7 December 2010

Tonight our topic is Humanity on a Tightrope.  That’s the title of a new book by Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University.  We first read one of his many influential books, The Population Bomb, way back in 1968, and it has profoundly shaped our thinking about the population crisis.  We’ve had several guests on the program talking about population, and many people see it as the biggest single issue facing humankind—if we overpopulate the planet, there is not hope for sustainability.  Dr. Ehrlich agrees, but also offers a somewhat different perspective.  His theme is empathy—or the lack of it—and he argues that lack of empathy for other people is at the root of many sustainability  problems. If we have empathy for others, we won’t destroy the earth on which they (and we live).  Paul Ehrlich also talks about what he calls “Big Change,” or what others call a “quantum leap” or a “paradigm shift” to get humankind working together on these issues.  This is a topic we have taken up with a number of guests on the program, and we continue to puzzle over how this will happen.  Do we need a world government with a environmentalist as queen or king?  Can governments legislate change on the scale we need? Are there incentives we can offer?  Can we depend on the good will and intelligence of humankind?  Or will humanity be driven to the brink, or to use Paul Ehrlich’s metaphor, teeter near falling off the tightrope before taking action?

Listen to the Program

Our Questiions for Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich teaches at Stanford University, where he is Bing Professor of Population Studies and president of the Center for Conservation Biology.  Many listeners will be familiar with him through his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, coauthored with Anne Ehrlich, which was highly influential in alerting the world to the implications of the “population explosion.”  His new book is coauthored with psychologist Robert Ornstein.  It’s called Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family, and Big Changes for a Viable Future.   

–The driving metaphor for your book is “humanity on a tightrope.” We realize that humankind is teetering, but your metaphor also includes the watching audience and its response to the tightrope walker’s stumbles.  Please tell us about this metaphor and why you and Robert Ornstein chose it for the book.

–You quote President Obama that humankind has an “empathy deficit,” and you argue that family affiliation and the ability to empathize are part of our evolutionary (or coevolutionary) makeup:

…What evidence have you have collected to suggest that “empathy” might be “genetic”?  [We especially appreciated the point that babies imitate facial expressions without knowing what their own face is.]  What are these mysterious (and controversial) “mirror neurons?  What is “neural Darwinism”?

…And you talk about the fundamental and evolutionary/genetic nature of human families.  What kinds of “families”?  What do you mean when you say we are a small-group animal?  How small?  Why isn’t Beaver Cleaver’s family a model of what you are discussing?

–It is clear from your book that humans’ natural affinity for empathy has been smothered over time. Please tell us a little about how this has come about. [We’re especially interested in your discussion of the African diaspora, population growth, and the growth of “them-us” distinctions.] How did the “culture gap” become so great? Why can’t we be more empathetic to “the other”?

–How is decreasing the empathy deficit related to the potential global disasters that you list: climate change, pandemics, toxic chemicals, war, discrimination, exploitation, gang rule, torture, social inequality?

–We have explored the case you make for increasing empathy as a way to keep humanity balanced on the tightrope.  Now,  let’s talk about how this might happen.  You’re talking about change on a massive scale, but as we know, it took millions of years for humans to evolve to their present condition.  How can we speed up the (co)evolution of empathy?

–What kinds of changes would you like to see in education? [As former university professors of English, we heartily endorse your ideas for reorganizing higher education.  How could a culture of empathy be developed at the elementary and secondary levels as well?]

–You argue that religions could play a major role in developing empathy, but isn’t the Golden Rule already central to most religions and ethical systems?

–You give multiple examples of cooperative decision making and group planning.  Please explain how these might be models for change.

–You challenge some of the concepts of cultural relativism, in particular, the notion that one set of values is as good as another.  How do we determine whose values are “best”?  Who gets to decide?  [You briefly allude to cultural universals; do you think these provide a basis for making moral decisions concerning what’s “best”?]

–You argue that we may need some sort of world government to bring about Big Change, but you do not seem to think that the UN has done a particularly good job or is up to the task.  What sorts of world bodies to you envision? How would they be balanced by local or small-group decision making?

–You suggest that people can take personal and political action to bring about change.  Could you give us some examples?

–What is the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior and how does it represent a model for leading Big Change?

–In the end, do you have positive expectations for humanity’s tightrope walk?

 Playlist for Ecotopia #114: Humanity on a Tightrope

1. Imagine        3:08        John Lennon        Imagine (Remastered)        Rock
2. All Is Full Of Love        4:06        Björk        Livebox Sampler
3. Lean On Me        4:24        Al Jarreau        Ain’t No Sunshine
4. Gracias A La Vida (Here’s To Life)        3:34        Joan Baez        The Best Of Joan Baez
5. Weave Me the Sunshine        4:28        Peter, Paul And Mary        The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary
6. Life Uncommon        4:57        Jewel        Spirit
7. On the Road to Find Out        5:08        Cat Stevens        Tea for the Tillerman