“The Third Industrial Revolution” Jeremy Rifkin

ISBN 978-0-230-11521-7. “The Third Industrial Revolution – how lateral power is transforming energy, the economy and the world” by Jeremy Rifkin was published in 2011 by Palgrave Macmillan. Your 287 pages deliver acknowledgments, introduction, three parts each with three chapters, notes and index. To be perfectly honest we were not conscious of Rifkin’s work until this book came out. He certainly seemed quite invisible on the sustainability scene. This came right out of the left-field and knocked our socks off. The author certainly has the pedigree and, if you believe this book, he has enormous influence. It reads like a who’s who of Presidents, Prime Ministers, Governments, Ministers, Heads of State, Kings, Princes, you name it.

Every shaker and mover in a position of influence is on board with Rifkin’s work. This book made the New York Times Bestseller list and the book cover is cover with glittering accolades from Arianna Huffington, the Chairman of Cisco Systems, the President of the European Commission, Chairman of the IPCC, the Mayor of Rome, the CEO of Philips Lighting, the director-general of the UN Industrial Development Organisation, the president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, President of the European Parliament, and so on and so on… By our reckoning Rifkin is the most important person you have never heard of. The only person who was pouring on the accolades, of whom we had heard of, was Jonathan Porritt of Forum of the Future.

So why does Rifkin remain obscure amongst the chattering classes of environmentalism? Is it precisely because he moves in an alternate universe – jetting around the world to address powerful people? In a world where every Tom, Dick and Harry is preaching to us that small changes make big differences, or that we must act locally to have global effect, Rifkin seems to be a man adrift. But reading this book doesn’t really explain the enigma. It is, quite simply, awesome. Flawed maybe, but it was very heartening to read this. Eventually somebody seems to have joined the dots between all this grassroots transition to a post-carbon economy, and the world of power-politics. Rifkin speaks THEIR language, not OURS. And there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed you may find that you very easily understand everything he writes.

What sets Rifkin aside is his narrative. Rather than a thousand million, local, diffuse, experiments in living, he has gone straight to the head of the snake, grabbed it firmly by the throat and given it a good talking to. He sells the sizzle. He has a great story. Optimistic. We need a million more like him. He has written 18 books including “The Hydrogen Economy” and “The End of Work” so his work is extremely diverse and eclectic. But there is no need to buy any of his other works as “The 3rd Industrial Revolution” does recap on his beliefs. There is a thread that runs through it and it is all self-consistent. (However Rifkin does try to push it a little too far in section 8 and 9 where describes changes needed to our education and work systems. He you learn that Rifkin sees the world moving from confrontation to collaboration. You will see something slightly similar in John Grant’s  “Co-Opportunity” which may have better captured it.)

Rifkin’s narrative is simple. Coal and steam brought us the first Industrial Revolution. Oil and the internal combustion engine brought us the second. It is the author’s belief that this second revolution is coming to an end with peak oil and climate change. To replace it there must be a new revolution consisting of 5 “pillars”: 1) shift to renewable energy, 2) make every building a power-station, 3) deploy hydrogen and other storage technologies in the economy in order to cope with intermittent renewable energy, 4) implement a smart-grid that resembles the Internet and shares energy peer-to-peer & 5) change over the transport fleet to electric and fuel cells. It is these “hard” technology-driven factors that have so caught the imagination of the world’s leaders. However this is partly a smoke-screen. Anyone reading of the experiences with Rifkin’s team in transforming the economy of the city of Rome will be struck by the attention given to transforming the streets into areas that can grow food. What about the praise Rifkin has for the demonstration of collaborative economics inherent in Community Supported Agriculture? Familiar? There is actually nothing here that the average Transition Towner will dislike. The technology is the eye-candy for the economists which allows the entire venture to fly right-in under the radar. Once in place in flowers into a multi-faceted philosophy that build a strong case for a complete overhaul of elite-capitalism itself.

And everybody is onboard. The philosophy of the third industrial revolution has such appeal that it sweeps away all traditional divisions of left and right. Across Europe it has got support from cooperatives, communists, liberals, trade unions, conservatives, you name them. No one has a bad word to say. In fact Rifkin is much in love with Europe which he sees as progressive enough to build the future with an open mind (as to what is possible and how to do it). He is less sanguine about his native USA. He believes that the old power system is on the way out, not only in terms of electrical distribution and generation, but also in terms of political power. These top-down hierarchical systems are a natural consequence of an industrial age that revolved around fossil fuels. Fossil fuels that originated from only a handful of places on the planet. Since renewable energy is naturally spread out, uniform and less dense then it must be collected everywhere. It will flatten and democratise the economy. This is not the sort of recipe that the traditional power elites in America are going to welcome. Rifkin has no pity for them. As he explains:

“A vast majority of Americans have what might be called a quasi-religious relationship with business. Their Calvinist faith in the marketplace and hatred of big-government – to the point of equating it with godless socialism – blinds them to corporate greed, allowing business to get away with creating a form of socialism for the select and pauperism for the people.”

