Jeremy Rifkin and the problem with grand narratives

Last Forum co-hosted Jeremy Rifkin as he launched his new book, The Third Industrial Revolution, in the UK. Rifkin paints a grand narrative of human history, with the next phase a revolution to a distribute energy system run like the internet. Much of the content was intriguing, but the overall effect wasn’t strangely dis-empowering. I left realising that I didn’t have a credible way to use his insights because they were too certain.

A few months ago the grapevine said that a truly startling book was on its way. Jeremy Rifkin had finished the Third Industrial Revolution. It proposes that each industrial revolution is a coming together of new energy and new communications technologies, which replace the old order with new economic activity – plus evokes a new, expanded consciousness. The first industrial revolution in the 19th century was steam plus printing (and heightened literacy) for mass production; in the 20th century electricity plus the telephone and television produced mass consumption. Now renewable energy sources and the digital technologies were already combining to produce an ‘energy internet’. This revolution is changing the nature of power,  in his words from ‘vertical’ to ‘lateral’. The greater connectivity will change people’s sense of empathy to create a biosphere-wide consciousness (building on his previous book The Empathic Civilisation). An intriguing grand narrative; I wondered what was in the detail.

Through Forum I got galley copies of the book and tried to read it. Now I like big themed-books; my shelves groan with their weight. But I confess I struggled to get through the foreword of this one. He claimed two things that just made me put the book down: the EU is making lightning fast progress on the Third Industrial Revolution; and it was doing so because he was advising so many leaders. The first claim just didn’t match my experience. If second is true, how come I hadn’t come across this jargon or Rifkin more? Why haven’t I heard about it from newspapers, journals and lots of other people?

So, I went into the lecture at UCL with questions about Rifkin’s credibility as a change agent. His lecture almost overcame those questions. He gave a number of cities which are putting in place the 5 pillars he says are necessary to catalyse the Third Industrial Revolution:

  1. Shifting to renewable energy (‘generate’)
  2. Converting all buildings into power plants (‘collect’)
  3. Hydrogen and other energy storage technology (‘store’)
  4. Smart Grid Technology (‘the nervous system’)
  5. Plug-in, electric, hybrid, and fuel cell-based transportation (‘convert’)

There’s much to like in these pillars: they feel rounded and feed-off each other. Rifkin claimed that when they happened together there would be a continent-wide roll-out “like WiFi”. It is, he said, a practical plan. There are questions about the details of each – all buildings? really? – but Paul Ekins had the bigger questions. Do all 5 pillars need to happen at once? Rifkin: yes. But Rifkin didn’t have the missing link: what is the plan to make the 5 pillars happen?

Rifkin himself says that the revolution will challenge the status quo. From personal experience, I would say that today’s energy companies can only really think in terms of a huge power station pushing power out at lots of users; they cannot get their heads (or assets or skills) around a distributed energy system. They will resist the 5 pillars a great deal. Without a plan to get the 5 pillars to happen, it is difficult to claim the Third Industrial Revolution is practical. Put it another way, it is like NASA saying their practical Mars plan starts with “When we get to Mars we will…”.  But, how did you get to Mars?

A number of people asked variants of ‘how to do create all the pillars simultaneousness?’ from the floor. His answers were reiterated (or rather, repeated and repeated) the grand narrative that leads to the Third Industrial Revolution. Lots of intriguing insights into the history of civilisation. Just no useful hand holds for a change agent scaling the cliff-face. I didn’t hear no strong tactical or strategic pointers on how to deal with the incumbent energy companies. Do we try to bring them into the new system? Ignore them? Appeal to their emerging global consciousness? Legislate against them?

Rifkin’s answers the second type of question – ‘what about x counter-trend?’ – were also revealing. The examples were sort of squashed under the steam-roller of the inevitability of our changing consciousness.

