Authors: Paul R. Ehrlich and Robert E. Ornstein
Publisher: Rowman and Littlefield
ISBN: 978-1-4422-0648-9

Click Here To Purchase Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family, and Big Changes for a Viable Future

With their intriguing analogy of the tightrope walker, authors Ehrlich and Ornstein draw readers into their compelling argument for redefining our notions of family and community.  That walker, the authors say, is the human race, the rope the many global crises confronting us, and that perilous journey our own progress towards an uncertain future.  And what the world sorely needs to navigate that perilous rope is empathy, specifically that of its more privileged nations.

An empathy deficit, say authors Ehrlich and Ornstein, quoting Barack Obama’s 2008 speech, is one of society’s major problems, and key to their argument for redefining notions of family and community. Citing examples from multiple disciplines- sociology, anthropology, history, popular media – the authors discuss the evolution of
concepts like the family and community, and the allegiances human beings make in order to fit – and belong – in specific groups as a basic means to survive and propagate. We are, they underscore, the products of cultural conditioning, our significant  ‘neural Darwinism’ proof of  the importance of external stimuli in our growth. The ability to cooperate and work in groups, sharing responsibilities for the greater good, is a key factor in the evolution of humans from other primates, and in the expansion of the human brain’s abilities. Yet, with development comes a gradual loss of the innate sense of empathy we all possess as infants, and a deeply entrenched  sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that informs not just our ideas of community, but also our prejudices and, as in the case of the battle against climate change, a reluctance to change lifestyles that have been proven detrimental to the health of a whole planet, despite the obvious consequences to each individual on it. Our sense of family, in essence, shrinks, as does our ability (or willingness) to perceive problems outside of the bounds of this group, as relevant to us.


Again, empathy can be a slippery slope, stoked as much by falsehoods as genuine concern. The mass murder of Tutsis in Rwanda, and Hitler’s talents at rabble rousing in Germany are a case in point of the powers of propaganda over common sense; the non-Muslim world’s acceptance of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, another. Nor are these recent phenomena; Pope Urban’s famous speech in 1095 led to the massacre of thousands of innocent Muslims in the name of that noble venture they call the Crusades, his words reminiscent of nothing so much as the diatribes of the Islamic fundamentalists stoking global terror in the wake of September 11.
‘Humanity..’ offers evidence but not much direction; it is more a wake up call than a plan for action. Citing examples as diverse as the growing reach of global environmental groups and community redressal forums in Rwanda, its authors suggest that individual commitment will be the single most influential factors in reversing  community apathy to the various crises the world faces, and changing government attitudes. Until we see ourselves as part of one giant family, and acknowledge our individual roles in its nurture, our chances of staying on that tightrope seem dim.


Click Here To Purchase Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family, and Big Changes for a Viable Future