I read The Third Industrial Revolution by Jeremy Rifkin as part of my search for realistic methods to assure a better world for my grandson, a world facing major environmental degradation that imperils the future of society. Solutions are available, the problem is that we deny the reality and we cannot even have a national debate on the issues because of deep divisions and the political control exerted by the very economic forces that are driving the destruction.
Every grandparent and parent concerned for the future should read this book. Two factors underlie the urgency of his mission. First, oil and other fossil fuels are becoming scarcer and more expensive, and must be shared among a growing number of people. The current economic problems are the consequence of the resulting instability and weakening of the old industrial base caused by the end of the oil era. Second, the use of fossil fuels for energy hastens global warming and climate change. It is imperative to quickly find and implement a shift away from fossil fuels. Rifkin is a dedicated advocate of a practical, feasible system to generate and share renewable energy.
The solution which he advocates requires the creation of a multi-part system leading to a distributed production of renewable power and the networked sharing of power among many small centers of production. He believes this can be adopted over a period of 40-50 years, and I hope we have that much time.(1) He calls this approach a third industrial revolution, and it would replace our current system of centralized power by fossil fuel. It would also create a flourishing economy with a massive demand for skilled workers.
Rifkin reports on many specific programs in the US as well as in Europe, implementing the type of approach he advocates, providing useful models to build on.
Rifkin forsees a new kind of networked structure to the new industrial scene, contrasted with the capital-intensive concentrations of power of our current oil-based industry. This makes the changes he proposes revolutionary in social and cultural terms, not just in technological terms. No revolution is easy. I have been trying to understand the factors that stand in the way of the rational solutions. Revolutions and technological innovations tend to be resisted by the people and methods they will replace. We need to understand the barriers—financial, political, cultural—that stand in the way of change. Rifkin describes how politicians, business leaders, and the public all have hurdles of interests, tradition, and blindness—none easily overcome. But he also reports on many leaders who are convinced and are moving forward.
Some of the most important thoughts in the book appear towards the end. Rifkin writes about the need for new educational models to prepare people for the massive new undertakings. We will need a new kind of citizen and worker for the future. He articulates so well some of the basics for the education of humanity. The importance of having early experience of nature, early education, the development of a relationship with others and with the earth. And he points to the essential need for young children to be immersed in the natural world, not tied to electronic gadgets. In any case, the new "smart grids" will have computing capability built into most home appliances. People will be able to adjust their use of power according to the current cost and the power utility will have constant information about demand. Communication among the devices that use power and that produce power will be difficult to achieve, but it is comparable to the communication which we now take for granted over the internet.
His thinking is that our most urgent need is to preserve the environment so it can support all living things—the biosphere. And this will only be possible if the coming generations care for the natural world. And if we get started immediately.
And here I found myself applauding Rifkin's insights. For his revolution to happen, people need to be emotionally and culturally receptive to their place in nature. We need somehow to motivate people to see beyond immediate selfish gain, and to pay attention to the changes which must take place if we are to take effective steps to create a new energy regime and avoid catastrophe.
At only four years old, my grandson, Max, had formed an emotional relationship with his forest. At five years of age, having moved to a new home, he worries if his forest is still alive. Max has learned to think like a steward of his world. Would that our political leaders had as much concern for our natural world. I have built a book A Tree for Max around Max's feelings for his surroundings and hope it can provoke similar ideas and sensitivity to the natural world in other children. It is up to us, grandparents and parents, to preserve the world for them. Rifkin points the way to technical and societal solutions.
But change of the profound nature that is needed may come from deeper sources of motivation, cultural and religious. Leaders of Jewish, Christian, and Protestant denominations including Evangelicals have rallied together to promote “ ...a just and moral relationship with the environment.” They have embarked on programs of education, advocacy, and leading by example. (2,3)
A Talmudic story is told about Honi, who saw an old man planting a carob tree. His grandchild was helping him. Honi laughed. “Foolish man,” he said, “do you think you will still be alive to eat the fruit of this tree?”
The old man replied, “I found trees in the world when I was born. My grandparents planted them for me. So, too, I am planting for my grandchildren.” (4)
(1) Based on an early but slow decline of emissions starting in 2010 and emission levels return to 1990 levels by 2050, the rise in global temperature by 2100 would be between 2.9-3.8 degrees Centigrade. Think Progress
Rifkin is an economist and development strategist who consults to the European Union, the UN, and many other governmental and business entities.
(2) National Religious Partnership on the Environment
(3) Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign
(4) Talmudic tale from A Tu B’shvat Haggadah for Shabbat Discussions and teachings by and among rabbis are the basis for the Talmud, written and oral traditions relating to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history.