Book: Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness. In A World In Crisis. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2009, 675 pp.
"Rifkin is conversant with the evolutionary and biological origins of our brain’s hard-wiring for empathy. He clearly grasps the importance of mirror neurons and how they’ve fundamentally recast our understanding of human nature. However, beyond summarizing this robust evidence his muddled guidance for realizing an “empathic civilization,” won’t raise any serious objections at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business where he lectures in the Executive Education Program.
The problem, as Rifkin defines it, is our “intensive energy flow-through” which may well doom the planet before our empathic disposition prevails. To avoid extinction of our ecosystem and the human race, Rifkin advocates a Third Industrial Revolution of “distributed capitalism.” It will be led by visionary entrepreneurs and global business leaders who will achieve ecological salvation by adhering to four pillars: renewable energy, green infrastructure, reliance on hydrogen fuel cells (the subject of an earlier book), and reconfiguring power grids with a premium on sharing.
Rifkin believes that biosphere consciousness will only occur if people in wealthy societies like the United States seek personal happiness in something other than materialist values and accumulation of wealth. Why will this occur? Because people want to contribute to the common good and will experience “joy” in doing so.
Consistent with his accommodation to ruling politico-economic interests, Rifkin attributes the recent high public profile for empathy—Homo empathicus—to President Obama’s frequent references to the topic. This leads Rifkin to write that “The president has made empathy the core of his personal philosophy and the centerpiece of his political decisions, from the conduct of his foreign policy to the selection of Supreme Court Justices” (p. 177).
Except for the chapter on his vaguely defined distributive capitalism there are only two references to capitalism in the index and both are uncritical historical citations. Rifkin envisions a transition from outmoded, entropy-producing geopolitics to forward looking, twenty-first century biosphere politics. That new world is collaborative, responsible and reflects a new consciousness, not unlike what political theorist H.Y. Jung has termed ecopiety, where we all live in harmony in a new digital commons. Again, barring an unlikely Saul to Paul conversion experience by elites, how this will occur remains murky at best. The problem is that capitalism requires the methodical foreclosure of our moral instinct for empathy and the manufacture of cultural indifference to quell this response.
Tellingly, Rifkin lavishes praise on new management styles that incorporate empathic sensibility toward employees and in selling products.  Caring bosses will be a priority. Again, he fails to acknowledge the empathy-denying imperatives of capitalism itself. Michael Parenti, in explaining how ecology is subversive of capitalism states the motives of global plutocrats, states that “. . . like us all, they live not in the long run but in the here and now. What is at stake for them is something more immediate than global ecology. It is global accumulation. The fate of the biosphere seems a far-off abstraction compared to the fate of one’s immediate investments.” (http://teachempathy.com/book-review/review-and-critique-jeremy-rifkin’s-the-empathic-civilization-and-p-w-singer’s-wired-for-war/)