The Empathetic Civilization: I, Me, Mine

We have just experienced the hottest ever Jan-Apr period in the temperature record, as well as the hottest April, and a new record 12-month global temperature. While short term records such as this are not “proof” or even necessarily evidence of climate change, they are certainly consistent with it.

Yet even as the obvious changes in weather are accelerating, the will to act on it seems to be slowing down. Recent polls suggest that the public is increasingly divorced from reality as so-called “climate skepticism” increases. We need radical action more than ever, and it seems more and more unlikely that we are going to get it.

Which question do you ask yourself when thinking about our numerous social and political challenges? Is it “Is change possible?”, or “how do we bring about the necessary change?” Naturally the latter depends on the belief that change is possible, and so it seems necessary to answer the former first. Unfortunately the two are usually not the simple sequence of logical thought, but rather reflect two entirely different mindsets.

Naturally if the desired change is possible then it follows that perhaps the person asking the question should do something to bring it about. Deciding that the required change is not possible is the easiest and laziest of the types denial, but it can and often does also speak to a deep sense of dis-empowerment.

Asking the question in it’s first form is necessary for someone who wishes to avoid taking action because it is then possible to consider only a handful of simplistic “solutions” and dismiss them as unworkable. Someone seriously asking the question will begin with “how can we bring about the needed change?” because this leads to a broad exploration of possible approaches.

The possibility of change inevitably comes around to the question of what people are willing to do. To the person expressing dis-empowerment the answer is inevitably “People won’t/don’t …. “ often coupled with some form of “People are greedy/apathetic/ignorant etc.” Certainly the daily news seems to confirm this rather jaded view of humanity, as does much of day to day experience.

If true, then there is little hope for developing what Jeremy Rifkin has termed an Empathetic Civilization, a society based on bio-centric thinking. In Rifkin’s analysis much of what is currently wrong environmentally stems from the world view developed in the Enlightenment rather than human nature per se.

I recommend reading his The Empathic Civilization’: Rethinking Human Nature in the Biosphere Era, a post adapted from his book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisisrather than rely on my gross oversimplification.

My problem with Rifkin and many such writings is that they talk about collective behaviour in a manner that is divorced from the individual. While our individual efforts are unimaginably small relative to society as a whole, the fact remains that the collective is made up of those individual actions, hence they are relevant. While these types of writings describe a distinctly more positive outcome than the pessimists do they are abstract and nebulous at a personal level. Whether the outcome is to come about through technology, changes in global thinking, or nascent social movements, one is still left feeling irrelevant, even if somewhat more hopeful.

Of course none of this is going to happen without people taking action, so the question of individual behaviour and thinking returns to center stage. History teaches us that “people are” … just about anything you care to claim. Furthermore, it is not as simple as ‘good people’ as compared to the rest. We are complex, nuanced and contradictory, and one can find numberless exceptions to any generalization you care to make.

Promising as Rifkin’s Empathetic Civilization sounds, ‘we’ are not going to think and act differently until I think and act differently. The real test of what people are willing to do is to critically examine what I personally am willing to do, how I behave.

Debates about “what people are willing to do” are usually just a way of avoiding the critical question of what we actually do. “People won’t …” is almost always a disguised declaration of “I won’t ….”, particularly if given as a reason for not trying rather than merely an obstacle to be overcome.

To me it is not a question of “how people are” so much as the context they find themselves in. Anyone with an ounce of self-awareness realizes that they have at times been selfish, careless, and greedy. At other times selfless, generous, and courageous. To imagine that those who stood unarmed in front of tanks or hid their persecuted neighbours had always led lives of immaculate virtue is nonsense. They were and are people, plain and simple.

As people they were capable of just as much self-interest and selfishness as you and I, and undoubtedly acted that way at times. Equally we are as capable of their acts of selflessness … and that is a very threatening thought. If I am capable of it, why am I not doing it? And if not such acts of great selflessness, at least something of substance.

Progressives obsess on empowerment and empowering people; yet another mysterious process that happens somehow. Too often we sidestep the fact that communities and individuals empower themselves. If they don’t, then it’s not empowerment. We can try to help create conditions conducive to it, but we cannot cause it to happen.

Which brings us back to the original point of how you phrase the question of change. I suggested that the choice of wording reflects whether you feel helpless or not. The choice not only reflects, but determines whether you feel helpless or not.

If others can only empower themselves, then it is also true that only I can empower myself. Doing so begins with how I ask that question. The “Is change even possible?” choice is not intellectually defensible so much as emotionally defensive. Implicit in asking “how can I?” is the belief that “I can.” It is a statement of faith that can be neither proved or disproved until it has been tried.

Change does not begin when I ask “how do I help make the needed change happen?” – it is already underway.

No one has a right to sit down and feel helpless, there’s too much to do.

Dorothy Day

Image Credits:

Social change label by Aleksi Aaltonen

Technology 4 Social Change by wlp_partnership

Empowerment by karenwithak

What’s wrong with ‘empowerment’? by quinn.anya

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