Here's a fascinating 50 minute talk from a creative, insightful and controversial thinker, Jeremy Rifkin. As he mentions in the talk, he's an advisor to the European Parliament, which has formally endorsed the energy plan he has outlined here. But while he ends on energy, the core of the talk is about empathy and the significance of empathy in history and human society. I won't attempt to summarise his argument, but commend it as a very interesting thesis.
A couple of my reflections on the talk (and you may wish to listen to it yourself first): he's massively oversimplifying (of course),* but I buy the basic idea that energy revolutions are correlated with revolutions in consciousness and social organisation. I also buy the critical significance of empathy for ethical deliberation and intuition. I'm not sure I'm yet convinced about the technical feasibility of transforming our energy infrastructure to a distributed system without also transforming our expectations of energy. That is, the kind of distributed energy system he presents may well be technically possible (though few engineers seem to share his optimism about hydrogen fuels), but whether it can deliver even present levels of energy consumption per capita for a rising population is another matter (let alone provide for ongoing growth in energy consumption). It is also not clear whether it can be exported to areas of the world with higher population densities (e.g. India and China). At one point Rifkin seems to imply that retrofitting every building in Europe is what is going to ensure ongoing economic growth, meaning that for him, economic growth seems to be a sine qua non of any positive path forward. In this way, I think he's still stuck in 19th/20thC thinking. Yet his reference to beef production/consumption and the failure of any national leader to mention its contribution to climate change does imply that he's keen for cultural transformation at least insofar as diets are concerned. I'd like to apply the same thinking to energy consumption. It is quite possible to live a flourishing and enjoyable life on far, far less energy than the average consumption of the developed world (even Europe, which consumes roughly half the energy per capita of the US or Australia). But trying to rebuild our energy infrastructure without also changing our energy consumption patterns is likely to be only a halfhearted affair.
*Not least in his sketch of theological anthropology and the transference of all ethical considerations into an otherworld. Sounds like he's been reading too much Nietzsche and not enough actual theology.
Perhaps most critically of all, I'm fairly pessimistic about the political feasibility of implementing the infrastructural changes he advocates on the timescale required to avoid ecological and climatic changes that will render such grand projects ineffective at helping to build a stable society, especially in the face of massively wealthy fossil energy interests who show almost no sign of the empathetical sensibility discussed here. Of course, political winds can shift quickly, and so I do think that seeking to effect cultural and political transformations that can enable the industrial and infrastructural changes he's talking about is a very worthy goal. Yet he doesn't seem to be (at least here) confronting the social, cultural and political barriers to these changes.
Nonetheless, I think there's much here that is worth sharing and pondering further, not least the idea that unless our capacity for empathy can extend beyond parochial, generational and even species ties, then we're in for a very rough century.