When Both Faith and Reason Fail: Stepping Up to The Age of Empathy

While our radio talk shows and 24-hour cable TV news programs incessantly play off the political rift between conservative and liberal ideologies, the deeper conflict in America has always been the cultural divide between faith versus reason.

At the dawn of the modern market economy and nation-state era, the philosophers of the Enlightenment challenged the Age of Faith that governed over the feudal economy with the Age of Reason. Theologians and philosophers have continued to battle over faith vs. reason ever since, their debates often spilling over into the cultural and political arenas, with profound consequences for society.

Today, however, at the outset of a global economy and the biosphere era, a new generation of scientists, scholars, and social reformers are beginning to challenge some of the underlying assumptions of both the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason, taking us into the Age of Empathy.

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Is It Time To Replace The American Dream?

For two hundred years the American Dream has served as the bedrock foundation of the American way of life. The dream, reduced to its essence, is that in America, every person has the right and opportunity to pursue his or her own individual material self interest in the marketplace, and make something of their life, or at least sacrifice so the next generation might enjoy a better life. The role of the government, in turn, is to guarantee individual freedom, assure the proper functioning of the market, protect property rights, and look out for national security. In all other matters, the government is expected to step aside so that a nation of free men and woman can pursue their individual ambitions.

Although American history is peppered with lamentations about the souring of the dream, the criticism never extends to the assumptions that underlie the dream, but only to political, economic and social forces that thwart its realization. To suggest that the dream itself is misguided, outdated, and even damaging to the American psyche, would be considered almost treasonous. Yet, I would like to suggest just that.

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What Does Facebook Have To Do With Job Creation And Renewable Energy?

The fossil fuel energies that propelled the great Industrial Revolutions of the past two centuries are now sunsetting and the infrastructure within which they are embedded is on life support. All across the world people are without work and becoming increasingly desperate. An anxious human race is asking the question, what do we do?

Here in the United States, President Obama has made the issue of jobs and the economic recovery his top priority in 2010, but has yet to deliver a comprehensive plan for rejuvenating the economy.

The irony is that President Obama, who was elected, in large part, by a generation who is growing up on Facebook and the vast distributed power of the Internet, appears to not understand the job potential of a distributed Third Industrial Revolution. Today, the information and communications technologies that gave rise to the Internet are being used to reconfigure the world’s business models and power grids, enabling millions of people to collect renewable energy and produce their own electricity in their homes, offices, retail stores, factories, and technology parks and share it peer-to-peer across smart grids, just as they now produce and share their own information in cyberspace. This is a Third Industrial Revolution and will create millions of new jobs.

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Empathic Civilization: Why Have We Become So Uncivil?

In the past two weeks, President Obama has made an unprecedented plea for civility in public discourse. Washington insiders say they can’t ever recall a period in American public life as full of anger and polarization as now. TV and radio talk show hosts, in particular, have fanned the flames of hatred with occasional outrageous personal attacks on public figures and advocates of policy agendas with which they disagree. If we continue along this toxic road, it could lead to unfathomable damage to the American psyche. The question is “Why is The United States becoming so uncivil”?

When we talk about civility, we are really talking about empathy: the willingness to listen to another’s point of view, to put one’s self in another’s shoes and to emotionally and cognitively experience what they are feeling and thinking. To civilize is to empathize.

Below all of the fiery rhetoric and finger pointing, the acid comments and degrading personal attacks, is a deep-seated fear and mistrust of the “the other”- in other words, a lack of empathy.

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Empathy: The Real Invisible Hand of the Marketplace

The anemic global economic recovery is beginning to stall. Unemployment is shooting up again. The housing market is threatened by a new wave of foreclosures. Tens of millions of Americans are teetering on the edge of survival. Public surveys show that people on Main Street are fast loosing trust in Wall Street and the workings of the market. What’s gone wrong?

The economists have a difficult time understanding the public reaction, in large part, because they believe the market is functioning as it should: that is, it is serving as a self regulating arena where individual material self interest can express itself under the guidance of an “invisible hand” that continually adjusts supply and demand and other market forces to ensure a proper functioning of commerce and trade. Recall the words of Adam Smith, the great Scottish economist of the Enlightenment, who wrote in “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” that:

Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment to whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of society’s, which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily, leaves him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society.

What the economists fail to grasp is that commerce and trade, and indeed, all market relations, are only made possible by a very different kind of “invisible hand”–the one that establishes social trust among people. That social trust, in turn, is created by the extension of empathic sensibility to others. This is the process that creates human culture.

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The Earthquake That Triggered A Global Empathic Response: What The Haitian Crisis Tells Us About Human Nature

Frantic tweets and videos have been seeping out of Haiti, pleading for help from the rest of the human race in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that leveled one of the poorest countries on the planet, spreading destruction and death.

The response by people all over the world has been immediate. Governments, NGOs, and individuals are mobilizing relief missions, and social websites are lighting up, as the collective human family extends a global empathic embrace to its neighbors in this small Caribbean nation. We saw a similar global response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans and the gulf coast of the United States and the giant tsunami that struck Asian and African coastlines earlier in the decade.

In recent years, whenever natural disasters have struck, in what is increasingly becoming a globally interconnected and interdependent world, human beings have come together as an extended family in an outpouring of compassion and concern. For these brief moments of time, we leave behind the many differences that divide us to act as a species. We become Homo empathicus.

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The Empathic Civilization: Rethinking Human Nature in the Biosphere Era

Two spectacular failures, separated by only 18 months, marked the end of the modern era. In July 2008, the price of oil on world markets peaked at $147/ barrel, inflation soared, the price of everything from food to gasoline skyrocketed, and the global economic engine shut off. Growing demand in the developed nations, as well as in China, India, and other emerging economies, for diminishing fossil fuels precipitated the crisis. Purchasing power plummeted and the global economy collapsed. That was the earthquake that tore asunder the industrial age built on and propelled by fossil fuels. The failure of the financial markets two months later was merely the aftershock. The fossil fuel energies that make up the industrial way of life are sunsetting and the industrial infrastructure is now on life support.

In December 2009, world leaders from 192 countries assembled in Copenhagen to address the question of how to handle the accumulated entropy bill of the fossil fuel based industrial revolution-the spent C0₂ that is heating up the planet and careening the earth into a catastrophic shift in climate. After years of preparation, the negotiations broke down and world leaders were unable to reach a formal accord.

Neither the world’s political or business leaders anticipated the economic debacle of July 2008, nor were they able to cobble together a sufficient plan for economic recovery in the months since. They were equally inept at addressing the issue of climate change, despite the fact that the scientific community warns that is poses the greatest threat to our species in its history, that we are running out of time, and that we may even be facing the prospect of our own extinction.

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