The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World
Society has always had a weakness for seers and prophets, those who claim the ability to travel mentally to that murky destination called the future and bring back lessons for today. But the next frontier is, of course, an unknowable place. Regardless of how attractive or compelling a vision of the future might be, it is only with time that we can know how prescient it was.
And so it is too early to truly judge Jeremy Rifkin’s The Third Industrial Revolution. I do not know if it accurately reflects how our world will unfold, but I can say for certain that I hope it eventually comes to be seen as a work of great foresight. The path forward that he presents, perhaps one of the few that could prove viable, is one in which humanity saves itself from its own excesses and comes closer to realizing its true potential. The reader wishes that Rifkin turns out to be a true seer, and not a cheap conjurer.
Rifkin paints a picture of a humanity hemmed in by hazards of our own making. A toxic soup of climate change, peak energy and market shocks is bringing our current economic system to its knees. As Rifkin sees it, the second industrial revolution (the age of oil that has lasted for most of the 20th century) is coming to a shattering, cataclysmic- close. As we exceed peak oil and prices are propelled upwards, and as the climate pushes back with increasingly unpredictable and damaging weather, we will be exposed to increasing economic shocks. This will force us to seek a new equilibrium in a new industrial model.
His vision is of a radically overhauled electricity regime that relies primarily on clean renewable energies, networked together in a decentralized electricity grid that is to the current grid as Wikipedia is to the Encyclopedia Britannica. This new system could continue to sustain standards of living, but in a way that would not exacerbate the key problems of climate change and peak oil.
Rifkin’s model for this kind of a transition is Europe, which has moved aggressively towards an economy powered by renewable energy, and which has enacted many reforms to decentralize energy production and distribution. Rifkin praises these developments. Unfortunately, he also praises his own efforts to move Europe in this direction. This need to make himself a prime protagonist in the story, as if all ideas can be traced back to him, undermines the importance of the reforms being proposed.
It does not help that the part of the world that has embraced his recommendations most boldly is also a region caught in the potentially devastating ramifications of public indebtedness. It’s clear that these don’t have much to do with one another, and yet the reader can’t help but wonder if countries struggling to free themselves from imminent insolvency will have the means and even the desire to continue with such bold transformations.
Yet, as a model of where we need to go, there is very little of Rifkin’s vision with which I disagree. In some ways there is a necessary logic to it; he may be sketching out one of the only ways that humanity can survive. What I find very creative, even brilliant, is how Rifkin answers some of the peripheral questions later in the book. While his ideas on energy are fundamentally solid, they are not all that original or unique. People have been calling for small-scale, dispersed, renewable energy systems since the 1970s. Likewise, Rifkin’s notion of creating decentralized electricity networks is a logical extrapolation of the Internet business model.
But his views on education and the workforce struck me as quite thoughtful. Rifkin imagines a whole new educational curriculum and approach that would focus on teaching students about their role in the biosphere, with a heavy focus on earth sciences and ecology. Even more interestingly, Rifkin describes a future where more and more human jobs are replaced with automation. Rather than see this as a negative, Rifkin frames the possibility as a liberation from drudgery and an opportunity to strengthen civil society through a huge influx of people embracing charitable and non-profit businesses.
This is an uplifting vision of the future, and one that leaves me hoping that Rifkin is right. We should all hope that he is, for as he says, there is no Plan B.
The Third Industrial Revolution, Jeremy Rifkin, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 304 pages
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