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Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family, and Big Changes for a Viable Future Hardcover – Nov 16 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 210 pages
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (Nov. 16 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1442206489
  • ISBN-13: 978-1442206489
  • Product Dimensions: 16.1 x 1.9 x 23.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 431 g
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #441,233 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


Humanity is balancing on a tightrope, according to Stanford biologist Ehrlich and psychologist Ornstein, because of environmental deterioration, overpopulation, poverty and pandemics, and the threat of nuclear war. The barrier to remedies for these complex problems is our lack of empathy and inability to see "other" people as "us," part of the same human family. These problems could be dealt with by changes in human behavior and by adopting policies that take us toward a sustainable and equitable society. The authors argue that we should expand our consciousness to be more inclusive not only of the rest of humanity's needs and plights, but also of those of our grandchildren and beyond. Ehrlich and Ornstein present a wealth of evidence from biology, brain science, anthropology, and psychology, and advocate the necessity of building an empathetic, sustainable, and fair world. Further, they emphasize the need to educate people about the essential similarity of all people through reorganization of school and university courses, and by revitalizing mass media and religion to enhance human empathy and create a real global family. This stimulating book should be required reading at all levels. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries. (CHOICE)

Ehrlich, the author of numerous influential environmental books, and award-winning psychologist Ornstein address the need for empathy to maintain the health of civilization. While drawing on a long line of psychological experiments to show the inherent development of family ties and persistent 'us vs. them' mentality in human society, the authors also examine the development of the perfect Leave It To Beaver family stereotype and its enduring impact that has extended far beyond pop culture. A focus on family values that never actually existed, this has created a myth that justifies the concept of a different 'them' that thwarts attempts at transcending differences. With stark examples such as Rwanda to serve as warnings, Ehrlich and Ornstein segue into chapters on 'building the global family.' While political watchers may find it impossible to believe we could ever see beyond the smallest of differences, the authors remain hopeful and offer plenty of evidence that change will come, simply because the twenty-first century requires it. Thoughtful and sincere, this is a solid evidentiary presentation of an all-too-often emotional topic. (Booklist)

A rich book that delves into the root of the world’s most pressing problems: the lack of empathy in mankind. The whole book revolves around this central idea of how we human beings as a whole global family should develop more empathy toward each other to ensure a sustainable future....Ehrlich and Ornstein expose readers to some mind-blowing aspects of cultures in the hidden corners of the world....With a smart pun of humanity teetering on the tightrope just as the tightrope performer, Ehrlich and Ornstein showcase their beliefs in the super-power of empathy – that it can save humanity and save the world we live in. (The Stanford Daily)

The authors' hearts are in the right place with this earnest plea to all mankind to develop empathy and embrace the interdependency that connects us all. Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) and Ornstein (The Healing Brain) argue that human behavior is the biggest threat to our collective future and strongly suggest we create less "us" vs. "them" binaries. From environmental conservation to ending consumerism to the pervasive ignorance that feeds xenophobia, they approach their focus through the lenses of anthropology, neuropsychology, and history. (Publishers Weekly)

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. (

Humanity on a Tightrope reads like an engaging after-dinner conversation between two old friends. Ehrlich tackles global issues with the ease and sometimes bluster of someone who has been on a soapbox for more than four decades. Ornstein brings insights from psychology. (Journal Gazette)

What the book offers is an "adult conversation" about sustainability….Humanity on a Tightrope leaves no stone unturned, touching on religion, politics, wealth imbalance and the class-driven status quo. (Examiner)

[I]t is the Appendix, Notes and Selected Bibliography which may prolong the thought and then sharpen it for wider, individual effort. This is the evident purpose of the authors. . . .Any such attempt is valuable. (International Journal of Environmental Studies)

These guys, not for the first time, have cut to the heart of the problem we face. And do not for a moment think it can't be done. Last year at we organized 5,200 simultaneous rallies in 181 countries to demand scientific action on climate change-we can work globally, but we've got to think through precisely the problems outlined here. (Bill McKibben, Founder of, author of Deep Economy)

