Reading Jeremy Rifkin, an American theoretician of the new economy, one can for a moment believe that a better world is possible. The fossil fuel age is coming to an end (and everyone knows it), global warming is a solvable problem, and the Internet makes societies more democratic. We know what has to be done to leave the old model of a civilisation based on oil and coal and we are boldly stepping into the period of the third industrial revolution. We have a plan and we know how to implement it. What’s more, the European Union is already doing this! Didn’t you know? I didn’t.
If we’re to believe Rifkin, then “the third industrial revolution” – which also happens to be the title of his second to last book, in which he pulls together all these visions of salvation– already in 2007 became recognized as a long-term development plan for the EU countries. The rest of the world can only be jealous – nobody is as well prepared to lay out the foundations for the new ecological and economic order. According to Rifkin, by 2050 we will have managed to step into the post-coal age which will allow us to avoid an ecological disaster– but only if we utilise the available opportunities. Rifkin presents us to them in an interesting and comprehensible way. For this alone “The Third Industrial Revolution” is worth reading. Another encouraging factor is that Waldemar Pawlak’s recommendation is on the cover.
Returning to the subject of “the third industrial revolution” itself, how would such a revolution look? Rifkin describes its five pillars. First: “Replacing the energy regime based on fossil fuels with renewable resources”. Second: “Transforming the world’s building base and making each building a micro power station able to charge renewable energy”. Third: “Installing within the entire infrastructure hydrogen technologies which allow for the storage of seasonal renewable energy in order to guarantee the constant flow of green electricity”. Fourth: “Using online communication technologies to create an intelligent energy network which will enable millions of people to send ecological energy generated in their houses to the net and share it with others in a common, open space similar to the way in which people create and share information online”. Fifth: “Replacing widely used vehicles – cars, buses, trains, trucks – for vehicles with electric or hydrogen fuel powered by renewable energy generated in millions of buildings and installing in each country numerous charging stations, where the consumers-producers could buy and sell electricity through a disperse network”.
Rifkin is aware that the dinosaurs of the past era will not want to give up their money and power just because the time of their extinction is nearing. Not by chance does he start his book with a description of a Tea Party rally. He also notices an incredible paradox. Forty years ago he organized a protest in the Boston Bay. Empty barrels where thrown into the sea as an act of protest against oil concerns. People shouted: “Stop the tyranny of oil magnats”! Something must have changed since todays mantra seems to be “drill, baby, drill”. It’s not a secret that American fat fishes like Koch brothers and their like sponsor initiatives aimed at convincing us that there is nothing better for the economy and the world in general than digging for and burning all the fossil fuels remaining on Earth and ignoring the consequences. At the end of the day global warming is a myth invented by greedy scientists who earn millions on emissions trading as opposed to the modest businessmen who sell oil and coal at low prices just so they can buy bread. It’s just a coincidence from which one should not draw any serious conclusions, that oil tycoons are much richer than climatologists. Drill, baby, drill!
Who can overcome the powerful energy lobby? According to Rifkin, devolepers for instance can. The third industrial revolution should work well for them. After all somebody will have to rebuild all these buildings making them into micro power stations, build this whole infrastructure with solar panels, charging stations and so on. Think of the employment this will generate! Which politician wouldn’t go for that? We could joke that for example the one with a retirement guaranteed by Gazprom, but it wouldn’t really be true. Just look at Schroeder, Germany is still a leader in trying to make their economy more ecological.
This exception does not change the fact that the three biggest companies in the world are oil concerns. Does there really exist a force that could stand up to them? I kind of doubt it. And it’s not really that comforting that we’ll run out of oil someday. By then there will be an ecological disaster and the world will be divided into those who can still afford buying into their own well-being and those who never had that chance and will be charging at the previous group with pitchforks. The more clever ones already feel the forks pressing onto their fat asses. The rest, as usual probably thinks, that we’ll get by somehow. A pitchfork up theirs.
But, back to Rifkin, his vision is utopian and overtly optimistic, but what else are we left with? Ultimately, he himself writes: “If there is any plan B, I’d like to know”. So would I. Although we can’t stop global warming and the destruction of the environment anymore, we can still reduce the damage. We can try to salvage something. It’s just that the world does not seem to be headed in this direction.
Just look around Poland. The subsidies for the less and less cost-efective mining industry are still larger than the money meant for the implementation and usage of renewable energy sources. We could comfort ourselves that Poland is meaningless. Despite the grunts from our rightist politicians, the EU eventually will put us in order. And all things considered, we do have experience in laying off miners. However despite many heart warming examples of change given by Rifkin, the world’s situation doesn’t look so rosy. The dinosaurs of the oil age still stand strong, and the belief that their oligarchic system will be overthrown by a new generation brought up by the Internet is, how could I say this delicately? – naive.
“The patriarchal thinking, harsh social norms and xenophobic behaviors of their parents seem alien to them” – Jeremy Rifkin writes about my peers, and I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. I don’t even know if the author of that sentence was ever on facebook, which he praises so much for it’s “lateralness”.
Other foundations for building a new, more democratic, cooperative and equality-based humanity are supposed to be built on micro-credits, food cooperatives and social networks such as CoachSurfing whose mission is “promoting the idea, that we are all members of a big global family”. Maybe we are, but not everyone can afford a ticket. CoachSurfing has already turned into a website for the rich middle class that visits the rich middle class. Or the poor middle class that has never been to Europe. Because they really can’t afford the tickets.
That’s actually one of the blind spots in Rifkin’s vision: global inequalities. Even if we build ourselves a super-ecological European Union, at it’s borders will appear immigrants from the countries that didn’t make it into the third industrial revolution and are still suffering the consequences of the second.
By 2050 Bangladesh may find itself under water. Will we let its inhabitants drive our electric cars? Or will we be liking Facebook fan pages with names like “Say no to the bangladeshization of Europe”? The latter, I’m afraid.
The belief that xenophobia, patriarchy and oligarchy will disappear because the new generation simply doesn’t think that way, is the weakest argument in Third Industrial Revolution. The world doesn’t get fairer on it’s own. Sadly it’s the other way around. Emancipatory movements and liberal civic society in whose power Rifkin so deeply believes, seem to be losing to the fundamentalist right which utilises the trophies of modernity to proclaim random bullshit. Or to shout that their freedom of speech is violated when someone opposes to their violent ideas.
Rifkin’s charming naivety shouldn’t obscure the fact that we may have no other choice but to be naive and try to act this way despite being aware that the forces that we are trying to overcome won’t come down easily. Undoubtedly, the more people share the convictions and hopes of the author, the bigger the chance that they could come true.
PS: Besides all that, I particularly liked the chapter about education. School really doesn’t have to be authoritarian. It can teach us to work together and respect the complicated world instead of preparing us for the rat race. Rifkin also cleverly deals with the utopian faith in the free market and with the leftovers of Adam Smith’s interpretations who wanted to see the economy as Newtonian dynamics. That just doesn’t work these days. The chapter about entropy is really inspiring in its simplicity – to create energy we need energy. Most energy is wasted in the process. At least that’s the case with fossil fuels. Sometimes in order to waste less energy all it takes is to slow down. Which is what I wish for you and myself. Otherwise we’ll be wasted by the entropy. The question remains: Would we prefer now or later? But I guess whichever you prefer.