Exactly 255 years ago as I write, on All Saints Day in 1755 at 9.30 in the morning, an earthquake struck the city of Lisbon. It was the biggest ever recorded in Europe, measuring nine on the Richter Scale. A devout Catholic population was gathered in churches. Fourteen out of fifteen of these were destroyed. There were three main shocks, the second of which did the most damage. Smaller aftershocks terrorised the population throughout that day. People fled into the streets in panic after the first shocks, when, minutes later, a tsunami hit, killing many in and near the port.
Later, fires raged across the city, lasting for five days, and along with looting, destroyed most of what was left. Fifteen thousand people died in Lisbon that day. That’s one in eleven of the population of one of the largest and richest cities in Europe. And no modern report would be complete without noting that the cost of this disaster was one third to one half of the GDP of Portugal.
Historians have described the 1755 earthquake as having a similar impact on the European psyche as the Holocaust did in its day. That is, it shocked people to the core, causing them to question their fundamental beliefs about human nature and the natural order. Voltaire believed it showed that there could not possibly be a benevolent God taking an interest in our affairs. Meanwhile Jesuits, Wesleyans and others called it divine punishment for a city grown wicked.
Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau pointed out that it was man, not God, who piled up dense cities, so prone to disasters. Immanuel Kant put forward an early seismic theory of natural causes (underground caverns of hot gas). The earthquake also became Kant’s example of a ‘sublime’ event; something whose enormity was too big to grasp. Perhaps the earthquake offered a ready metaphor for a Europe that was becoming decidedly shaky, losing its former Cartesian certainties, and coming only a generation before the French Revolution.
The earthquake in Haiti this year was smaller in Richter Scale intensity, but much bigger in casualties: 230,000 dead and one million made homeless, according to the Haitian government (the sixth-biggest ever loss of life from earthquake). Ten months later, there are still fresh reports of suffering, the most recent concerning a cholera outbreak. Haiti has been cited by Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Empathic Civilisation, as an example of a new sense of global interconnection and family feeling: ‘The response by people all over the world has been immediate. Governments, NGOs and individuals are mobilising relief missions, and social websites are lighting up, as the collective human family extends a global empathic embrace to its neighbours in this small Caribbean nation’ (Huffington Post, 15 January 2010).
I’m not as sure as Rifkin that this is a new phenomenon – a similar rush of agonised concern seems to have swept Europe in 1755. Rifkin’s core argument is that we are evolving as a social species around this new form of consciousness; beyond market, selfish laissez-faire or protective nation state to an empathic civilisation. And that seems well worth exploring, not least as, along with the related themes of cosmpolitanism and equity, it has been one of the big topics of conversations this year in think-tanks and talking shops such as London’s Royal Society of Arts.
Rifkin grounds his argument in the primary human capacity for empathy; that we can feel for another’s suffering and the fragility of a ‘once and only’ mortal life. He adds some fashionable neuroscience – mirror neurons – as a rediscovering of something we had perhaps forgotten (but which Buddhists, for one, also recognise as primary). Previous scientific models of human nature have tended to emphasise selfish competition.
Rifkin argues that the boundaries of our empathic feelings have extended before; from family, to tribe, to religion to nation state. It will surely only take one further stretch to hook our empathy up to the whole biosphere itself. Although Rifkin points out that this would require us rethinking everything from parenting and schooling, to business models and government.
Rifkin is not alone. From the greenest fringes of Climate Camp and Transition Towns, to the new UK coalition government’s ‘Big Society’, there has been a rush to rediscover civic engagement and empathy towards a world where we agree that we are all in it together. And hence, can agree to work together, in more mutualised ways. ‘Mutualised’ (via the pro-social web) is certainly the way I’ve been working at things recently, as summarised in my last book, Co-opportununity.
The Empathic Civilisation sounds ideal. But there is also room for doubt. Can we really pin all our hopes on the chances of the emergence, by some autonomous process of historical determinism or human evolution, of an essentially ‘nicer‘ world taking over painlessly from today’s global economic machine? Writing in the Guardian, John Gray countered that, rather than a rush to empathy, climate change, peak oil and shortages of food and water would more likely tip the world towards geopolitical conflict. And why would it not be both, as with the 1960s hippy consciousness and peace movements set precisely against 1960s Vietnam and (as was believed at the time) impending nuclear war?
Some have suggested that to understand the reactions to the 1755 earthquake, you have to substitute the term ‘God’ for ‘Economy’. Such events can certainly catalyse a loss of faith in the essential benevolence of the dominant system. Haiti was not a contemporary Lisbon; it was already one of the poorest countries in the world, with 80% living below the poverty line. Even New Orleans was poor by overall US standards, with 20% living below the poverty line. Such poverty is not innate (witness Haiti’s neighbours, Cuba and the Dominican Republic). Poverty is manufactured by economics – not just the free market, but all the contemporary inheritors of the East India Company’s view that with absolute power comes the right to crush the weakest farmer, tenant, or borrower underfoot.
Pre-earthquake, there was little access to the same rush of concern for Haiti’s plight, though. As Rifkin points out, ‘When human-induced behaviour results in suffering to others on a large scale, we tend to shrug our shoulders as if to say, “that’s human nature, and, therefore, there’s not much we can do about it”.’ Rather a worrying thought, placed next to the all-too-human-induced crises ahead, such as climate change.
So what’s the way forward? Do we need such disasters to shake our foundations? Not only God knows, there are plenty of those in the pipeline. I hope Rifkin is right. But I suspect it is not some sort of ‘trend’ in the evolution of consciousness; it is a future we have to struggle for, contest and earn the right to. Where I do agree with Rifkin is – despite the temptation to blame everything on economics – that there can be no ‘them and us’ in the way forward, only a ‘we’. And since we can’t compel 7bn fellow human beings to join our empathic family, we may have to start smaller, in our own workplaces and communities, and from there sweep up whoever we can along the way.