How do we know who is a relative? If you're a rat, it's easy-there's instinctual recognition by smell. But it's hard for humans, because amid us figuring it out rationally, a sludge of emotions helps determine who feels like an Us and who like a Them. In this superb book, Ehrlich and Ornstein explore the evolutionary biology, brain science, anthropology and psychology of how a Them can become an Us, how we can expand our sense of empathy, family and relatedness. But the book is more than merely a masterful and readable review of the subject. It is also a clarion call about what will happen if we don't get better at turning Them's into Us's. This is a deeply important book. (Robert Maurice Sapolsky, Ph.D., Professor of Neuroscience, Stanford University; author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and A Primate's Memoir)

The weighty question of whether a truly unified human family is possible deserves an equally weighty analysis. Thank goodness, then, for this profoundly important book. (Robert B. Cialdini, Author, Influence: Science and Practice)

In this compact, thought-provoking book, well-known authors Paul Ehrlich and Robert Ornstein have collaborated to lay out a blueprint for our survival in this globalized world. We got away with attitudes of 'us vs. them' in the past; we can no longer get away with those attitudes today. (Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at UCLA, and Pulitzer-prize-winning author of best-selling books including Guns, Germs, and Steel a)

About the Author

Paul Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies and President of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University. He is the author of The Population Bomb, one of the first books to bring environmental science to the general public. He has given thousands of public lectures in the past 40 years. Ehrlich is author and coauthor of over 1000 scientific papers, books, and articles in the popular press covering a range of topics from the effects of crowding on people and how consumption destroys our life-support systems to the origins of religion and the ethics of the environments. Of his some 40 books, Human Natures and The Dominant Animal have brought home the seriousness of the mismatch between human behavior and the chances of a global collapse of civilization. He has given thousands of public lectures and appearances on the electronic media. Robert Evan Ornstein is a psychologist, writer, former professor at Stanford University, and chairman of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK). He is the author of The Healing Brain, New World New Mind, and The Psychology of Consciousness. He has written or co-written more than twenty-five other books on the nature of the human mind and brain and their relationship to thought, health and individual and social consciousness, which have sold over ten million copies and been translated into 23 languages. Dr. Ornstein has taught at the University of California Medical Center and Stanford University, and he has lectured at more than 200 colleges and universities in the U.S. and overseas. He is the president and founder of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK), an educational nonprofit dedicated to bringing important discoveries concerning human nature to the general public. Among his many honors and awards is the UNESCO award for Best Contribution to Psychology and the American Psychological Foundation Media Award "for increasing the public understanding of psychology."

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By JonArno Lawson on March 4 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is essential reading for anyone interested in what we have to be doing to save the planet.
Short, but well-researched, clear and to the point, it also has a fine section of recommended books in the appendix.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 7 reviews
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Excellent discourse on the role of emphathy in solving collective problems Nov. 22 2010
By Daniel T. Blumstein - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is an extremely integrative and very thoughtful book that riffs off an important and neglected theme--empathy and, by increasing our collective empathy we can create a global 'family' and cooperate to solve our collective problems.

Addressing the idea from perspectives that include (but are not limited to) neuroscience (via a lucid description of mirror neurons), motherhood (humans are cooperative breeders), and religion, the authors note the importance of empathy in human history. They highlight how increasing empathy may help us solve our environmental and social problems and back away from our impending ecological and environmental collapse.

They repeatedly show how we can re-frame and re-focus contentious situations by encouraging empathy. And, they discuss the horrors that emerge when we lose our empathy--including the major genocides of the mid and late-20th centuries.

