The Third Industrial Revolution

Books about saving the world are always a two-part confidence game. First comes the story of a calamitous decline and fall, and then the corresponding road to redemption is unveiled. For this type of book to work, its narrative picture must be painted in a chiaroscuro style — bathed in both darkness and light.

Jeremy Rifkin’s The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World is a classic example of this type of work. Rikfin’s Manichaean narrative is simple, sometimes perhaps a little too simple. Over the last century, we have been “fossil fuel people” of the “carbon era,” according to Rifkin. But America, he argues, is now in the death throes of this second industrial revolution. It has become a “failed economy,” and we are “sleep walking” into the “deceleration” of the “environmental catastrophe” and the “extinction of life on the planet.”

That’s the dark part. The bright bit is inevitably biblical in its promise of salvation. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously warned that there are no second acts in American life. But for Rifkin it’s America’s second act — the destructive carbon revolution of the twentieth century — that’s the problem. And it’s America’s third act, he says, that will save life on our planet from the catastrophe of extinction. The early twenty-first century’s third industrial revolution of green energy and the “lateral power” of the network, Rifkin promises us, offer a more democratic and “distributed” alternative to the hierarchical structures of traditional economic and political institutions. It’s in what he calls the “marriage” of energy and communications that our salvation as both a nation and as a species lies.

The Third Industrial Revolution is sobering reading. Writing with urgency and authority, Rifkin skewers President Obama for failing to strategically confront the fundamental decline of industrial America — arguing that Obama lacks a “narrative” to unleash the third industrial revolution. Rifkin is provocative, too, relating the global revolt against government and corporations that now links the streets of London and Greece to today’s populist uprising on Wall Street to the crisis of top-down institutions struggling to maintain their authority in the face of the breakdown of the old industrial order.

In contrast with Barack Obama, however, Jeremy Rifkin does have a story to tell about how to save the planet. In what he calls “the five pillars,” he lays out a comprehensive plan to realize the third industrial revolution. Rifkin’s “new narrative,” borrowing from the very high-level consultancy work he has been doing for the European Union, is truly revolutionary and comprises the most confident part of the book. Turning the old hierarchies of the industrial revolution on their head, Rifkin argues in favor of a complete shift to renewable energy (wind, solar, and garbage) in which we can turn all our homes into “micro-power plants” that will then be shared on a grid via the Internet. “Renewable energies are everywhere,” he explains as he charts the European ambition to make all of its citizens into new energy moguls by creating 190 million power plants in the Union.

The Third Industrial Revolution is a big, brash, bold book in keeping with Rifkin’s forty-year career as an anti-corporate gadfly. So should we believe in it? “The economy is always a confidence game,” Rifkin argues — and so, I’ve already argued, is this type of book. But for all its vigor and erudition, it’s undermined by one fatal flaw. The heart of Rifkin’s critique of industrial civilization lies in its top-down hierarchies, which, he says, have become anachronistic in the face of the “distributed,” collaborative nature of today’s Internet world. And yet Rifkin — who seems to be “friends” with everyone from European prime ministers like Angela Merkel and David Cameron to European royalty like Prince Albert of Monaco — is a classic example of a top-down technocrat who is anything but “distributed” in his glamorous, Davos-friendly lifestyle.

No, there’s nothing lateral about Jeremy Rifkin or his green manifesto. Ironically, he’s as top-down as they come, a classic example of a mandarin from the second industrial revolution, more Auguste Comte than Jimmy Wales, who implements change on behalf of everyone else. And The Third Industrial Revolution is a pretty conventional top-down twentieth-century text, too, written without the kind of interactivity or textual innovation that one might expect of a prophet of lateral power.

“Drill baby drill,” is the Tea Party mantra for solving today’s industrial crisis in America. Rifkin, of course, disagrees. “Drilling for oil won’t get us out of the crisis because the crisis is oil,” he argues. But the crisis, as he explains, goes way beyond oil, to the roots of an American democracy in which mandarin technocrats like Jeremy Rifkin are dismissed as “elitists.” Perhaps that’s why he has more confidence in Europe, rather than America, to realize the third industrial revolution. And that may be why, I suspect, The Third Industrial Revolution will evoke more confidence in top-down Europe than in bottom-up America.