Book Review

June 2010 / Book Reviews

Book Review
The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin
Bruce L. Gibb

Bruce Gibb

rifkin coverJeremy Rifkin. The Empathic Civilization. New York: Penguin, 2009.

If you are a spiralcrat, you are going to love Jeremy Rifkin’s book, a wonderful compilation of historical, psychological, and sociological stories chronicling the human journey through the vMemes of the Spiral.

One might conclude that Rifkin’s COG is at green because the values he espouses and the demons he denounces are typically those of a person at green. At the same time, however, since his articulation of these values are in the service of global turquoise, one could argue that his COG is at the turquoise level. I conclude the latter.

Empathy, the core topic of the book, is the thread upon which the content is strung through time. He summarizes the history of the concept with Martin Hoffman’s definition, which he seems to accept as definitive:

…a total response to the plight of another person, sparked by a deep emotional sharing of that other person’s state, and accompanied by a cognitive assessment of the others’ present condition and followed by an affective and engaged response to attend to their needs and help ameliorate their suffering. (12)

I had considered empathy as a sin-qua-non of purple but Rifkin, rightly I think, recognizes that humans are born and raised in families, in clans, and that the empathic sense is an attribute of being human. This locates it at all spiral levels including beige. This idea is supported by Frans de Waal in the Age of Empathy with evidence of empathy in primates (and dogs, dolphins, elephants and possibly even whales.) Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, recognizes its importance in the post-modern age. While empathy is one of the mechanisms of socio-psychological bonding, and bonding occurs at all spiral levels, bonding or attachment might be a more inclusive terms. In their book Driven, Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria identify bonding as one of four instinctive human drivers. However, empathy is a good place marker for purple bonding and, being more specific, satisfies.

He gives the second term of his title, “civilization”, an interesting definition:

Civilization is the detribalization of blood ties and the resocialization of distinct individuals based on associational ties. Empathic extension is the psychological mechanism that makes conversion and the transition possible. When we say civilize, we mean to empathize.

Thus, the process of civilizing is a process of expanding what Peter Singer called the circle of inclusion from the clan to global society. In a few prior paragraphs Rifkin details this shift from clans, small social systems, to cities, which qualify as the expansion of civilization given his definition.

Small family and extended kinship units of 30 to 150 people, which are so characteristic of forager/hunter-based oral cultures, exhibit minimal role differentiation and thus little to distinguish the individual as a unique self. Archaic men and woman lived collectively, but not as a collection of self-aware individuals. Their life contrast sharply with the setting in midtown Manhattan in 2010, where an individual is exposed to potentially 220,000 or more people within a ten-minute radius of their home or office, and each of these thousands of people have own unique roles, responsibilities and identities that set them apart from the group. Yet they function together in a highly interdependent and integrated economic and social organism.

This definition is unique since it uses the number of interdependent relationships as its core concept. This is perilously close to the definition of civilization used in the 19th century as the standard against which to measure “Progress.” British “civilization” was the epitome. In The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington defines the term differently. His definition denotes an informal large-scale social system that exists between the nation state and global society. A civilization has nation states or parts of nation states as members. The citizens of the nations in a specific civilization share a common language, religion, and culture, i.e. a common civilization.

It would be easier for those of us schooled in SDi to read the content of the book if it were organized into the eight familiar stages of cultural evolution. Instead, Rifkin takes a topic focus. This requires us to continually climb up and descend down the spiral staircase with each topic as it is introduced. Climbing via his topic presentation involves encountering some gaps where steps are missing, several steps are sometimes collapsed into one, and some steps are expanded into several. However, the detail he supplies at each step is worth the climbing.

Rifkin employs and integrates several theoretical frameworks. He, uniquely I think, incorporates into his framework the physical theories of entropy, one of the key life conditions that has shaped societies throughout their evolution. The theory of evolution, and in particular cultural evolution, is the theoretical substrate of the book. He also challenges the rational-emotional polarity with the phenomenological theory of integrated embodied experience. His use of role theory in which individuals act out roles in a dramaturgical context provides interesting insights. This theory parallels the work of Ossorio in The Behavior of Persons, descriptive psychology, (also Singer 1982) who defines a person as an individual whose history is one of deliberate action in a dramaturgical pattern. Complex systems theory, in my view a yellow meme, is employed at the end of the book but is not used as the analytical framework for the earlier presentations.

