Thursday, June 07, 2012

Empathy and Energy: a new revolution is required

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.
H/T Lorna.


Colin Bell said...

Haven’t had a chance to watch the video, but wanted to follow up on your thought about the need for transforming expectations of energy if we move to a more distributed infrastructure.

One positive is that a community-run energy generation project is going to bring us into much closer relationship with both energy and each other. On the other hand, we are likely to have to put up with limits both on energy use both overall and in the short-term – eg if it’s predominantly wind-based, then if there’s a period of calm, electricity may end up being emergency use only, which will necessarily have some cultural changes, some good and some bad. But again it forces us to be empathic to our environment.

(It also links into the wider issue of whether the internet – which clearly depends on continuous electricity supplies – can survive, or whether it’s a priority. There seems to be no consensus on this one.)

byron smith said...

Thanks Colin, important points. A year or two ago I spent a few days on the island of Eigg, which not only achieved the first community buy out from a millionaire absentee landlord in Scotland, but subsequently has set up its own electricity grid of wind and micro-hydro (plus a tiny bit of back-up biomas) and is 100% self-powered with renewable energy (the biomas is all grown on the island and forest cover of native trees has increased significantly since the purchase). These were all very exciting developments and the island is something of a tiny model of one possible path forward. Admittedly it only has something like 90 residents, but they have managed to pull together to make these investments in their energy future and now jointly own their own power supply, which is awesome. One of the changes required to achieve this has been a limit on household power demand, which is capped at a certain number of kW at a time. If you exceed the limit, then a switch is tripped and you are cut off until a small reconnexion fee is paid. When excess energy is produced, then a shared community hall (also the joint properly of all the residents) is heated, which is a useful lower priority way of using excess energy.

Anyway, I was fascinated to see just how much these projects had drawn the community together into a shared sense of identity and destiny. One of the very obvious effects of these projects has been the revitalisation of island life. Like all other Scottish islands, the population had been dwindling as all the young people would leave to go to the cities. But after the community buyout and energy project, young people who were born on the island and who left are coming back to raise their own children and the population has risen to about 90.

Of course there are all kinds of challenges that make scaling up this kind of vision incredibly complex, but nonetheless, I found the place an inspiring and fascinating experimental microcosm.

Anonymous said...

Please find some references which are related to this very important theme