Jeremy Rifkin: The Third Industrial Revolution. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 291 pages.

Jeremy Rifkin is a man with a big vision on how to save the world from climate change, peak oil, hunger, consumerism and a few other things. However, unlike many other visionaries he is also a man with a lot of influence around the world.

Rifkin and his team are advising governments, capitals like Rome and large businesses on how to make the transition from our current second industrial revolution to the third industrial revolution. One of them is the European Union. Another is San Antonio – the seventh largest city in the USA. Kazakhstan is working on it.

China is getting on board too. Liu Zhenya, Chairman of the Chinese State Grid Corporation, lays out China's ambitious plan to lead the world into the Third Industrial Revolution in an article titled "Smart Grid Hosting and Promoting the Third Industrial Revolution."

Under the plan, millions of people in neighbourhoods and communities, as well as hundreds of thousands of businesses, will be able to produce their own green electricity locally and share it on a national energy Internet, just like they now create and share information online.

380,000 copies of ‘The Third Industrial Revolution’ have been printed in China.

The second industrial revolution is totally based on cheap fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), which is coming to an end. This process is described in another of Rifkin’s books, “The Hydrogen Economy, (2003, Taarcher/Penguin, 295 pages), which is also well worth a read.
The Third Industrial Revolution (TIR) is based on five pillars that are all interlinked and necessary: 1) shifting to renewable energy, 2) transforming the building stock of every continent into micro-power plants to collect renewable energies on site, 3) deploying hydrogen and other storage technologies in every building and throughout the infrastructure to store intermittent energies, 4) using Internet technology to transform the power grid of every continent into an energy-sharing intergrid, and 5) transitioning the transport fleet to electric plug-in and fuel cell vehicles that can buy and sell electricity.

Rifkin is not so naïve as to think that the TIR will happen just because politicians and large corporations sign up to it. As he says (page 71): “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.” “…there is no guarantee that the European Union will stay the course.”

As an American Rifkin is aware of the power of the fossil fuel industry, in the mass media and in Congress in the US. However, he does not advise on how to win this titanic battle. He seems confident that renewable energy will soon become cheaper than fossil fuel and that we humans will not allow our own extinction by letting climate change out of control.

Renewable energy is already on track to becoming competitive with fossil fuels within a decade or two (see the example of solar panels elsewhere in this newsletter). Solar panels in sunny countries like Italy and India are already on parity with coal when it comes to costs per kWh produced. However, avoiding run-away climate change is far from a certain outcome.

Rifkin does not have much to say about the role of social movements/civic society in this transition to a new industrial revolution. He does not question whether capitalism, which stands for permanent consumer growth, increased use of all resources (water, land, minerals, etc), is compatible with getting climate change under control.

Rifkin might feel that it is necessary to downplay the role of capitalism in order to gain influence with governments and corporations across the world. He is after all the chairman of third Industrial Revolution Global CEO Business Roundtable, which includes many of the world’s leading Fortune 500 companies.

He is also president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and a senior lecturer at the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program at University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of 19 books that have been translated into more than 35 languages.

Rifkin writes in a nice, easy prose that is not the typical academic writing. He does get a bit carried away at times on how the TIR will create a complete new and more humane culture. However, his book is well worth reading and can teach us a lot.
Anna Harris has added this: IR emphasises the role of distributed energy production, as opposed to the centralised structure of energy production which we have today, necessitated by large scale power stations. Renewable energy lends itself to small scale, distributed methods, and Rifkin sees the popular ownership of energy production and exchange as having a profound effect on all aspects of social and economic life, through a renewed personal relationship to the biosphere, just as the internet has had a profound effect on communication and the availability of knowledge. It is through that relationship and its influence on developing consciousness, that Rifkin sees the possibility of respect for scarce resources and the welfare of the human family together with the other species with whom we share this planet.

While it is true as Finn says that Rifkin's emphasis is on getting big business, and local and national governments to endorse his TIR plans, there is a role for grassroots organisations to flag up these proposals to local councils to encourage take up.