To replace this old elite Rifkin believes in a new generation of social entrepreneurship:

“The collaborative nature of the new economy is fundamentally at odds with classical economic theory, which puts great store on the assumption that individual self-interest in the marketplace is the only effective way to drive economic growth. The Third Industrial Revolution model also eschews the kind of centralised command and control associated with traditional Soviet-style socialist economies.”

He then moves on to deconstruct the sort of modern neo-liberal economics in a manner familiar to readers of the works of Han-Joon Chang. Rifkin devotes an entire chapter to “Retiring Adam Smith” whilst taking in time to visit Britain and sell his ideas to British PM David Cameron. He did stop to talk to Ed Milliband but got only a short audience as Ed was keen on centralised nuclear power which is not a good match to Rifkin’s new economic paradigm. Quickly you realise how The Third Industrial Revolution completely recasts every stereotype and subverts our political system’s old order. Chapter 5 is called “Beyond Right and Left” and this was music to our ears:

“Ideology is disappearing. Young people aren’t much interested in debating the fine points of capitalism or socialist ideology or the nuances of geopolitical theory. [..]We have come to discover what we suspect is a new political mindset emerging among a younger generation of political leaders socialised on Internet communications. Their politics are less about right versus left and more about centralised and authoritarian versus distributed and collaborative.”

As for Globalisation Rifkin does not resort to the language of localisation but, instead, talks about “continentalization” as a half way house where it is our relationship with a closer nations that is important. Again he holds up the European Union as a model now being replicated across the world. But he leaves it up to Peter Bakker, the CEO of TNT, to use the words “Globalization is dying.” Your world is about to get smaller, but maybe not as small as some of us think. Maybe it is only a question of scale as to what separate Transition philosophy from Rifkin’s? Otherwise we see eye-to-eye. It is all shades of grey in-between. Rifkin even has an answer for those ideologues who proclaim that environmentalists and renewable energy fans are holding back development in the third world:

“[Renewable energies are particularly abundant] in the developing countries below the equator. Because renewable energy is widely distributed, a Third Industrial Revolution is just as likely to take off in the developing world as the developed world.”

Agreed. But there is such a thing as the “resource curse” and geopolitics that define northern wealth in terms of southern poverty. There are a lot of other problems to solve before the developing world is about to get renewable-energy-rich. There is their overwhelming debt burden for one thing… So this does betray the occasional over-simplification within Rifkin’s world. Many, for example, are very pessimistic about the possible fortunes of the hydrogen economy hence we should have a number of “Plan B’s” in place in case technology fails. In short, we need resilience and an atmosphere of experimentation. Which brings us back to Transition. Rifkin’s world is complementary to the localist-Transition-universe. They dovetail and fit like pieces of jigsaw that make up our future. If you need to know what it looks like then you should read Hopkins and Rifkin and let those ideas play tug-of-war in your imagination.

Towards the rear of the book Rifkin drifts away from “hard” solution to softer concepts such as the challenges to our education and work systems. Definitely good topics to tackle but NOT with THIS sort of language:

 “Students steeped in biosphere consciousness, however, will regard TIR professional skills not merely as vocational tools to become more productive workers but, rather, as ecological aids in stewarding our common biosphere.”

He goes on to wax lyrical about how people are being made sick because they haven’t been able to hug a tree recently. We doubt whether he was using this sort of language when talking to Prime Minister David Cameron. This latter section does briefly touch on serious points: firstly that WE the human species are part of nature and our economy is a small subset of nature. Hence it is not a battle of man versus nature. It is a battle for balance and we all have to join the dots between our economic activities and the potential damage this is doing to our longer term economic sustainability. We do not need to hug a tree to see this fundamental truth. Secondly we do need to reform our education system if we are to turn out the more well-rounded sort of individuals who will thrive in the sort of peer-to-peer “lateral power” economy of the future. But this probably is the least of our problems, Our education system is already long on the way there. It doesn’t match the cliched view that Rifkin refers to. Children already learn in a questioning and collaborative environment in Europe. Maybe in the US it is different.

Rifkin wraps up the book by predicting the gutting manufacturing jobs when intelligent technology takes over. Taking up the slack will be the growing third-sector. A lot of us are going to be under-employed so most of us will be doing something voluntary in future. A good thought. A nice thought. But that will be a very different economy. A smaller one. Maybe not a growing one. Rifkin does not broach the topic. Economic growth is a hot topic and he fears maybe he will alienate his constituents who firmly believe in “green growth”. But this is a minor quibble.

The Third Industrial Revolution is an awesome work and recommended to ALL. Certainly this should be read by every environmentalist out there. It is a genuinely good alternative view of our future that captures so many of the arguments I have been putting forward over the last couple of years: the corruption of capitalism, the destruction of politics and so on. It was nice to now we were not alone. Maybe we are ahead of our time but at least these ideas are now on the table. Discuss.