The book, while brief, is rich on ideas. Buy one and give one to a friend.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Hope--Staring us in the face... Dec 18 2010
By Joan M. Diamond - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Few books have inspired me to "read out loud" and share passages on the first page. Even fewer have inspired a heartfelt drive to share--in the moment--right to the last page. It is a book to read aloud to a friend or privately in a comfortable chair from which you can be transported into a world that has retreated from its current destructive path, escaped the precarious tightrope upon which each of us and Earth balance. Ehrlich and Ornstein have written 120 pages that do just that, a book that tells a story, a story based on science and knowledge, a book that unites humanity.
Global problems, interconnected threats to human security, and complexity theory dominate 21st century writing. These books all begin with the knotty entanglement of the effects of poverty, fundamentalism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, inequity, population, terrorism, ignorance and consumerism and then move toward possible solutions for coping with or managing the complexity. Ehrlich and Ornstein have turned this upside down by beginning with what unites humanity--from our first minutes outside the womb--and argue that if we can return to that natural instinctual empathy , we can find our way out of the morass of threats to humanity and human welfare. By beginning with what unites us and then exploring the threats, they cast new light on what divides us and create hope for retreating from the brink of destruction.
I wish this book had been written a year ago, when my father was alive. He would have greatly enjoyed having this book read to him; it would have connected him with the values and hope for a better world upon which he built his life. By bringing hope for the future, it would have brought peace: he would have insisted that we send copies to all 16 of his grandchildren.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Social transformation and the power of empathy Dec 18 2010
By Robert Brulle - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Ehrlich and Ornstein explore the human emotion of empathy and its possible application to the crisis of global ecological degradation. This book traces the development of notions of us and them as key components of human identity and social structure, and shows how the human capacity to empathize with other humans underlies our collective identification. For me, the most interesting part of this book comes in the discussion of how to transcend the ideological limitations of our community identifications based on nation-states, race or ethnic identities, or religious affiliations. The empirical descriptions of ways to facilitate the creation of a common global humanity in chapters 7 and 8 show that this approach is not just an idealistic plan, but based on real, concrete practices. This book makes a valuable and substantial contribution toward the collective project of humanity to reverse ecological degradation and create a just and sustainable world.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Time for us all to talk Nov. 5 2010
By noblejoanie - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Two of our wise elders, highly respected scientists, look at the enormous challenges humans face through the lens of their long careers and lay out the road map to a path we need to start down right this moment if we hope to solve the species-ending crises facing us and the rest of the planet. Addressing these problems will require us to extend our empathy to all, not just our nearest and dearest. Can we do that?

The authors review the research on how we humans work and apply that to how we might catapult the tribalism and nationalism that blocks us from seeing that our common fate requires cooperative solutions on a global scale. But beyond persuading us we are capable of making these changes, they tackle just how we might get there, what solutions various institutions might enact but more important, how we might harness the nearly instantaneous ways to reach one another to achieve what older efforts have fallen short on. The book is less set of commandments on the one true course but rather offers a methodology, the most interesting and optimistic is MAHB, The Millenium Assessment of Human Behavior, a veritable petri dish for problems solvers.

The book is a bit "My Dinner with Andre", listening in on a chat between two erudite brilliant minds. It's readable, accessible, digestible. Don't let its "brevity" fool you---it may be the most important book they've written, if we read and heed them, that is.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Brilliant, empathic men Nov. 26 2010
By Ann H. Clark - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The cover picture caught my imagination, forcing me to think that if we pause, we are lost. We must keep moving forward to develop the empathy so many of us are sadly missing or else applying just to those near and dear. We must extend those feelings and actions to the mean and hungry all over the world as well as to the beautiful and well fed among us.

Then as I read, I was struck by the deeply caring feelings of these brilliant scientists who embody the best humanity has to offer. While they point out that empathy is usually more highly developed in women and may be viewed as a "feminine" trait, they show their own love of and empathy for us all and of the planet we inhabit as much as any woman could. Their feelings are fully informed by their vast scientific knowledge and experience, bringing us a book to treasure as we read and give to others. I've already bought two more copies to give as Christmas presents. Everyone on your list should receive this for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, New Years, birthday, anniversary or any other occasion! Read and become more convinced than ever that we need to cherish and renew our empathy for ourselves and all other beings sharing this planet.