Empathic enlightenment


  • Social brain

One of the privileges of my job is that I get regularly to chair lectures. Over time you start to notice patterns, albeit pretty obvious ones. Technology related events tend to attract younger people while lectures with more of a focus on manufacturing or business are a bit older. Ministers and shadow ministers are more likely to attract senior people from public and third sector organisations.

The weather makes a difference; too cold and wet and people don’t venture out, too sunny, and they choose an early evening drink over sitting in a lecture theatre. Audiences prefer informal discursive styles of presentation, they like to be engaged and have plenty of time for questions.    

So when the lectures team warned me last night that Jeremy Rifkin would go well over our preferred lecture time of 25 minutes I was concerned that the Great Room might get restless. I need not have worried. Rifkin spoke, largely without notes, for fifty minutes. And when he finished he received what was, to my reckoning, just about the most sustained applause I have heard for any speaker in my three years at the RSA.

Rifkin has written a very long and full book, The Empathic Civilisation, with a simple core thesis: we are in a race against time; will our capacity for empathy with those with whom we share the biosphere (human and non-human) save us from our potentially disastrous tendency to consume more energy at each stage of human development? The way out of this conundrum, says Rifkin, is to move from finite energy sources to distributed renewable systems.

These are not the idle speculations of an impractical visionary. Rifkin is a key advisor to the European Union. His book combines a passionate call for new ways of generating energy with powerful arguments about human nature and economic development. All major stages in human development have, he argues, been accompanied by new more intensive energy systems and new modes of communication which widen the boundaries within which human beings can exercise their ‘soft wired’ capacity for empathy. We now have the capacity for biosphere-wide empathy and we are going to need it if we are to accomplish the shift from carbon based energy. Hope, he says, lies with the young; the internet and new forms of education can lead to a step change in how they think about themselves and relate to the world.   

Rifkin is critical of aspects of what he sees as enlightenment thought. These include the emphasis on the individual, the assumption that systems are best understood by breaking them up into their constituent parts rather than exploring them as integrated wholes, and the Cartesian separation of mind and body. However, his aim is to reform not to abandon the enlightenment project.

Before the lecture he told me about a Council of Europe project about reclaiming and redefining the enlightenment. Given that the RSA’s newly launched strap line (now to be seen behind the splendid new coffee station in John Adam Street) is 21st century enlightenment, I was keen to explore partnership.

Like many, I suspect, I often engage, as a matter of politeness, in business card swapping, only to find them dog eared weeks later in my wallet or jacket pocket. But Jeremy Rifkin’s card has been wedged in the corner of my computer screen. As soon as I’ve got through the five speeches I have scheduled this week (one down, four to go) I’ll be taking up his offer to explore how the RSA could become the UK partner in a debate about the kind of enlightenment Europe needs now.

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