Among these theories, he gives culture primacy. To quote:

Without culture it would be impossible to engage in either commerce and trade or governance. The other two sectors require a continuous infusion of social trust to function. Indeed, the market and government sectors feed off social trust and weaken or collapse if it is withdrawn. That’s why there are no examples in history in which either markets or governments preceded culture or exist in its absence. Markets and governments are extensions of culture and never the reverse. They have always been and will always be secondary rather than primary institutions in the affairs of humanity because culture creates the empathic cloak of sociability that allows people to confidently engage each other either in the marketplace or government sphere.

As mentioned above, entropy and the sources of energy are two of the variables in the category of life conditions that Rifkin follows throughout the book. Closely associated with the type of energy used is technology. He uses social structures as variables including families, clans, tribes, mega-tribes and nation-states that increase in size and complexity. Psychological variables, and in particular, consciousness (mythological [red], theological [blue], ideological [blue-orange], psychological [orange-green], and biospheric [turquoise]) and empathy vary by pre-historical and historical stages. The economic system, “how people make a living,” is another of his core aspects that vary across time. Other significant variables are the concepts of time, measurement, and the types and methods of communication. He traces the evolution of various concepts of happiness as well.

While he identifies and discusses premodern economic systems, the foci of his writing are three “Industrial Revolutions.” The first was initiated with the enlightenment and the conversion from wood to coal and used by steam engines and railroads. The second started with use of oil in the internal combustion engine, the use of electricity, and the development of computers. The third revolution started with the use of nuclear energy and includes a future scenario with renewable, distributed energy in a smart grid. I found his vision for the evolution of this third revolution inspirational.

Rifkin employs and integrates several theoretical frameworks. He incorporates into his framework the physical theories of entropy, one of the key life conditions that have shaped societies throughout their evolution. The theory of evolution, and in particular cultural evolution, is the theoretical substrate of the book. He also challenges the rational-emotional polarity with the phenomenological theory of integrated embodied experience. His use of role theory in which individuals act out roles in a dramaturgical context provide interesting insights. This theory parallels the work of Ossorio in Descriptive Psychology who defines a person as an individual whose history is one of deliberate action in a dramaturgical pattern. Complex systems theory, in my view a yellow meme, is employed at the end of the book but is not used as the analytical framework for the earlier.

The book contains a wealth of conceptual and factual nuggets that I found deepened my understanding of spiral dynamics in everyday life. For example, I enjoyed his description of the fall of Rome from an energetic perspective. Likewise, I liked how he traces the history and evolution of the romantic movement, starting with the reaction to the hyper rationalism of the enlightenment to its contemporary manifestations in green liberalism.

His enumeration of the life conditions that support turquoise empathetic emergence will be a challenge to those who only think of turquoise mainly in terms of spiritual consciousness. I found his treatment of the emergence from collective identity to realization of selfhood to be very insightful. He makes comprehensible the pre-individualistic consciousness, which is so difficult for many of us in post-enlightenment individualistic cultures to understand. I mentioned above that I found fascinating his use of the concept of dramaturgy to understand the challenges of complexity in roles required of one in the modern and post-modern contexts. Another jewel is his description of the shifts in media and communication methods. For example, I had not realized that proverbs are the memory devices of oral cultures (beige, purple, and red.) That we still use them is another example of how cultures (memes) accumulate.

The Empathic Civilization is a tour de force that is worth every cent paid for it and every minute engaged with it. I found an insight, realization, recognition, and joy on every page.

References

  • Ossorio, Peter G. The Behavior of Persons: The Collected Works of Peter G. Ossorio. Ann Arbor: Descriptive Psychology Press, 2006. p. 69.
  • Peter Singer. The Expanding Circle. New York: Plume, 1982.

About the Author

Bruce Gibb, PhD, an organizational psychologist, has been in private practice since 1973. His expertise is in developing the human aspects of organizations. He specializes in the design and the creation of socio-technical systems or the conversion of classical organizations to socio-technical systems. Building adaptive organization cultures is one of his competencies. He is co-creator of a whole systems change methodology now commonly used in organizational development. He has worked with international organizations as well as in a dozen countries outside of the United States in agricultural, industrial, energy, financial, governmental, health, military and educational sectors. Since 2001 he has been studying and applying SDi concepts of cultural evolution in his practice.

After obtaining a Master in Public Affairs degree from Princeton University, he was the training support officer in Peru for the Institute of Public Administration of New York. Dr. Gibb then served the Ford Foundation as a program officer in New York and as assistant representative in Chile. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in organizational psychology.

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