Empathy Depletion: An Environmental Hazard

It seems more and more clear that sustainable development requires that we look closely not only at how we treat the environment hut at how we treat each other.
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It seems more and more clear that sustainable development requires that we look closely not only at how we treat the environment hut at how we treat each other.
Jeremy Rifkin, in his 2009 book The Empathic Civilization, provided a new perspective on the connection between environmental degradation and social injustice. In nature, entropy breaks complex structures down into simpler ones. To hold entropy at bay requires infusions of energy at levels commensurate with the complexity of the structure.

At least since the "hydraulic agricultural" societies of Egypt, Greece and Rome, human beings have needed greater and greater infusions of energy to keep their increasingly complex civilizations intact. They have extorted this energy from nature and from their fellow humans through hierarchical and exploitive social mechanisms that cause great damage to both, justifying their actions with "utilitarian" ideologies.

But why is such justification necessary?

To explain, Rifkin introduced "mirror neurons," soft-wiring in the human brain that cause us to empathize, to experience the plight of our fellow humans as our own, and even to empathize with plants, animals, all living creatures. The mirror neurons encourage a natural solidarity and cooperativeness among us that is the central aspiration of most of the world's religions and also orients us to preserve our environment and respect one another.

Utilitarian ideologies help suppress these empathic impulses, that would draw us back from the exploitation of nature and humanity necessary for "bigger and better." To be successful, these ideologies must be ingrained, deep, in our family life and in all the social constructs in which we live and have our being.

Rifkin devotes most of his book talking about an "entropy debt" we have built up over the years, a dangerous environmental disequilibrium caused by millennia of damage, about to come due unless we find ways to tread more lightly on the earth.

Absent in the book, however, and not addressed since, is the question of the "empathy debt," environmental entropy's evil twin, and how we might find ways to tread more lightly on each other.

I submit that "empathy depletion" is as much an environmental hazard as depletion of the ozone layer. Rifkin does point out that suppression of our empathic impulses in service of utilitarianism and exploitation has caused us to "act out," sometimes violently, throughout or history.

But it goes much farther-- millennia of human exploitation and social injustice, as well as contemporary suppression of our empathic impulses, have cumulated to impend a major dislocation, not unlike global warming, rising water levels, and extreme weather events.

Gabor Mate has recently shown that the lack of "emotionally available, non-stressed, parenting caregivers" accompanying utilitarian society compromises the physiological development of the brain circuits that give us "empathy and a connection with other people." A striking result in the U.S. is a dramatic increase in autism-spectrum disorders, bullying, and other forms of adolescent dysfunction as children grow up in empathy deserts--extraordinarily stressful, alienated living conditions, without the attention of nurturing adults that they so desperately need.

Bullying crops up everywhere in our country, and has many faces--mass shootings are often perpetrated by bullying victims, we bully each other when we drive, gun-toting bullies shape our domestic and foreign policy, corporate bullies control our lives, the police bully minority citizens--and worse. We bully other nations, we bully other peoples.

Autism is also a serious problem. People are noticing, and getting scared about autism's rapid increase, as more and more kids and even adults must live their lives on psychotropic medications. Learning disabilities, bipolar disorder, and a host of other autism-spectrum problems flourish and grow.

Empathy depletion hardens the already sharp edges of hierarchy and patriarchy , which dominate the planet's social systems, be they left, right, or center, theological or secular. Stressed and suspicious, we take it out on Mother Nature and on ourselves, with increasing ferocity and callous disregard.

Rifkin suggests a flatter, less hierarchical "empathic" civilization, in which all would do with less, and respect the environment by stepping off the energy grid through the use of renewable fuel sources. Thomas Piketty's recent work, besides showing the symbiosis between social hierarchy and social inequality, opens a window into another off-the-grid phenomenon, a "sharing" economy in which people improve their lives by cooperating with their fellows rather than attempting to subordinate them, and save some money in the bargain.

Mohamed Yunus-style social business is another off the grid economic approach. In this vision, businesses provide socially needed goods and services at a profit margin just high enough to pay employees and provide their benefits; the rest is not pocketed, but rather invested in improving the product or widening its distribution. I have used the term "civic infrastructure" to describe off-the grid political approaches.

However, though all these off-the-grid, entropy-resistant options create the opportunity to counter empathy depletion, they require also that empathy be actively nourished and encouraged within and between them. And they must resist the offers to buy them out or buy them off that are sure to come.

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