Deciphering Culture

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Softwired for Empathy — the human condition (talk by Jeremy Rifkin)

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Hypebot.com just posted a talk (with animation by RSA ANIMATE) by social theorist & economist Jeremy Rifkin from a few months ago on recent neurological research that indicates that humans are softwired for empathy and that the PRIMARY HUMAN DRIVE IS TO BELONG (not to compete, conquer…).  Rifkin uses this research as a jumping off point to discuss the evolution of human empathy and possibilities for saving the world it has created. Rifkin’s omissions raise many questions but there is some meat here and it’s always interesting when heterodox voices come out of mainstream sources (Rivkin has advised numerous CEOs of major corporations as well as European governments). Lots of implications for those of us doing “cultural” research (in any sense).

For an expanded version, go to Rifkin’s 2010 The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness In a World In Crisis. It’s only fair to note that Rifkin is only one of many people exploring empathy — for a primatologist’s perspective see The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal, for a business perspective see Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik and there’s a lot more work out there.

Note: Rifkin doesn’t hold  himself back from some wild rhetorical flourishes (i.e., the Adam & Eve reference in this talk) and he  has been a ligahtening rod for criticism from some well-respected sources. From Wikipedia:

Rifkin’s work has also been controversial, and opponents have attacked the scientific rigor of his claims as well as some of the tactics he uses to promote his views. A 1989 article about Rifkin in Time bore the title, “The Most Hated Man in Science”.[9]Stephen Jay Gould characterised Rifkin’s 1983 book Algeny as “a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship”.[10] Stewart Brand wrote in 2009: “Among scientists who have read his work, Rifkin is regarded as America’s leading nitwit.”[11]

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

August 4, 2010 at 11:55 am

Redesigning the world (“Healing or Stealing” by Paul Hawken)

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I must admit I’m a sucker for a great speech and Paul Hawken gave one last year as the commencement speaker at Portland University about what “it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating.” A few excerpts below and a link to the full text.

This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food—but all that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. We are the only species on the planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time rather than renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.

2009 Commencement Speech by Paul Hawkin (at Portland University): Healing or Stealing?

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 29, 2010 at 11:19 am

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