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Afraid the end of the world is nigh? Here’s a hopeful message, and it’s brilliant

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Review of The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World, by Jeremy Rifkin

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

More than half the children born today in the United States or Europe will live to see the 22nd Century. In theory.

However, if you’re unreservedly optimistic about the future of today’s young children, chances are you haven’t been paying attention. In the face of global warming, overpopulation, resource limits, and the growing number of species going extinct, it’s difficult to look far ahead without wondering whether the human race can truly meet the existential challenges we face.

Jeremy Rifkin thinks we can. He is both a realist, and, if at least one of his many books can be believed, an optimist. In The Third Industrial Revolution, he lays out a comprehensive platform on which the human race can build a sustainable future. His vision of the future is nothing less than brilliant.

To be sure, Rifkin isn’t predicting that his vision will take hold. He’s hoping it will. The Third Industrial Revolution is, above all, hopeful.

Rifkin’s vision is complex and wide-ranging. Within the 300 pages of The Third Industrial Revolution, he delves into energy, communications, transportation, history, economics, thermodynamics, paleontology, philosophy, psychology, education, and numerous other subjects. It’s a dazzling display of erudition.

The author notes that the Second Industrial Revolution from which we’re now emerging was dominated by the telephone, the automobile, and fossil fuels. That’s hard to dispute. The Third Industrial Revolution is being built on the foundation of the Internet and renewable energy, leading humanity forward into a post-carbon era – and that’s the part that requires the reader to “suspend disbelief,” as the writers of science fiction ask us to do.

In this new era, Rifkin writes, “the conventional, centralized business operations of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions will increasingly be subsumed by the distributed business practices of the Third Industrial Revolution; and the traditional, hierarchical organization of economic and political power will give way to lateral power organized nodally across society.” For example, in place of most large electric generating facilities, every building will generate its own energy. Any surplus will be sold to others through trading networks managed by the successors to today’s electric utilities. Rifkin estimates that the process of building out this Third Industrial Revolution will take 40-50 years, roughly the same amount of time that previous economic upheavals required. This assumes, of course, that global warming and other threatening trends will allow us that much time. Rifkin believes they will, and I’m hoping he’s right.

“As we approach the middle of the century,” he writes, “more and more commerce will be overseen by intelligent technological surrogates, freeing up much of the human race to create social capital in the not-for-profit civil society, making it the dominant sector in the second half of the century.” This assertion derives from an earlier book Rifkin wrote, The End of Work.

It’s easy to dismiss this vision as utopian and unattainable, as all utopian visions are. However, Jeremy Rifkin is no idle dreamer. As he explains at great length in The Third Industrial Revolution, this vision has been bought whole by the European Union, the Utrecht region of the Netherlands, and the cities of Rome and San Antonio, among many others. Rifkin, his staff, and a growing number of highly placed collaborators in both industry and government offices have been at work since the publication of the book in 2011 helping to develop custom-tailored regional plans consistent with this vision. Rifkin’s successful ongoing engagement with the European Union is especially impressive – and, he reminds us, “the European Union, not the United States or China, is the biggest economy in the world.”

European officialdom, specifically including such luminaries as Angela Merkel, are now in the process of shifting their economies to incorporate what the author calls “the five pillars” of the Third Industrial Revolution:

(1)   shifting to renewable energy;

(2)  transforming the building stock of every continent into micro-power plants to collect renewable energies on site;

(3)  deploying hydrogen and other storage technologies in every building and throughout the infrastructure to store intermittent energies;

(4)  using Internet technology to transform the power grid of every continent into an energy-sharing intergrid that acts just like the Internet . . .; and

(5)  transitioning the transport fleet to electric plug-in and fuel cell vehicles that can buy and sell electricity on a smart, continental, interactive power grid.

This economic transformation will bring profound changes to our lives and our surroundings. “Vertical economies of scale became the defining feature of the incipient industrial age and gigantic business operations became the norm . . . The distributed nature of renewable energies necessitates collaborative rather than hierarchical command and control mechanisms.” And all this change is consistent with the new pedagogy beginning to take hold in many schools around the globe, which emphasizes collaboration rather than competition, problem solving rather than rote learning, and what Rifkin calls “biosphere thinking,” which places humanity within the context of the web of life on Earth. (Perhaps you’ve even noticed that people under the age of 18 tend not to think the way we older adults do?)

“If it is difficult to imagine a change of this kind, think of how preposterous it must have been to a feudal lord, his knights in arms, and his indentured serfs to conjure the possibility of free wage earners selling their labor power in national markets, each a sovereign in his own right in the political sphere, all bound together by a set of agreed-upon rights and freedoms and a sense of national loyalty.”

It’s hard to disagree with that!

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