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Empathy is the Most Important Survival Skill of the 21st Century! John Marshall Roberts Explains (Video)

While today’s systems are built on and designed around greed (capitalism) and segregation (modernism), we need societies of empathy and integration to survive. And this can be designed, and should be a vital part of permaculture design.

This video relates to a book I recently read, Det Biologiske Mennesket, by Terje Bongard and Eivin Røskaft. Unfortunately it’s still only to be found in Scandinavian language, but if a publisher reads this please release it on the international market. Here Bongard sketches up how we can design a society built upon in-groups, for economy and democracy, housing, production and education. This way empathy can thrive, and we can benefit from the strong evolutionary powers of “the handicap principle,” first described by the Israeli scientist Amotz Zahavi, after he had studied the social thrush Arabian Babbler for 40 years. More than ever is it time to go to the Arabian Babbler to become wise!

An in-group is about 25 people, plus or minus. If it’s much bigger the benefits of social control and the powers of “the handicap principle” will break down. It is really fascinating that Christopher Alexander must instinctively have realized this fact already in the beginning of the 70s, before this was a science.

When Alexander created pattern 37, House Cluster, he made it up of 8 – 12 households. This is exactly the size of a well functioning in-group!

Take a look at the video; it’s well worth the next 15 minutes of your time.

Further reading:


  1. Both videos advocate for the critical humanising element of Mollison’s approach – attitudinal principles. And the wonder of permaculture means that all the other Mollison principles apply to us humans as well e.g. I like that Rifkin is pretty clearly referring to succession in the end of his empathy illustration.

    Does anyone know of any permaculture-esque designs with a specific value/worldview focus? I’m guessing social permaculturalists may have a bunch of examples – very interested to see whatever is out there.


  2. Just watched the video… I was hoping he’d give more examples of how people aren’t being empathic and how we could be. Also, was he saying that hunter-gatherers were less empathic than we are now? That said, I agree with his point 100%.

  3. That’s what I was missing too Anton. I’ve done my PhD in empathy (social psychology) and altruism and train people now in empathic leadership and empathic accuracy.

    In my work (free available through my linkedinprofile) I explain the difference between two perspectives: the self-perspective and the other perspective. The self-perspective is what we usually do when trying to imagine how something could be for others. We project ourselves on the other person by wondering: ‘how would I feel/what would I think (etc.) if I would be in the shoes of that other person’. That’s not empathic, that’s turning around your own ego. Yet, it is the first step towards the other-perspective: How does the other feel, what would the other think?

    Hey, I’m a poor bugger. if anyone can offer me a PDC in exchange for some serious empathy training for the whole permaculture community… I’m in for it!

  4. “The handicap principle is a hypothesis originally proposed in 1975 by biologist Amotz Zahavi[1][2][3] to explain how evolution may lead to “honest” or reliable signaling between animals who have an obvious motivation to bluff or deceive each other.”


    “Starting in the 1970s, Amotz Zahavi observed the babbler at length, giving rise to his theory of signal and its correlative, the handicap principle. Although babblers were considered as particularly altruist animals, Zahavi reinterpreted their behaviours according to his theory. Thus, Zahavi (1974) theorized that chick feeding by Arabian Babbler helpers acts as a signal by the helper to gain social prestige within the group [1].”


    Sorry I made a mistake in my text, as Zahavi now has studied the Arabian Babbler for almost 40 years, but “the handicap principle” was introduced already in the first years of his studyes, back in the 70ties.

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