The world is entering a crisis. Fossil fuels - the engine of the Second Industrial Revolution - have revolutionised the world economy. But from energy prices to the cost of food, dependency on fossil fuels has become so widespread; it has reached the point where it is threatening our livelihoods. As a result of the overuse of fossil fuels, climate change is now presenting us with the greatest challenge of our time and posing a real danger to many of the earth’s species. And just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the global economy is on the brink of collapse. In The Third Industrial Revolution, Jeremy Rifkin posits that the real economic crisis ‘that everyone missed’ wasn’t just about the collapse of the housing bubble in the US - it was really all about energy.
Rifkin argues that the problems we currently face present us with an opportunity and to seize it, we need revolutionary thinking. However, the tools at our disposal need not be the stuff of revolution - they’re already here. Rifkin explains that it is with renewable energy and Internet technology that we can find the solutions to these global environmental and economic crises. Not only will they help prevent runaway climate change; combined with the correct planning and philosophy, they can contribute with rebuilding the global economy in an entirely new way - one that benefits everyone as well as the natural world. It’s quite a claim to make.To do this, you need to go back to the basics of explaining how industrial revolutions occur in the first place. Rifkin’s theory is that when a revolution in ‘energy’ meets a revolution in ‘communications’, it helps create the larger event of an industrial revolution. So in Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution, this is where renewable energy and Internet communications (or, more accurately, Internet-like technology) can create an entirely new blueprint for the world economy. Rifkin bases his ideas on five core pillars that countries need to embrace not only on an economic level, but culturally, too – since to function his plan needs the participation of citizens on a much wider level.
The five pillars concern a major push for renewable energy; micro-generation of renewables in homes and workplaces; energy storage, particularly using hydrogen; the ‘Energy Internet’ which is an energy grid that would allow individuals to generate their own power and then distribute through the grid to others; and finally, a rethink on transportation, which ought to incorporate electric plug-in or hydrogen fuel cells on a large scale. In isolation, none of these points seem particularly radical compared to what we’ve heard before. For example, there are plenty of books on how to create a low-carbon economy - George Monbiot’s Heat: How To Stop the Planet From Burning being one such example - and much of the sensible green argument these days concerns encouraging governments to embrace renewable energy to help create jobs. But where Rifkin’s book succeeds is in connecting the dots and bringing this thinking together with a wide range of case studies. He follows up with an in-depth and wide-ranging examination of global green technologies and the various policies that have been trialed - all in line with his theories –along with taking a look at the many facets of life that will need to be reconsidered, even down to the classroom.
The emphasis on economics is particularly interesting because there is an attempt to avoid the right/left dichotomy that takes over so many contemporary debates. Instead, to avoid this, Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution emphasises bottom-up, collaborative effort rather than large political structures. Such top-down structures are of course vulnerable to being targeted by corporate lobbyists aiming to prevent rapid growth and change (especially concerning energy policy in the US). With discussion ranging from the dynamics of markets to political theory both old and new, Rifkin questions many of our basic assumptions about economics but, moreover, the potential of quite literally redistributing power in its many forms.
The Third Industrial Revolution is a seductive book. Rifkin writes in an inspiring, can-do way and he always backs up his statements with a wide range of references. For those who may question, ‘Will it work?’ and need the practicalities highlighted, Rifkin does so with plenty of examples, all of which seem perfectly sound. He’s also a very savvy writer, aware of how these ideas need presenting to as wide a range of people as possible, no matter what their political bias or attitudes to the green movement. In fact, it’s the sort of environmental book that can easily be digested and accepted by those who take a deeply anti-environmental stance, because it is as much about creating jobs and wealth as it is about preventing natural disaster. And, as with all great environmental books, it is focused on future generations. Rifkin is no short-term thinker.
The Third Industrial Revolution, then, is a book of ideas, and the only problem with a book of ideas is that it needs people to implement them for it to become more than just a dream. It’s the sort of book that needs to be put in the hands of high-level planners and that means getting past industry lobbyists who are concerned with further entrenching the status quo. If it can do this, Rifkin’s opus could genuinely have the power to change the world for the better.
The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World by Jeremy Rifkin (£16.99, Palgrave Macmillan) is available from Amazon
Mark Newton has a degree in Environmental Science and is a genre novelist for Pan Macmillan. He blogs at markcnewton.com, or you can find him on Twitter at twitter.com/MarkCN
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