Now, there is no doubting that we in the UK have a much broader sense of who we care for today than 60-odd years ago. Chamberlain could come back from Munich in 1938 and say that Czechoslovakia was a small country, far away. For a host of reasons – cheap long-distance communications being one – we didn’t treat Sri Lanka or other Asian countries like that when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit in 2004. But anyone who glances through the Daily Mail knows there is a strong current in our culture of saying we should empathise only with those like us, nearby.

Also, the new energy-communications nexus is having paradoxical effects on power. Knowledge is widely distributed, but we are using centralised ‘gates’ like Google and Facebook. As the internet goes into The Cloud, it is simultaneously spreading access to information and narrowing control of the infrastructure. And so on. The broad brush stroke of an emerging global consciousness is like saying Americans are more can-do than the English. There’s a grain of truth but it doesn’t really help you very much day-to-day.

Ultimately, I found that Rifkin’s certainty in his own grand narrative was too much. Let’s imagine he had presented the success in those cities as experiments that proved a distributed energy system was feasible at the city-level and, gosh darn-it, maybe beyond. let’s go find out. Well, I could have responded to that, seen my role in that, had something to contribute to that (through my actions and even adding to the thinking on how to make it happen). But he didn’t do present in that way . Instead he implied the Third Industrial Revolution was inevitable – so why do I need to do anything? – and the only way of understanding all of history.

I hope that something akin to the Third Industrial Revolution happens. If it happens, perhaps Rifkin will be credited. But I suspect such a change will happen because many different people do many things. On Tuesday (and in the book) Rifkin had the chance to help those people understand their role in a Third Industrial Revolution, and feel part of a movement. His certainty in his own ideas gave me no way to be involved, and grated against my experiences.

Ironically, given his enthusiasm for lateral power and the prominence he gives to empathy, I felt dis-empowered by his top-down style. An opportunity missed.


4 thoughts on “Jeremy Rifkin and the problem with grand narratives

  1. MysteryIdiot

    Following the logic you described: In the preceding revolutions the cost of energy was decreased and its distribution increased. Is it not the case that distributed energy is more expensive (after manufature, dispersed installation, maintenance, productivity, reliability, etc)? And the increase in distribution surely has the biggest benefit for isolated customers, who are declining in number as we urbanize. Is networked generation really so beneficial when each connection requires installation and maintenance rather than provision through reliable efficient (large scale) sources?

    I have no answers, but would be interested in your thoughts and experience.

    1. David Bent Post author

      Thanks for the comment MysteryIdiot. A few quick things on the relative prices of centralised vs distributed energy sources:
      – large scale generators waste a lot of power in the transmission from the power station to the user.
      – there are costs in securing the supply of fossil fuel for today’s power stations. Some costs are direct (exploration, extraction, refining, transportation and so on). Some are indirect, like the geopolitics of the Middle East and military expenditure to secure supply. This is a big contrast with securing supply of solar, wind, wave and tidal energies, which are ‘there’ to be harvested.
      – there are costs of pollution which aren’t included in today’s prices. The more climate change we let happen, the more people in the future will have to pay for flood defenses, higher food prices and so on. Many people are having to pay more now. If these externalities were included in the costs of today’s power stations then we would see a faster switch to non-polluting sources.
      – information communications technologies make it a lot easier to make distributed energy generation match with distributed energy use. So-called ‘smart meters’ could balance out the big peaks in usage (when everyone gets up, and when they get home) which drive the need for large peak generation capacity. If we could store energy, or move usage to earlier or later, then we wouldn’t need the capacity for the spikes, which would reduce the cost.

      It is not a complete answer but I hope this helps – David

  2. john waller

    The one thing I don’t like about Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution concerns pillar 3(hydrogen storage).Rifkin’s making a big mistake here.Hydrogen storage is both dangerous and expensive.
    In the United Stated,we have massive debt and unemployment.Most peple could never afford
    these storage systems.What Rifkin should be working on is hydrogen on demand systems.Here,
    you produce the hydrogen on demand as you need it.You’re not storing it,hence you’re
    eliminating the risk of an explosion.There’s a website(WATERPOWEREDCAR.COM)It has all
    the information concerning this.


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