do that.
I found it interesting that you correlate the expansion of empathy throughout human history with a growing sense of self. I would naively think that they would have an inverse relationship.
Empathy goes hand-in-hand with selfhood; if you know you’re a self you can see yourself in relation to the other. People hear “empathy” and they think socialism or something–that’s completely missing the point. Increasing individuation and selfhood is critical to increasing empathy.
We are wired for empathic distress. If you put a bunch of babies in a nursery and one starts crying, the others start crying but they don’t know why. Real empathy – empathic expression–doesn’t occur until children develop a sense of self and recognize themselves as being separate from others; when they can recognize themselves in a mirror, for instance. When kids learn about birth and death they think, uh oh, now I know I have a history, I’m finite. Realizing their own vulnerability allows them to feel another’s vulnerability. The more advanced your selfhood, the more you can feel another’s fragility and empathize. Empathy is the invisible social glue that allows a complex individuated society to remain integrated.
You said that people hear “empathy” and think “socialism”. How does capitalism survive an empathic society?
Market capitalism will be transformed into “distributed capitalism”. Just as the internet led to the democratization of information, the Third Industrial Revolution will lead to the democratization of energy. The required changes to infrastructure are going to create massive amounts of jobs and a whole new economy. But when you have peer-to-peer sharing of energy across an intelligent grid system, you no longer have the top-down, centralized economic system. Distributed energy requires distributed capitalism, and that relies on the opposite view of human nature than that of market capitalism. But the politics isn’t right or left–its centralized, top-down versus collaborative commons. You don’t hear people say, I’m going onto a social networking space because I’m a socialist–it’s just a different frame of reference.
At over 600 pages, The Empathic Civilization is a long book! How long did it take you to write it?
I didn’t mean for it to be a long book, but my wife says the older I get, the longer my books get. It took over five years. I got so deep into the research; I read about 400 books and maybe 3,000 articles. The actual writing took about a year and a half. My wife has made me promise no more books!
by Amanda Gefter
About Jeremy Rifkin:
Jeremy Rifkin is an advisor to the European Union and heads of state around the world. He is a senior lecturer at the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania where he instructs CEOs and corporate management on new trends in science, technology, the economy and society. He is the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C. His book The Empathic Civilization was published by Penguin in December 2009.
To find out more about Jeremy Rifkin, please click here.
OR to find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.