Monday, November 21, 2011

Guest Post: The Third Industrial Revolution

***Today's Guest Post comes from our brother from another mother, Reece Chenault.  Please engage our guest in the comments below.***

I’m not a betting man (today) but I bet you’ve never heard of Jeremy Rifkin. I was forced to learn a great deal about him when I was in college, so maybe that’s a good excuse for why I know so much about him. In fact, after this review I hope you’ll understand why I think Rifkin should have a cabinet post right now.

The book, titled “The Third Industrial Revolution,” doesn’t pull any punches. Rifkin says, in no uncertain temrs, that our current way of living is truly on life support. Oil, as he points out, is rapidly running out. Our planet is treating us like a bad case of dandruff, methodically treating the wounds we’ve inflicted with warnings of our imminent extinction. The fish we eat are disappearing, the very water we drink is becoming undrinkable, and we’re finding it harder and harder to breathe… all because we are dependent on fossil fuels. Rifkin says plainly that we are “at the end of the Second Industrial Revolution” and there’s no going backwards. After all, we’re a world of seven billion people now. Our oil supply can’t sustain that kind of growth, let alone the damage that using all that oil (and coal) will create. Basing an entire economy on the price on a waning resource, he writes, is not the crisis. “Oil is the crisis.”

“There is no inevitability to the human sojourn. History is riddled with examples of great societies
that collapsed, promising social experiments that withered, and visions of the future that never saw the light of day. This time, however, the situation is different. The stakes are higher. The possibility of utter extinction is not something the human race ever had to consider before the past half century. The prospect of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, coupled now with the looming climate crisis, has tipped the odds dangerously in favor of an endgame, not only for civilization as we know it, but for our very species.” 
-Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution

Rifkin is no stranger to the concept of radical political change, despite the fact that he’s not an anarchosocialist or any of their ilk. In fact, he’s quite the patriot. He started one of the main groups that protested the gas crisis in Boston, marshalling thousands of people behind the idea that gas prices shouldn’t hold people hostage no matter how important gas is to the future of American business. From those ideas sprang a variety of bestsellers, all describing ideas he’s come across and worked on in cooperation with his various businesses and projects. He now (sadly) serves as an advisor to the EU. He also is a profound critic of Obama, particularly in this book. He refers to Obama’s approach as disjointed and lacking narrative, causing a fundamental breakdown in the ability for Americans to understand what he was asking them to do (funny how easy it was for Obama to construct a narrative around electoral politics, though.)

His book’s title then can serve as a clue to his proposal. He’s not saying that we need fusion or anything as radical as a new energy source. Rifkin actually thinks we can accomplish this with something as simple as combining the forces that we currently have access to today. The difference between this and the haphazard collection of green sources that we currently exploit is something that I rarely hear nowadays: a solid, realistic plan. This plan is what Rifkin calls the Five Pillars:

  • Making the change from a carbon-based fossil fuel energy regime to a renewable energy regime
  • Reconfiguring the building stock of the world, transforming every dwelling into a mini-power plant that can collect renewable energies on site
  • Installing hydrogen and other storage technology in every building, and across the entire infrastructure of society to store intermittent renewable energy and ensure a continuous, reliable supply of green electricity to meet demand 
  • Using Internet communication technology to convert the electricity grid into an intelligent utility network so that millions of people can send green electricity generated near and on their buildings back to the grid to share with others in open-source commons, not unlike the way information is generated and shared on the Internet 
  • Transitioning the global transportation fleet to electric plug-in and fuel cell vehicles powered by renewable energies generated at millions of building sites and creating charging stations across countries and continents where people can buy and sell electricity on the distributed electricity grid

The idea doesn’t mean that energy is free, though… there’s still plenty of opportunity for businesses to make money, but more on the management and more specifically, the SAVING of energy. By focusing on how to be most efficient and using that as a place to earn profits, there’s enormous potential for economic growth. These pillars form a complete transformation of the way we look at and use energy in the global sense, not just the national sense.

Furthermore, Rifkin’s book goes on to address the changes that would naturally happen if we were to change from geopolitics to what he calls “biosphere politics,” or a global economy focused on a green economy. Most of them, just to warn you now, are pretty shocking but completely reasonable and logical. If we’re not thinking about oil anymore to power everything, what will that leave us time to accomplish? What will we focus on, other than surviving our own disastrous environmental choices? Will we cure cancer? Will we finally get Jersey Shore off the air (lord, please?)

Now, I know what you’re thinking – the end of 4 dollar a gallon gas? Efficient energy? Water that doesn’t require rubber gloves to clean in the Gulf? Where the hell do I sign up????

Rifkin pitched this plan to many countries but got real value and support from the European Union. (somewhat related sidenote: Germany, one of the most aggressive of adapters, has been doing pretty well in spite of the recession. Spain, also an adapter but maybe not as aggressive, was in a budget surplus before the recent crash… hmm… wonder why THAT was?) Unlike the United States, the EU is composed of many different localities, regions, and member states that haven’t given up their local power in many cases, giving the Union a much less hierarchical system. Our top down power grid (promoted by our backward political system of lobbyists) won’t work in this plan and is unlikely to change. A centralized super grid would make more sense politically for the good ole’ USA, but it would make us far less competitive since our grid would be so much less efficient.

But don’t take Rifkin’s word for it about our crazily American stubbornness. Hear it from Ed Legge from the Edison Electric Institute, the lobbying arm for America’s power and utility industry:
We’re probably not going to be in favor of anything that shrinks our business. All investor-owned utilities are built on the central-generation model that Thomas Edison came up with: You have a big power plant… [D]istributed generation is taking that out of the picture --- it’s local.
As a result, while we’re all struggling to scrape together cash to fuel our Yukons or Escalades, they’ll be enjoying the fruit of solid infrastructure investment and first-world living over in the EU. Look on the bright side though… there’ll be plenty of jobs in 2030 for us to make their cars or whatever next-gen iPads they’ll be rocking… all because American power companies have a centralized governmental body that promotes (thanks to the dollars) a centralized power grid over progress.

Nice work, America.

The book ends the way it began, with some startling prose about the future:
The critical task at hand is to harness the public capital, market capital, and especially the social capital of the human race to the mission of transitioning the world into a Third Industrial Revolution economy and post-carbon era. A transformation of this scale will require a concomitant leap to biosphere consciousness. Only when we begin to think as an extended global family, that not only includes our own species but all of our fellow travelers in the evolutionary sojourn on Earth, will we be able to save our common biosphere community and renew the planet for future generations.
I really enjoyed this book. It reminded me that the future, as always, will look back at this time as one where we were learning how to enter the next phase of growth as a species. I hope we do so sooner, rather than later.


A few notes:
  • The European Parliament voted to implement this entire plan in the next forty years. It will not be immediate, and there will be efforts to blockade and the will shall falter. But I imagine if they’re anything like the few political figures in other countries I know, they’ll do a better job than our political representatives. Sorry, but it’s true.
  • Germany is trying to do this in half the time. If you want to know why, read the book. It’s actually pretty fascinating
  • Jeremy Rifkin serves as a special advisor to the European Union. As an American citizen, I’m pretty sure we could have found a use for him here… (*cough* energy sec! *cough*)
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