The European Dream

People the world over are likely to recognize the phrase “The American Dream”. There are many connotations that come with the phrase, but for many, America embodies the land of hope. According to social thinker and author of The European Dream, Jeremy Rifkin, the American Dream is close to becoming eclipsed by another dream, that of the European mentality. Is this, however, a purely positive change?

It’s frequently said that Americans live to work. According to Rifkin, “The American Dream is largely caught up in the death instinct. We seek autonomy at all costs. We over-consume, indulge our every appetite, and waste the Earth’s largesse. We put a premium on unrestrained economic growth, reward the powerful and marginalize the vulnerable… We consider ourselves a chosen people and, therefore, entitled to more than our fair share of the Earth’s bounty. Sadly, our self-interest is metamorphosing into pure selfishness. We have become a death culture.”

On the contrary, it’s often said that Europeans work to live, rather than live to work.  Rifkin defines the European Dream as follows: “The European Dream is a beacon of light in a troubled world. It beckons us to a new age of inclusivity, diversity, quality of life, deep play, sustainability, universal human rights, the rights of nature, and peace on earth.”

At its core, The European Dream is a fairly sound social critique of American culture. It’s incredibly dense and full of empirical evidence, some of which is shaky. The last chapter of the book, “Universalizing the European Dream,” is by far the most compelling in the book and summarizes many of the important ideas proposed throughout the book.

Rifkin alludes to the idea that Asians are more likely to embrace the European Dream than Americans. Richard E. Nisbett has pointed out that the Western mind sees the world as objects in isolation, while the Eastern (Asian) mind views the world more as relationships that exist within an overall context. The Western mind puts a premium on the individual, the Eastern mind on the group.  Rifkin writes: “Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism all concentrate on the whole rather than the parts–what we in the West call a systems approach.”

In other words, Asians are more likely to emphasize the harmony of humans and their natural world. Mr. Rifkin, however, warns that if the American mindset is too individualistic and Darwinian, the Asian mindset might be equally criticized for being too oriented toward “group think.” In my opinion, Americans can and should find a better balance.

Perhaps one of the most interesting points in the book is the suggestion by Rifkin that universal human rights will succeed only if personal morality and ethics are universalized as well. He further suggests that the problem with the morality in Western culture is that it is too linear and localized. Western morality is focused on an idea Rifkin calls “hot evil,” in other words, acts that are relatively easy to attach direct responsibility to, i.e., robbery.

If one views the world from the Eastern or European perspective of an interconnectedness, one is much more likely to incorporate “cold evil” into their moral schema.  Rifkin defines “cold evil” as follows: “Cold evil is actions whose effects are so far removed from the behavior that caused them that no causal relationship is suspected, no sense of guilt or wrong doing is felt, and no collective responsibility is exercised to punish the errant behavior.”

Here are a few examples:

1) If an American SUV owner saw a television news story attributing a deadly coastal flooding to global warming it’s unlikely that the individual would feel any sense of moral guilt for the destruction caused even though their decision to drive an SUV contributed to the problem. This is an example of cold evil since most Americans are able to rationally justify their behavior in an individualistic mindset. As Mr. Rifkin says, “It’s one thing to talk abstractly about the global-warming crisis. It’s quite another to suggest that millions of owners of SUVs might be morally culpable.”

2) Many Americans and Europeans buy Nike products. By voting with their dollars, their consumption decisions are indirectly supporting the exploitation of children in Vietnamese sweatshops with draconian working conditions. I suspect that few Americans (even the most ardent supporters of the American Dream) would tolerate such conditions for the neighboring children where they live. I further speculate that any company on American soil promoting those practices would be boycotted. This type of consumption habit is the perfect example of cold evil.

3) Food consumption choices affect not only humans, but also animals. Many humans and animals suffer indirectly because of Americans desire for cheap food (see the movie Food, Inc.). Tragically, 80 percent of the worlds hungry children live in countries with an actual food surplus. If we heard that our next door neighbors children were starving when food was in abundance we would be morally outraged. Again, this demonstrates the distinction between hot and cold evil.

According to Owen Barfield, a British philosopher, we are approaching the third stage of human consciousness. This stage where we make the self-aware choice to re-participate with the body of nature. How does Rifkin elaborate on this point? “To re-participate with nature willingly, by exercising free will, is what separates the third stage of human consciousness from everything that has gone before. By freely choosing to be part of nature, one retains one’s unique identity, while embedding oneself in the oceanic oneness of the biosphere.”

I found it particularly interesting that Americans are known for their unexamined optimism and Europeans are a bit more pessimistic.  Rifkin ultimately claims that there is some middle ground. Europeans must, however, overcome their cynicism and Americans must overcome their naive optimism. Ultimately, I agree with Rifkin despite disagreeing with some of his contentions. A new found consciousness is our only hope for a better world.

[click the following for and copies of the book]


2 Comments on “The European Dream”

  1. Awesome summary Greg, wow.

    Such an interesting world we live in, I’d like to hear more about the book (and other ideas) when we meet up in Denver!


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